Bento is wholly a Japanese thing: in the West, even when you find similar things, they are less colorful, thought of and, let’s face it, funny. Bento is not just for the hanami, although many people think so, but it’s for every day. Basically, you can refer to any pre-prepared food you’ll carry with you as bento.
What are the origins of bento?
The tradition of bento was born between the Asuka (538-710) and Nara (710 – 794) periods, when travellers consumed precooked dried rice, called hoshii, which could be eaten plain or after being rehydrated. Slowly, more began to prefer something more practical: so were the onigiri, or tonjiki, as they were called at the time. The grains of rice composed in onigiri didn’t require additions of water and were ideal for both workers and soldiers, especially in wartime.
Bento more similar to the ones we know today were developed in the Edo period (1603 – 1868). In fact, the Edo period was politically very quiet and stable, it produced some cultural advances and was characterized as a peaceful era. So there was a passage from soldiers carrying onigiri to, I could say tourists, or at least people traveling for leisure, often looking for the most spectacular areas to picnic during the hanami. Bento boxes of the time were much larger, of course, considering the picnic idea, so they were bento boxes for the whole family, some had drawers or were structured so that they could have small compartments for sake or other liquids. Usually these were also the most expensive bento boxes, today they’re collectibles, and you can see some in dedicated museums.
By 安藤広重 Ando Hiroshige (internet) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Bento at the theater
The next evolution of the bento box was thanks to the Kabuki theater: the representations lasted all day and, while the most wealthy families could use the expensive structures of the theater for meals, all others had to arrange something. Then the staff of the theaters began to serve particular bento boxes to the spectators between one act and the other. Going to the theater became a double joy, both for the performances, and for the possibility to enjoy a little different and expensive foods. This custom is called makunouchi bento (bento between the acts) and lasts even today.
The last step to get to modern bento is, in the industrial era, the ekiben, or the bento that are consumed on the train, bought at the station or on the train itself. Born with the technological development of railway, they are very much loved even today: just take a ride in some station to see shops and shops entirely (or almost) dedicated to ekiben. At one point, ekiben had become so famous that the stations began to create bento boxes dedicated to the city or region, as regards both the food and the design of the box. Some boxes are washable and reusable, but, for those not, just pay a little attention during the opening and you’ll have a souvenir of your travel.
photo credit: GinkgoTelegraph Hippari tako meshi via photopin (license)
Today, in addition to the possibility of buying bento boxes in konbini and other shops, many restaurants, in Japan and abroad, offer dishes inspired by bento, to be eaten immediately or as take away; some have catering services based on bento boxes, similar to real works of art.
Are bento boxes healthy?
Definitely yes. The idea is to prepare small portions of various foods to have balanced nutritional values: this means that, in addition to being beautiful to see, bento boxes have a place for everything and keep the food in a kind of protective atmosphere. In pre-packed bento companies try to use natural preservatives, such as special types of condiments and herbs with well-specific properties.
To ensure a balanced meal when you prepare your bento, you should follow the rule of the five colors (五色-Goshiki), red-yellow-green-black-white, which, according to the Buddhist tradition, correspond each to a precise element, a precise cardinal point and precise qualities.
How to prepare a bento?
By following the rule above, looking for foods you like and, above all, having fun! Yes, preparing a bento is so much fun! And it’s a great way to have something positive to think about during a long morning of study or work.
Today preparing a bento is like creating a little gem: whether for you or for someone you love, a little bit of foresight in the choice and position of the ingredients can have a sensational effect. It’s a way to make it clear to the person you’ve prepared that you love them, think and worry about them. It will surely be appreciated!