Whether or not you watch anime, I’m sure you’ve seen a bento before… you know, those nicely segmented boxes full of compactly arranged food? Maybe it was in a Japanese restaurant that served a bento box dinner special, or perhaps it was a friend’s simple homemade lunch. Either way, it piqued your interest….
Bento are featured heavily in anime, with an overwhelming number of characters and series showcasing these often adorable and intricately arranged packed meals. Sometimes it seems like everyone from students to office workers make, purchase, and consume bento on a regular basis… But, what exactly is a bento, where did they come from, and how do you go about making one?
To answer that, let’s start with the most basic of the basics.
What is a Bento?
A bento is essentially a packed meal that contains a single portion of food, generally held in a box-shaped container. It is typically is composed of rice, some cooked meat or fish, pickled or cooked vegetables, and/or fruit, and is intended to be consumed at room temperature. Many homemade bento are wrapped in a piece of cloth called furoshiki, which protects the bento while it is transported and, when unfolded, can serve as a table mat.
But, bento aren’t restricted to just rice dishes or traditional Japanese food… Instead, it can also include items such as noodles, raw fish, or even sandwiches! There’s no “right” way to make a bento, making them versatile and easily tailored to suit all tastes.
Bento in Japan:
Japan has had a long history of bento that begins all the way back in the Kamakura Period (1185 – 1333), with the creation of a cooked and dried rice called hoshi-ii. By 1600, lacquer boxes were being produced (much like the ones available today), and bento were eaten at ohanami (flower viewing) and tea parties.
By the Edo Period (1603 – 1867), travellers had taken to carrying koshibento (waist bento), which consisted of onigiri wrapped in bamboo leaves or held in a bamboo box. Also at this time, makuno-uchi bento (between acts bento) was popularized, eaten by audience members between the acts of Noh and Kabuki plays.
In the Meiji Period (1868 – 1912), bento continued in popularity, seeing the sale of the first ekiben (train bento). Students, teachers, and employees began to carry bento lunches, made especially popular by the fact that many schools did not serve or provide lunch.
Bento saw a decline in use during the Taisho Period (1912 – 1926), through World War I, and after World War II, especially due to the place of bento in schools becoming a social issue (in terms of nutrition and how the contents of a bento would often reflect a disparity in wealth between students) and as schools began to provide meals for students and teachers. However, with the introduction of the microwave and the increase in convenience stores in the 1980’s, combined with the use of inexpensive plastic and polystyrene boxes (rather than metal or wood), bento saw a rise in popularity that has continued until the present day.
Today, bento remain popular in Japan, with everyone from office workers to students making, purchasing, and eating boxed meals. Aiding to it’s popularity, bento can be purchased all over Japan, including in department stores, train stations, dedicated bento shops, and even in convenience stores.
And, believe me when I say that the Japanese take their bento seriously…. Some bento even have a cord you can pull that will actually heat up your meal (no microwave required!), while others will provide icepacks to keep your bento cool on a hot summer day. Perhaps the most popular type of bento seen outside of Japan is kyaraben (also known as charaben, short for character bento), which is an elaborate bento that is practically a work of art!
Types of Bento:
There are so many types of bento, each one designed for a specific purpose or situation.
Here are a few bento types to look out for while watching anime! Which ones have you spotted?