O Bento – Japanese Lunchboxes – The Art of Cooking

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Do you know the famous Japanese lunchboxes? In this article we will talk about Obento and how the Japanese turn a simple meal into a work of art.

Creativity and aesthetics are part of Japanese cuisine and culture. The bentos are prepared with the greatest care and ingredients are selected not only for their flavor and nutrition, but also for their color and shape.

Japanese lunchboxes carry an artistic tone, showing that the appearance of meals is also important. Even if obento is not made to look like a work of art, they are often arranged.

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 lunch box from home, which made this culture of lunch boxes and bentos very popular.

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

Soon all mothers found themselves obliged to raise beautiful Obento for their children. Thus, most of the Obento are kawaii (ie, cute). Even the way a sausage is cut makes the meal more beautiful and fun.

Read too: Meaning of Kawaii - Culture of cuteness in Japan

The lunch box itself is wrapped in a cloth called furoshiki, a very popular traditional Japanese wrapping that 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 school, especially in the first years of school.

Read too: Furoshiki - The charming Japanese package

The cute looking lunch boxes and anime and manga characters made with food are called Kyaraben. The lunchboxes with buildings, people, animals and monuments are called Oekakiben.

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

Children bento
Lunch box

The history and origin of bento in Japan

The origin of the Japanese lunch box can be traced back 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 cooked and dried rice called Hoshi-ii was developed and carried to work in bags.

As early as the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568-1600) wooden crates were produced to carry boiled rice that was usually consumed during the Hanami or Tea Ceremony.

At the Edo period (1603-1867) the bento culture spread and became more refined. Travelers and tourists brought 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 already sandwich lunchboxes 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 war and shortages, these boxes reflected the wealth and inequality of the students.

After a lot of struggle to end 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 bentos returned with force. It was in the 1980s, with the help of the microwave oven and the proliferation of convenience stores, that finally the cheaper obento boxes took their rightful role in Japanese schools.

Nowadays, plastic and aluminum boxes are used, and some go even further, creating divisions of floors, even creating a food building. There are very stylish bento boxes that separate and turn into several compartments.

blessed
blessed

How is an Obento – Japanese lunch box?

Traditional Japanese lunchboxes usually contain cooked or pickled rice, fish, meat, and vegetables. The possibilities are endless, but they are usually always served on their own trays that have partitions.

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

Even these stores do their best to get customers' attention, even if it's not with children's characters, you can see the great organization in the lunchboxes where all food is separated into divisions.

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

Most beautiful bento
Deviled

The meaning of the word benedict

Do you know the meaning of the word Obento? The word blessed [お弁当] is made up of the ideograms [弁] which relates to distinction and separation along with [当] which means to hit, accomplish, strike. Together this word forms something like convenient.

The word came from the Chinese [便当] which means convenient. Which makes perfect sense, as 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 called “bento” since the 16th century. This word has several functions and refers to any meal that can be brought or brought.

The bento - Japanese lunchboxes - the art of cooking

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.

The [お] present in the word Obento [お弁当] 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 is [御].

Overusing obento in informal situations can sound pretty childish. It is more common to use the word bento when talking in everyday Japanese with friends. Obento is used when you want to be polite with a child or your boss.

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

The bento - Japanese lunchboxes - the art of cooking

The types and categories of bento

It's not just the mothers who make the lunch box and give it to their child to take as a meal at school. Bento are part of daily life for most Japanese people. You can buy these lunchboxes in several corners.

This causes the bento products to be separated into types and categories that we will mention below. It is usually named after 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 obento served for children with cute characters.

Chūka bentō [中華弁当] – These lunchboxes 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 japan flag 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, grilled salmon slice, egg roll and others.

The bento - Japanese lunchboxes - the art of cooking
  • Sake bentō [鮭弁当] – Simple lunch box with a slice of grilled salmon as the main course.
  • 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 to carry meals;
  • Tori bento [鳥弁当] – Chunks of chicken cooked in a sauce and served over rice, popular in Gunma.
  • Shikaeshiben [仕返し弁] – Lunch box written to take 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 bento early before lunchtime.
  • Hokaben [ホカ弁] – Any lunch box purchased at takeaway bento stores;
  • Noriben [海苔弁] – Simple bento where the nori is dipped in soy sauce and covered over cooked rice;
  • Soraben [空弁] – Sold at airports.

Furoshiki – Wrapping the lunch box

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

How it is possible to make a bag to carry your lunch box. With furoshiki you can make a ring bag, bottles, book bag, fruit basket, object bag, gift wrap and much more.

Furoshike is also the name of the fabric folding technique. Any tablecloth or piece of calico print, even a beach wrap can be turned into a bag or used to wrap a lunch box.

Furoshiki
Furoshiki

Obento videos – Preparing your lunch box

Here are some examples of how the Japanese take their daily diet seriously.

To find out and delve more into the creation of Japanese lunchboxes, let's leave some videos on the creation and decoration of bentos. Hope you enjoyed the article! We appreciate the comments and shares!

Video of a Brazilian woman preparing an Obento from the Frozen Film:

A little about Obento de Konbini (Convenience Store):

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