|An original idea from Japan, the bento box has evolved from a simple lidded container to store one’s Japanese style lunch, to boxes with two or three tiers, which are usually saved for use in celebrations, holidays and special family gatherings. The most expensive of bento boxes are made of heavily lacquered wood and are usually decorated with hand painted artistic motifs in liquid gold paint. Of course, some of these types of bento boxes may be still in existence in the Japanese homes, but they have become family heirlooms and are brought out for only the most special of occasions.
The original bento box is believed to have made it’s appearance in Japan during the Kamakura Period, around 1100-1300’s A. D. During the Edo period, three hundred years later, the bento became more refined and included basics, a few rice balls or “onigiri” wrapped in bamboo leaves for preservation. The Meiji period of the 1800‘s saw the “ekiben” or train station bento debut. These early bento meals would always consist of the staple of cooked white rice that could be accompanied by Japanese pickled turnips. The Meiji period heralded the arrival of influences from the West and it was not unheard of to see “mini sandwiches” as part of a bento box. Now in Japan, most train stations will offer their unique version of their “local favorites” in their regional bento boxes and some people will travel to the station just to taste the bento that everyone is talking about. Part of the fun of traveling by train in Japan is the opportunity to sample different flavors and presentations of the local bento boxes, an added bonus is that it is a relatively inexpensive way to dine. Some fans of bento boxes in Japan make it a goal to have tried every type of bento offering from all the regions in Japan. The popularity is so widespread, that in order to accommodate those who cannot travel, there are special shops set up that will carry most varieties of bentos from all over Japan so that they can be enjoyed by everyone.
On a personal level, the making of a bento box for another is an expression of love in the Japanese culture. Your heart is placed in the contents of the bento box through the food you create with the recipient in mind. School children in Japan will often bring their bento boxes to school and compare at lunch time what each other is having. Some kids will want more western type of meals, such as cold spaghetti with mini- hamburger steak, maybe accompanied by a tiny salad. Others will have the old stand by, some rice balls plain or stuffed with cooked salmon or tidbits of pickles and some mini croquettes of potatoes and ground beef. Of course, leftovers are always an excellent choice and makes it much easier to plan ahead for the next day. But, it is very common for the mother or wife of a Japanese home to wake up extra early and prepare special bento boxes for their loved ones, full of their favorite foods. Careful thought must be given to the ingredients, the bento boxes are usually carried in book bags and briefcases for long distances and are not placed in refrigerators at all. So, it is best to avoid food that includes perishables in the ingredients, like mayonnaise or raw fish, etc.
The way the different types of food is placed in the containers is also very important. Dividers that are built into the bento boxes can separate the varieties of food, and small foil liners (much like a cupcake liner) or plastic sheets made to look like greenery are used to separate the different types of food. At Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen we offer a very outstanding selection of bento boxes, some are exact replicas of those that you will see in Japanese restaurants, such as the Bento Box with Six Compartments, or the Black Bridge Serving Tray. The bento box with six compartments are primarily seen in use for the daily specials that a local restaurant will offer, there is a spot for the rice, the entree, the side dishes and the sauces. Not only are these boxes an attractive way to serve a meal, the all in one feature of the box makes clean up so much easier! The Black Bridge serving tray is a cool way to serve ready made sushi, or even an assortment of tempura or rice balls. It can also be used as a centerpiece at your next Asian influenced gathering.
The lidded bento boxes we carry such as the Red Chrysanthemum Bento Box, or the Butterfly Motif Bento Box with Handle can serve double, or even triple duty. Of course, they are meant to serve food in an authentic Japanese style, but they are so attractively made you won’t want to keep them hidden away. Used as a piece of home decor, they instantly add an Asian flair to your surroundings and they can also keep your counter tops and desk tops clean by storing your personal items inside. Another style of bento box we carry are the one tiered versions with a lid, such as the Gold Fan Design w/Cherry Blossoms or Cranes Sushi Oke Divided Container. This very versatile piece can be used as a jewelry case, or to serve a platter of sushi or rice and pasta dishes. It includes a removable, inner divided plastic liner that makes it so easy to arrange candy, nuts, or any other foodstuffs that you would like to offer your guests.
The inherent versatility and beauty of the Japanese bento box is one of the reasons that their popularity continues in modern times. When the fast moving modern world of instant technology leaves little room for the warm little gestures, packing a bento box for your loved ones is a wonderful, heartwarming way to say that you care.
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