Bento – The Japanese lunch box that’s taking the world by storm
A great number of Japanese foods have made their way into the hearts and stomachs of people the world over, and today we are going to talk about one Japanese food in particular which has gained even greater attention during the current pandemic: the bento lunch box.
In Japan the bento lunch box is an extremely popular lunchtime option, and while some make their own homemade bento boxes, others buy them at the store. Of course, lunch box culture isn’t necessarily unique to Japan, but it could certainly be said that Japan’s bento culture is unique simply for its sheer variety. Bento boxes come in all styles of cuisine, from Japanese to Western to Chinese, or even a mix of all three. With such a wide variety of options to choose from, the hardest part of having a bento for lunch may simply be deciding what kind you want!
Store-bought bento boxes
Bento boxes can be found virtually anywhere, from convenience stores to supermarkets to street vendors, the list goes on and on. There are of course bento shops which specialize in bento boxes in particular as well. Simply choose whatever you feel like eating on any given day from the many options available and enjoy your lunch wherever you like – this is probably the most popular way to enjoy bento among those who aren’t into cooking.
Now let’s have a quick look at a few of the more common kinds of bento boxes available
This classic bento box typically includes a bed of rice topped with nori seaweed and a variety of side dishes such as fried fish.
Loved for generations, this traditional bento was originally served during the intermissions (maku no uchi in Japanese) of theatrical performances. The bento pictured here is perhaps a little bit unique, but this type of bento is usually characterized by several portions of rice divided into smaller trays and topped with sesame seeds. The rice is then typically accompanied by a variety of traditional side dishes such as tsukemono (pickles) and nimono (stews).
I personally have never seen a bento menu that didn’t include the karaage (Japanese fried chicken) bento among its list of options. That just goes to show how popular and common this kind of bento is. This bento typically includes a main dish of karaage, or Japanese-style fried chicken, often accompanied by side dishes such as tsukemono and potato salad.
The above are just a few of the more common types of bento box you’ll find in stores, but there are countless other bento box varieties such as Hamburg steak, chicken nanban, yakiniku, just to name a few, so if you’re interested be sure to look them up to find out more.
Most students in Japan have either school lunches or a bento box for lunch, so it’s very common for families to prepare bento boxes before school in the morning. There are no hard rules as to what can go in a bento box, so you can make a bento out of really whatever you like, but there are some items which are typically found in a classic bento, the most common of which being white rice, tamagoyaki (Japanese omelet), and tsukemono in addition to a main dish. I myself recommend the karaage fried chicken bento, by the way!
Lunch…or a work of art? - Kyaraben
In recent years bento boxes have evolved so much that they have even taken a turn for the unexpected. I’m of course talking about kyaraben, or character bento boxes. These bento boxes feature foods decorated to look like characters from popular media designed specifically to make lunchtime just that much more fun for kids. These character bento artists make perfect use of the unique characteristics of each different kind of food to craft their own new unique creations, sharing and competing with others on social media to create the next new masterpiece.
This article provides a brief introduction to bento boxes in general, but you should really do yourself the favor of discovering for yourself the sheer variety of bento boxes out there – you’re sure to find one that you love. Of course, you can always try your hand at making your own homemade bento for yourself, too! Whether homemade or store-bought, be sure to try enjoying a bento for lunch sometime!