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What Is A Bento Box? Interesting Japanese Tradition At A Glance

Japanese cuisine is famous not only for its incredibly distinct and delicate flavors but also for its intricate preparation and elegant plating. When it comes to food arrangement and presentation, Japan, with the art of Bento box, is simply on another level of sophistication and creation. So if you are having the question “What is a Bento box?” in your mind, do not hesitate to scroll down to know more about one of the most unique and fascinating cultures of this country.

What is a Bento box? Interesting Japanese tradition at a glance

1.  What Is Bento?

So what is Bento? Bento is a small and convenient Japanese style lunch box. It is a single-portion home-packed meal which Japanese people normally take away for lunch at work or on a picnic. Though it shares the same basic definition with a lunch box in other countries, Bento has become a significant symbol of Japanese modern daily life thanks to its magnificent food arrangement and presentation.

What is a bento box
A bento box is a small and convenient Japanese style lunch box

Normally, Bento boxes are reusable. These boxes have a high range of sizes, shapes, and colors with artistic patterns embossed on the cover. However, it is not the look that matters. What is inside that truly makes Bento special.

2. History Of Bento Box

Let’s take a quick look at the history of Bento boxes before we jump into other aspects. The history of Bento can be traced back to the Kamakura period in the 1300s. In the beginning, farmers kept rice in small bags when they went to work in the fields or went hunting. After sometimes, wooden boxes were produced to replace bags. Bento became extremely popular in the Taisho period and became an unprecedented feature in royal cuisine. Japanese elites often take Bento to outdoor events like cherry blossom festivals or tea parties. Many designs and sizes also appear to meet their preferences. As time went by, Bento art developed and spread throughout Japan until today.

What is a bento box
As time went by, Bento art developed and spread throughout Japan until today

3. What Is In A Bento Box?

It is no exaggeration to say that bento is a work of art with a high balance of nutrition and amazing food presentation.  So what is in a bento box? Here are your answers.

A typical Bento box consists of several ingredients, such as rice, fish, meat, eggs, vegetables,… Sandwich or sweet desserts can also appear in modern Bento boxes. These dishes come in many shapes and colors. If you have ever read the famous Japanese novel “Tottochan – The little girl at the window”, strict ingredient ratio which is required in a Bento box would be no surprise to you. There are four types of foods that should be involved. They are carbs, protein, vegetables, and fruits. Ideally, the food inside is arranged in a 4: 2: 1 ratio (4 parts of rice, 3 parts of protein and 1 part of vegetables). Depends on your diet, the ratio can be adjusted to 3:2:1. However, for whatever ratio you choose, just remember to make sure it follows the healthy and appetizing concept.

What is in a bento box
A typical bento box consists of several ingredients, such as rice, fish, meat, eggs, vegetables,…

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4. Most Popular Types Of Bento Box

4.1. Sanshoku Bento (Tri-coloured Rice Bowl)

Shanshoku is a Japanese lunch box with three toppings – scrambled eggs, boiled green peas, and minced beef. You can also use pork or chicken instead of beef or broccoli instead of peas. This bento is simple to prepare and still provides sufficient nutrients. Besides, it creates a great visual effect, thanks to the clear contrasting colors of the three basic ingredients. So if you want to make your own bento, Sanshoku Bento may be a great start for you.

What is bento box
Shanshoku is a Japanese lunch box with three toppings – scrambled eggs, boiled green peas and minced beef

4.2. Hinomaru Bento

Hinomaru Bento consists of white rice and a single umeboshi plum pickle on top, resembling the national flag. It is one of the oldest versions of Bento in Japan and has a very special meaning in the heart of Japanese people. In the old days, when Japanese people were still poor, there was not that much besides white rice. But of course, as time goes by, this Bento has become more sophisticated and more complicated. Nowadays, it is served along with other side dishes.

What is bento box
Hinomaru Bento consists of white rice and a single umeboshi plum pickle on top and in the center, resembling the national flag

4.3. Ekiben

Ekiben refers to a special Bento which is sold on trains and train station. This Bento first appeared in the late 19th century and has become common during the time when meals on the train were essential for passengers to go on a long train journey.

Among hundreds type of Ekiben, Kamameshi seems to be the most unique and famous one since food is served in a rustic earthenware pot. This pot helps to maintain the heat and moist texture of ingredients inside.

What is a bento box
Kamameshi seems to be the most unique and famous one since food is served in a rustic earthenware pot

4.4. Noriben

Noriben is one of the most common and simple Bento, containing only white rice, nori seaweed,  soy sauce, and bonito flakes. Despite being so basic, Noriben is still a true Japanese classic dish that can easily capture your heart. If you are having a good time in Japan, do not forget to try it out. You can find this Bento in any restaurant and convenient store across Japan.

What is a bento box
Noriben is one of the most common and simple Bento, containing only white rice, nori seaweed,  soy sauce and bonito flakes

4.5. Shokadu bento

Shokado Bento is a high-quality lunch box which was originated from Kyoto. The square lacquer box traditionally was divided into 4 small containers. However, there are some variations in modern Bento.

What is a bento box
Shokado bento is a high quality lunch box that originated in Kyoto

4.6. Kyaraben

Kyaraben is probably the perfect definition of what is Bento lunch. To prepare a Kyaraben, you have to arrange and make all ingredients look like cute characters, including famous characters like Totoro, Doraemon, Kitty,.. and so on. Japanese housewives usually make this type of Bento for their children, especially children of primary school age. Even though it takes a long time to make a Kyaraben, Japanese mothers always try to change food presentation day by day in order to stimulate their child’s appetite. Nowadays, Kyaraben has become extremely popular to the point that there are tons of contests in Japan and even in other countries.

What is a bento box
Nowadays, Kyaraben has become extremely popular to the point that there are tons of contests in Japan and even in other countries

4.7. Oekakiben

It is the most sophisticated type of Bento which people use rice and cooking ingredients to create a landscape picture. Oekakiben requires really high cooking techniques so it is not easy to be found at convenient stores in Japan in comparison with other kinds of Bento. If you are wondering what’s in a bento box that can really impress you, these amazing lunch boxes are definitely the right answer.

What is a bento box
Oekakiben is one of the most sophisticated type of Bento which people use rice and cooking ingredients to create a landscape picture

4.8. Sushizume

The name already speaks for itself. Sushizume is the kind of Bento that contains only sushi. As sushi needs to be maintained fresh, you can only find Sushizume in high-quality restaurants only.

What is a bento box
Sushizume is the kind of Bento that contains only sushi

Conclusion

Hopefully, this blog can provide answers to your questions “What are bento boxes?”, “What is in a Bento box?” As you can see, Bento is not simply a lunch box. It is a unique symbol of Japanese culture and modern life.  If you plan to visit Japan, do not miss the opportunity to experience some of the finest Bento here.

About Haruto Suzuki

Haruto Suzuki is a senior food and drinks blogger at Question Japan. He has a background in F&B industry and also experience of running his own Japanese restaurant in Tokyo for over 10 years. Therefore, he has a great knowledge of Japanese cuisine. So if you want to discover Japan through its unique traditional cuisine, Haruto Suzuki’s blog will be a great source of information for you.