Last week, I was in one of my local supermarkets when I noticed they had some deals at the end of the chilled aisle. Being a sucker for a bargain, I was quick to take a look at what was on offer and saw that they had some bento boxes that would be ideal for lunch on a workday.
I threw a couple in my trolley and was so pleased I had found these treasures. While I was familiar with the concept of a bento box, or bento meal, they weren’t something I had ever seen in UK supermarkets until recently.
But for those of you that are new to the bento box, you’re probably wondering what on earth I’m talking about. So what is a Japanese bento box?
A bento meal, more commonly called a bento box, is a Japanese takeout box, often reusable, that’s filled with a main course and a couple of sides. Think of it as a lunchbox!
Traditionally, bento-style boxes would contain things like rice and fish but they’ve become a lot more diverse especially when you look at global options. In this guide, I’ll be giving you a detailed introduction to the bento meal. So, if you’ve been looking to mix up your menu, this could be your new favourite meal!
Table of contents
- What's the Deal With the Bento Box?
- A Little Bit of Bento Box History
- Why Should I Use a Bento Box?
- They're Good For the Environment
- Save Those Pennies
- They're Healthy
- Ditch Boring Lunches
- What's the Proper Way to Put Together a Bento Box?
- Types of Bento Box
- Shikaeshi Ben
- Final Thoughts
The easiest way to think about a bento box is to compare it to a lunch box. It is designed to be taken on the go and will hold a single serving of whatever you’ve decided to pack inside it. But unlike western lunch boxes, bento-style boxes are so much more exciting.
What's the Deal With the Bento Box?
In a traditional bento box, you would find things like rice and noodles as the base of the meal. These would be paired with some type of protein which could be a type of meat, fish or even eggs. While these are the two main features of the bento box, there would also be a couple of sides which might include things like raw and cooked vegetables, fruits, pickles and many other things.
The benefit of this is that you get a healthy and balanced meal all in one handy box. However, there are now a whole host of other types of bento boxes and the western world has put its own stamp on how these boxes should be presented. You might find things like fried potatoes, salads, yoghurt, sandwiches and much more. It’s all about creating something unique to you.
However, regardless of what you put inside your bento box, the key idea is to make sure that all food items are packed neatly into little containers. These containers are traditionally quite deep and usually rectangular in shape. Not only does this make eating your food more interesting but it gives the box an overall more pleasing aesthetic.
A Little Bit of Bento Box History
However, the concept of the bento box that we are familiar with today didn’t really develop until around the late 1500s. At this time, people would use wooden boxes that were considered to be Japan’s answer to the picnic basket.
These boxes were lacquered using a practice called urushi. But this was incredibly time-consuming and often quite dangerous owing to the toxic fumes. However, the result was a stylish box that was perfect for packing single portions. Just like today’s bento boxes, these old versions were designed to hold a variety of different foods and during Japan’s Edo period, eating from a bento box was extremely fashionable.
It was during this period that bento boxes started appearing with two separate compartments; one for rice and one for your sides.
As we move into the Meiji period and rail travel became more common, bento boxes developed even further. This saw the invention of a totally new type of train station bento box which the Japanese named ‘ekiben.’ These were designed for people who were travelling and needed to take a single serving on the go with them. They became such a popular choice that various regions of Japan started putting their own take on the boxes and pre-filled options started to become available for the public to buy.
The materials of the boxes had also begun to change with stainless steel becoming a hugely popular reusable option. In fact, this was actually one of the more expensive types and was seen, by some, as something of a status symbol.
But during the Second World War, the use of bento boxes vastly deteriorated and it wasn’t until as late as the 1980s that they started to become popular once again. This was largely because of convenient modern inventions such as the microwave as well as the fact that convenience stores were starting to sell bento boxes to match people’s busy lifestyles.
In modern times, both in Japan and in the West, modern bento boxes are more popular than they have ever been. Modern folk have taken the liberty of bringing in new ingredients, new styles and have totally overhauled what the traditional bento box was, without taking too much away from the ancient concept.
Why Should I Use a Bento Box?
Just take a moment to think about how much waste we produce from convenience foods; the plastic forks in pasta pots, the wrapping of pre-packed sandwiches…need I go on? We live in a climate where most of us are trying to reduce our impact on the environment and bento boxes are a viable way of contributing to this.
They're Good For the Environment
These are reusable boxes so you aren’t creating waste every day. What’s more, you will have a cute lunch box that you can use time and again. It’ll be a long time before you need to replace your bento box with a new one.
Shocking research tells us that Brits are spending more than £29 million each year on take-out food. What’s more, it is believed that each person in the UK will spend around £109 a month on convenience foods; that’s a lot of money!
