|At its most basic, the bento (or obento) is a lunchbox. However, the great value placed on aesthetics in Japanese culture makes each box much more. Not only is the food within the bento delicious, but it is also laid out in such a way that it is also appealing to the eye. Bento boxes can be made of disposable material, like Styrofoam, as well as wood or plastic, but the most celebrated bento are hand-made lacquered boxes designed with grace and style. Bento boxes are divided into a variety of complimentary compartments, approximately five to six, with a section for sauce in the corner. Boxes contain rice, meat or fish, and vegetables, each in their own separate section. There are also stackable bento, where meat, fish, and vegetables go in one box, and rice is kept in another. Bento boxes are finished off with pickled vegetables or dessert.
Records of packed lunches in Japan date back to the fifth century. Workers used simple boxes made of bamboo or wood to carry rice with them. The word bento is believed to have originated in the sixteenth century when military commander Oda Nobunaga (1534-82) began passing out individual meals to his soldiers. Bento became standard issue in the military, and soldiers began carrying menko (individual bento) onto the battlefield.
Over the years, bento boxes have had many incarnations. Theatergoers in the Edo period (1603-1868) enjoyed Makunouchi bento, containing rice balls and assorted appetizers, during the intermission of Kabuki and Bunraku performances. It was during this period that lacquered bento appeared, decorated with intricate designs of leaves and flowers. In the Meji period (1868-1912), with the rise of Japan’s rail system, the ekiben (or station bento) was created to fuel weary passengers. Both incarnations still exist today.
Modern bento have taken on many incarnations. Ekiben remain popular both for their convenience and because they allow travelers to sample regional cuisine. There are even some restaurants (called bentoya) that specialize in preparing bento. Customers are required to return the three or four tiered boxes that the takeout meals are prepared in. Many restaurants deliver, and it is not uncommon to see deliverymen balancing precarious stacks of bento while bicycling to local businesses and homes. Bento are also employed for picnicking, a popular Japanese pastime.
As in the United States, Japanese mothers pack lunches for their children to take to school. Preparing a school lunch has become a kind of art form in Japan. Mothers not only worry about the nutrition of the lunches, but, as with all bento, the presentation. Some even go so far as to make pictures out of the food, turning their child’s lunch into imaginative images of pandas or soccer balls. Mothers have good reason to make sure their lunch is attractive; students are expected to finish their meal, and if they don’t, their mother’s bento packing abilities may be called into question.
Packing a Bento Box
When packing a bento, certain rules should be followed. First, you must carefully consider what type of food to include. Because food is packed and eaten later, it should be well cooked and able to maintain its flavor for various periods of time. Items with too much liquid should not be included.
Size and proportion is another important element. Bento are comprised of several small, or even tiny dishes, rather than several larger courses. These dishes must be in specific ratio with each other. Commonly, bento boxes are packed with four parts rice, three parts meat or fish, two parts vegetables, and one part pickled vegetable.
With bento, presentation is key. Color, arrangement, and balance of food are all important.
Common Bento Dishes
Color is important for several reasons. Having a good variety of color makes the dish appetizing, and helps guarantee that you are getting a well-balanced meal. Furthermore, bento are often themed to match the season. In an autumn bento, you may find foods such as kimeyaki and igaguri in rich brown and orange tones. Dishes should also be carefully arranged. Food should look as delicious as it tastes. To achieve the desired effect, each dish is carefully arranged to form designs that are attractive to the eye. Shapes and pictures are often created, so that what looks like a flower may actually be carrots, lime, and caviar.
There are almost endless possibilities of what can be included in a bento. Below are just a few examples. Incorporate these suggestions, or use your imagination to create your own original bento!
Rice: Rice is a staple of bento, which would hardly be considered complete without it. Rice can come in many forms. One popular choice is rice-balls covered in sesame seeds. When plain, rice is often formed into a fun or attractive shape, such as a mountain or cherry blossom.
Pickled Ingredients: A pickled dish is a common end to a bento meal, and is often included as an alternative to dessert. One favorite is the Salt-Pickled Plum (umeboshi). These little plums are very tart, and are thought to freshen and awaken the mouth. For this reason, they are also served with breakfast.
Kamaboko: It is important to include a meat or fish dish, as this is normally the main component of the bento. Kamboko is a steamed fish loaf served at room temperature. This makes this dish ideal for bento, since they are packed to go and eaten later.
Donburi: Made out of leftovers, donburi is a mixture of rice with the sauces and meat from the previous night’s meal. Like fried rice, donburi can have many variations. For example, it can be topped with shrimp tempura to make tendon, or a pork cutlet (katsudon).
Bring home your own beautiful bento today! Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen has a variety of elegant boxes and trays to choose from. To learn more about bento, and how to create your own bento meals, check out Bento Boxes: Japanese Meals on the Go in our cookbook section.
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