FROM JAPAN’S LUNCH BOX TO THE WORLD’S BENTO
Japanese lunch boxes, with their collection of numerous small dishes and appealing presentation, have grown so far in popularity that they have come to be known simply by their Japanese name, “bento”, even outside Japan. While Japanese food itself is popular for the healthy image it fosters, bento are coming under the spotlight thanks to the well-balanced meal they provide. From a more traditional style, to train station bento, and the almost art-like bento arranged in the shape of popular characters, you might be surprised at the sheer variety available. In this article, we dive into the world of bento today, and see what makes them so special.
The lunch boxes of the world vary so greatly in their style and contents that a peek at lunchtime fare offers you insight into the very culinary culture of a given country.
Sandwiches squeezed into plastic containers are the norm in the West, with simple combinations such as peanut butter and jam making for a typical filling. Common side dishes include crackers, and vegetables and fruit carried in plastic containers and lunch bags to be eaten as is.
In comparison, the Japanese lunch box – the bento – offers a well-balanced mix of main and side dishes that cover a broad range of nutritional needs. They are both appealing and unique in their appearance, and are highly regarded for being healthy.
SO, WHAT ARE BENTO?
While the word “bento” is now widely understood across the world, exactly what is this piece of Japan’s culinary culture? In Japan, “bento” refers to food that can be eaten while out and about, away from home that is stored and carried along in containers. Bento can be either a hand-made variety prepared in the home, or a commercial product bought in stores.
Commonly consumed at lunch, bento often account for one of the three main meals of the day. As such, those with a good nutritional makeup that offer one third of the daily requirements are opular. Good presentation is also considered an important aspect of enhancing their visual appeal.
Because the dishes in a bento are combined together in limited space, they demand different considerations to standard plating of food. There must be little liquid left in the food prepared, and the taste and colour of the food must change very little, even after being refrigerated or left untouched for some time. Food that goes off easily is avoided, and ingredients that must be cooked before consumption must be well done. Food with a strong smell can fill the bento with their odour, giving off a strong smell when the bento is opened or even affecting the taste of other dishes, and is, therefore, often avoided as well. Rice can spoil if added while hot, and must be added after it has cooled. These and other techniques are crucial.
A BENTO FOR EVERY OCCASION
Overseas in Australia and elsewhere, Japanese-style bento most commonly appear on the menu of Japanese restaurants.
In Japan, however, the bento was originally designed to provide a meal for those out for the day’s labour and unable to return to home to eat. As such, bento are found in many different places. Not only are bento commonly brought to the office or school for lunch, they are also commonly taken along on excursion, such as picnics or flower-viewing parties.
The bento is also often served as a type of boxed lunch combining both a main dish and side dishes during occasions, such as the celebration of a child’s first seasonal festival, Buddhist ceremonies, and even meetings at the office.
TYPES OF BENTO
There are many types of bento in Japan, from bento made at home and taken to the office or school for lunch, to those sold at stores specialising in bento such as Hotto Motto, bento called “ekiben” that are made for long train rides, convenience store bento, chef-made bento served at restaurants, and more.
In particular, the “makunouchi” style of bento that combines rice formed into a rectangular shape with numerous side dishes has a long history. Designed as a meal served during the intermission to stage plays during the Edo period, this style of bento is one of the most common commercial bento today.
There are many unique variations on the bento nowadays, ranging from those arranged in the shape of popular characters and introduced alongside photographs on Instagram and other social media and blogs, to the sushi sandwich style called “onigirazu”. Bento are made not just to be eaten, but to be enjoyed and to give joy, and it is this sense of entertainment that marks the bento of today.