You've heard of the word Bento but what is it and where did it come from?
2nd April, 2014
The word "Bento" originates from the Southern Song Dynasty slang term (pinyin: biàndāng), meaning "convenient" or "convenience. Bento in Japan is a way of saying "take-out" meal. These meals however are also served at home and within restaurants. They have a number of compartments and are an easy way to store and separate a variety of different food. Bentos also come in a range of meal sizes.
A traditional bento consists of rice, fish or meat, and one or more pickled or cooked vegetables. They usually come in a box-shaped container ranging from disposable mass produced to hand crafted lacquer ware. Although bento are readily available in many places throughout Japan, including convenience stores in ski resorts like Hakuba, bento shops, train stations, and department stores, it is still common for Japanese homemakers to spend time themselves producing a carefully prepared lunch box. There are also often competitions where contestants compete to make the most aesthetically appealing and elaborate arrangements.
The origin of the bento can be tracked back to the late Kamakura period (1185 to 1333), when dried and cooked rice called hoshi-ii (meaning "dried meal") was developed. Hoshi-ii can be eaten like this or boiled with water to make cooked rice, and stored in a small bag. In the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568 to 1600), wooden lacquered boxes similar to ones you can find today were produced and bento would be eaten during a hanami or a tea party.
In the Edo period (1603 to 1867), the culture of the bento box grew in popularity and became more refined. Travellers and sightseers would carry a simple koshibentō, ("waist bento"), which consisted of several onigiri wrapped with bamboo leaves or in a woven bamboo box. One of the most popular styles of bento, called makuno-uchi bento ("between-act bento"), was first made during this period. People who came to see Noh and Kabuki ate specially prepared bento between acts. Numerous cookbooks were published detailing how to cook, how to pack, and what to prepare for different occasions.
In the Meiji period (1868 to 1912), the first ekibentō or ekiben ("train station bento") was sold. It contained two onigiri and a serving ofakuan wrapped in bamboo leaves. As schools did not provide lunch, students and teachers carried bento, as did many of the staff. A "European" style bento with sandwiches also went on sale during this time.
In the Taisho period (1912 to 1926), the bento box was also made from aluminium. This became a luxury item because of its ease of cleaning and its silver-like appearance. Also, a move to abolish the practice of bento in school became a social issue. Disparities in wealth spread during this period, following an export boom during World War I and subsequent crop failures in the Tohoku region. A bento too often reflected a student's wealth, and many wondered if this had an unfavourable influence on children both physically, from lack of adequate diet, and psychologically, from a clumsily made bento or the richness of food. After World War II, the practice of bringing bento to school gradually declined and was replaced by uniform food provided for all students and teachers.
Bento regained its popularity in the 1980s, with the help of the microwave and the explosion of convenience stores. In addition, the expensive wood and metal boxes have been replaced at most bento shops with inexpensive, disposable boxes. Even so, also the handmade bento have made a comeback, and they are once again a common sight at schools across Japan. Bento are still used by workers taking lunch, by families on outings, for picnics and sports days etc. The bento, made at home, is wrapped in a furoshiki cloth, which acts as both bag and table mat.
So on your next ski holiday be sure to try a bento box.