Save Those Pennies
But by using a bento box, you are reducing how much you fork out each month on food when you’re on the go. Preparing meals at home is markedly cheaper and you get so much more variety. If you’ve been trying to save up for that new car, designer handbag or any other splurge, you’ll find you get there a lot quicker by cutting out those unnecessary food expenses.
We’re all trying to find ways to eat more healthily but with all those takeaways and easy-to-grab convenience foods, most of us are struggling. And that’s not a judgemental comment, far from it; I’m just as guilty as the next person.
The beauty of a bento box is that it encourages you to eat more healthily. For starters, you are limited by size so your portions will be better controlled. Moreover, if you stick with the traditional components of a bento box, your diet will be much healthier with a balance of carbs, proteins and fruits and veggies, even more so if you fill your bento box with traditional Japanese dishes.
Ditch Boring Lunches
The combinations of foods you can put in are pretty much endless so you can truly have something new every day. There are tons of exciting bento box ideas online so, even if you’re not feeling inspired, you’ll never run out of ideas.
One of the things that makes a bento box special is that it looks great. But this isn’t the only thing you will need to consider when it comes to putting your bento lunches together. The most important thing is to make sure that there is plenty of variety in your box.
What's the Proper Way to Put Together a Bento Box?
Generally speaking, you will want a 4:3:2:1 ratio of carbs, protein, veggies and pickled fruit and veg. The best way to stay healthy and get the best produce is to always use seasonal fruits and vegetables and make sure that you use smaller quantities of a wider range of foods. After that, it’s all about getting creative. Use your imagination and delve into the thousands of ways that you can make your bento box interesting.
On the other hand, I would advise you to plan to some degree especially if you lead a busy lifestyle. Do a weekly shop and plan your ingredients in advance so that you know exactly what is going into your bento box each day. You can still be as creative as you like; it will just save time having some sort of structure.
Another key thing to keep in mind when planning your bento box is that each food needs to stand on its own. You don’t want the flavours interfering with one another and since each item is going to be packed on its own, it needs to be able to retain its texture and taste when in the box.
Things like pickled veg, noodles, cooked rice, raw vegetables, fruits, tender meats and fish all make ideal candidates for the modern bento box. But there’s nothing stopping you from combining flavours and textures to make your meal even more exciting. In short, anything goes because it’s all about what’s going to appeal to you at lunchtime.
However, what I would say is that the best bento box lunches have a great range of colours within them. Try to choose foods that make a rainbow lunch that not only tastes amazing but is also incredibly easy on the eye.
While many of us associate the bento box with Japan, you may be surprised to learn that the term bento actually derives from the Chinese language and loosely translates to mean convenient. That pretty much sums up everything that a bento box is but there’s one element missing from this and that’s how much fun bento boxes are.
Types of Bento Box
The great thing is that there are several different types of bento boxes and if you’re struggling for inspiration, these might help you to create something that’s totally unique to you.
However, if you’re going to make one of these bento boxes then you’d better be ready to devote some time. It is known that the kyaraben takes a lot of effort and patience to create since the idea behind it is to create the shapes of characters from the food. It’s almost a way of bringing your food to life but the time you put in is totally worth it.
Out of all of the bento box styles, oekakiben is one of the most familiar, even to people in the West. These boxes are inspired by things like flowers, buildings, landscapes and monuments. While they may be complex to create, the idea behind them is to create something aesthetically pleasing that will bring joy to the eater when lunchtime rolls around.
There are lots of ways you can customise your oekakiben bento box lunch but one of the most common things is to use celery as a tree trunk or use carrots to make flowers. But really, you can let your imagination run wild!
If you are making a bento box for someone you care about; perhaps your child or significant other then you might create an aisai bento box. These are in line with the notion that food is love and usually contains sweet messages which are traditionally made using furikake.
You can include loving shapes as well such as hearts and flowers. These bento boxes are a great way to show someone that you love them and are always well received.
If you aren’t feeling the love and don’t fancy showing that special someone that you care about then you might want to reveal your displeasure instead. That’s correct, you heard me right. The Japanese are making bento boxes for people that they don’t like and some of the ingredients are pretty gross.
For example, the creator will include a lot of unpleasant tastes such as too much vinegar or horrible seasoning. They may also cut the food into offensive shapes.
That said, these types of bento boxes are also popular at Halloween when you have the opportunity to make something super spooky.
If you’re sick and tired of having the same old duck wrap, cola and olive selection for your lunch at work then you’re not alone. Not only can this get incredibly boring but I’ll bet you’re spending a small fortune.
But what if I told you that there was a different way to enjoy your lunch that was healthier, cheaper and way more fun? You’d be intrigued, no doubt.
Well, there is and it’s the Japanese bento box which is a long-standing Japanese tradition. These reusable lunch boxes allow you to create a personalised feast for one using healthy ingredients around a whole host of themes. The only limit is your imagination.