O Bento – Japanese Lunchboxes – The Art of Cooking

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Do you know the famous Japanese lunchboxes? In this article we are going to talk about obento and how the Japanese transform a simple meal into a work of art.

Creativity and aesthetics are part of Japanese cuisine and culture. Bento are prepared with the utmost care and ingredients are selected not only for their taste and nutrition, but also for their color and shape.

Japanese lunch boxes carry an artistic tone, showing that the appearance of meals is also important. Even though obento is not made to look like a work of art, they are usually organized.

How did Japanese lunchboxes become art?

In the Meiji Era, students did not have meals in schools. So teachers and students needed to buy or take a lunchbox from the house, which made this culture of lunchboxes and benthos very popular.

Japanese lunchboxes have always been organized, but over the years, mothers wanting to please their children, started to create characters using ingredients such as rice balls with faces made of nori seaweed.

Soon all mothers were forced to create beautiful gifts for their children. Thus, most of the obents are kawaii (that is, cute). Even the way a sausage is cut makes the meal more beautiful and fun.

The lunch box itself is wrapped in a cloth called furoshiki, a traditional Japanese wrapper that is very popular and already emits a certain artistic and practical tone within Japanese culture.

The goal of mothers is to provide a balanced and aesthetically pleasing nutritional meal. That of Japanese mothers throughout society and the school, especially in the first years of school.

Cute looking lunchboxes and characters from anime and manga made with food are called Kyaraben. Lunch boxes with buildings, people, anime and monuments are called Oekakiben.

Even high school kids also often have their lunchboxes organized and cute using kyaraben or oekakiben. During the article you will see several pictures of lunch boxes that follow this style.

bento children
lunch box

The history and origin of the bento in Japan

The origin of the Japanese lunch box can even be traced to the third century, where farmers who went to work, took their lunch in a pot made of bamboo leaves. Over time, this evolved into wooden boxes.

Records show that in the Kamakura Period (1185 to 1333) a dry and cooked rice called hoshi-ii was developed and carried to work in bags.

In the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568-1600), wooden boxes were produced to take the cooked rice that was usually consumed during the Hanami or Tea Ceremony.

In the Edo Period (1603-1867) the obento culture spread and became more refined. Travelers and tourists took koshibento, which consists of several onigiri wrapped in bamboo leaves in a bamboo box.

The first record of an Ekibento, that is, a lunch box sold at train stations, is recorded in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) at Utsunomiya station. At that time there were sandwich pans inspired by Europe.

In the Taisho Period (1912–1926), aluminum obento boxes became popular for their ease of cleaning. There was a big decline in lunchboxes in Japanese schools, because during the war and scarcity, these boxes reflected the students’ wealth and inequality.

After a lot of struggle to end the lunchboxes in Japanese schools, they were gradually being replaced by food provided by the school itself for both students and teachers.

Only with the rise of Japan after the Second World War, the bento came back in force. It was in the 1980s with the help of the microwave oven and the proliferation of convenience stores, that the cheaper obento boxes finally took over their role in law in Japanese schools.

Nowadays, plastic, aluminum boxes are used and some go even further by creating floor partitions, even creating a food building. There are quite stylish obento boxes that separate and turn into different compartments.

Obento

Obento

How is an obento – Japanese lunch box?

The traditional Japanese lunch box usually contains rice, fish, meat and vegetables cooked or pickled. The possibilities are endless, but usually they are always served in their own trays that have offices.

In addition, it is not only children who take advantage of lunchboxes, a large part of Japanese people, especially those who work usually consume obento from convenience stores. 

Even at these stores, they do their utmost to attract the attention of customers, even if it is not with children’s characters, you can see the great organization in lunchboxes where all food is separated into divisions.

The preparation of the artistic obento can take time, causing the mothers to start the preparation the night before, and then just assemble and pack the next morning for their children to take to school.

most beautiful bento
deviled

The meaning of the word bento

Do you know the meaning of the word obento? The word obento is c[お弁当]omposed of the ideograms that[弁] it relates to distinction and separation along with w[当]hat it means to hit, to accomplish, to strike. Together that word forms something as convenient.

The word came from Chine[便当]se which means convenient. Which makes perfect sense, since taking a lunch box or buying it at a store is an easy and convenient way to have a meal.

In Japan, the word “bento” has been used since the 13th century, and the container or box itself has also been used as “bento” since the 16th century. This word has several functions and refers to any meal that can be taken or brought.

O Bento - Japanese Lunchboxes - The Art of Cooking - marmita bento 1

Bento x Obento – What’s the difference?

In fact, there is no significant difference between an obento and a bento. Both terms are used interchangeably when referring to the Japanese way of packaging meals.

T[お]he present in the word obent[お弁当]o is an honorific prefix[御] that makes the word more formal. It is usually written with hiragana of the letter “O”, but the kanji that gave rise to this honorific i[御]s.

Using too much obento in informal situations may sound quite childish. It is more common to use the word bento when talking in Japanese daily life with friends. Obento is used when you want to be educated with a child or your boss.

It is also worth mentioning that the word bento uses honorific to show politeness and gratitude towards the person who prepared the lunch box and also for the things we are going to eat in it. That is why children are encouraged to use[お].

O Bento - Japanese Lunchboxes - The Art of Cooking - osechi ryori obento 2

The types and categories of bento

It is not just the mothers who make the lunchbox and deliver it to the child to take as a meal at school. Bento are part of the daily life of most Japanese people. It is possible to buy these lunch boxes in different corners.

This causes the bento to be separated into types and categories that we will quote below. Usually you take the name of the place where the lunch box is purchased or the style in which it is made or prepared.

Kyaraben [キャラ弁] – Name of the obento served for children with cute characters.

Chūka bentō [中華弁当] – These lunch boxes are usually filled with Chinese food. They are cold dishes and more appetizers that are considered a snack.

Hinomaru bento [日の丸弁当] – Name given to the obento that consists of white rice with umeboshi in the center. The name was taken from the flag of Japan which has a red circle on a white background.

Kamameshi bentō [釜飯弁当] – Artistic Bento sold at train stations in Nagano, it is cooked and served in a clay pot that serves as a souvenir.

Makunouchi bentō [幕の内弁当] – Traditional style with white rice, umeboshi, slice of grilled salmon, rolled egg and others.

O Bento - Japanese Lunchboxes - The Art of Cooking - obento ano novo 3
  • Sake bentō [鮭弁当] – Simple lunch box with slice of grilled salmon as a main dish.
  • Shidashi bentō [仕出し弁当] – Made in a restaurant and delivered during lunch.
  • Shōkadō bentō [松花堂弁当] – Traditional black box for carrying meals;
  • Tori bento [鳥弁当] – Pieces of chicken cooked in sauce and served over rice, popular in Gunma.
  • Shikaeshiben [仕返し弁]– Lunch box written to get revenge on husbands by writing insults on food.
  • Ekiben [駅弁] – Sold at stations or on board the train.
  • Hayaben [早弁] – When you eat an obento early before lunch.
  • Hokaben [ホカ弁] – Any lunch box bought in bento stores for travel.
  • Noriben [海苔弁] – Simple Bento where the nori is dipped in soy sauce and covers the cooked rice.
  •  Soraben [空弁] – Sold at airports.

Furoshiki – Wrapping the lunch box

Furoshiki is a cloth used as a wrapper to transport clothes, gifts and other goods. It has been used in endless ways for over a thousand years with different patterns, colors and sizes. 

As it is possible to make a bag to carry your lunch box. With furoshiki it is possible to make a ring pouch, bottles, bag for placing books, fruit baskets, bag for placing objects, wrapping gifts and much more.

Furoshike is also the name of the technique of folding fabrics. Any tablecloth or printed piece of cheetah, even a beach yoke can be turned into a bag or used to wrap a lunch box.

furoshiki
furoshiki

Videos of obento – Preparing your lunch box

See some examples of how the Japanese take their daily food seriously.

In order to know and go deeper in the creation of Japanese lunch boxes, we will leave some videos about the creation and decoration of benthos. I hope you enjoyed the article! We appreciate the comments and shares!

Video of a Brazilian preparing an Obento from the Frozen Movie:

A little about Konbini’s Obento (Convenience Store):

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