Hi there !
I am Pragati aka Prats ! Welcome to my world of Bento . I honestly didn’t Plan to become a Bento mom. I was just like many of the moms or like you – Standing over empty lunch boxes each morning feeling frustrated with what to pack for lunch ! My kiddo didn’t have home packed lunches all through preschool !! (yay)
Then kindergarten happened. I had to pack home-made hot or cold lunches for her. She was coming home with untouched food and I was at a breaking point… clueless as to what to do ? I was then introduced to Bento and much to my shock realized that I could recreate these lunches easily without fuss , so I started making Bento lunches for her ! And to my amazement – not a single lunch was coming back untouched /half eaten …… You get the idea !
I love Bentos because the compartments help with portion control and naturally lead to a healthy variety of foods. Each lunch is a little puzzle, an elegant surprise. And they don’t have to take long to prepare!
What the heck is Bento, you ask? The simplest definition of Bento is that it is the Japanese word for a boxed lunch. But if I were to expand the definition a bit further I’d also say a lunch that is packed Bento-style contains a variety of different types of foods: carbs, protein, fruits, veggies and sometimes a small treat. The foods are selected to provide a balance of colors, flavors and textures.
This post is all about introduction to Bento !
Box lunches (Bento ) are very popular among Japanese kids and adults alike. People take them to work, to school, on picnics, and so on. Half of a typical Bento consists of rice, and the other half consists of several side dishes made with such ingredients as vegetables, meat, fish, and eggs. This format allows for infinite variations in the mind of the creator for the Bento .
The most common side dish is some kind of cooked egg, such as Tamagoyaki (omelette strips or squares cooked typically with salt and sugar), fried eggs, scrambled eggs, and omelets with various ingredients. Another Bento favorite is sausage. The creator of the Bento sometimes makes little cuts in the sausage to make it look like an octopus or other animal, adding to the fun of the meal.
Other popular items include grilled fish, fried meat, fish cake, and vegetables of various kinds. The vegetables may be pickled, boiled, or steamed; cooked vegetables are used more often than fresh ones. For dessert, there might be an apple or orange .
The person who makes the Bento , such as the mother of the household, often prepares the box lunches as she is cooking the side dishes for the family’s regular meals. She considers which dishes would not go bad so quickly and sets a portion of these aside for the following day’s Bento .
Japanese people attach great importance to the appearance of their food. Part of the fun of making a box lunch is creating a visually appealing arrangement that will whet the appetite.
The earliest records of packed lunches in Japan date back to around the fifth century, when people were going out to hunt, farm, or wage war! They took food with them to eat on the job. They typically carried dried rice, which was eaten either in its dried state or after being rehydrated with cold or hot water, or rice balls.
The word Bento is often said to have originated with a sixteenth-century military commander named Oda Nobunaga (1534-82), who fed the large numbers of people at his castle by having food handed out to each individual. The word Bento was coined to describe the simple meals that were distributed in this manner.
Traditionally, people working outdoors – whether in the fields, in the mountains, on fishing boats, or in town – carried their lunches with them because they did not have time to go home for meals.
During the period (1603-1868), people considered Bento an essential accompaniment to outdoor excursions or the theater. The Makunouchi Bento , which typically contains small rice balls sprinkled with sesame seeds and a rich assortment of side dishes, made its first appearance during this era.
Makunouchi in Japanese refers to the interval between the acts of a play, and the Bento is said to have gotten its name from the fact that spectators ate it during intermission.
In the period (1868-1912), when Japan’s railway system came into being, the ekiben (“station Bento ,” or box lunches sold at train stations) appeared.
The first ekiben – rice balls with pickled apricots inside – was reportedly sold in 1885 at Utsunomiya Station in Tochigi Prefecture.
Ekiben are still sold at Japanese train stations and the Airports today in vast quantities.
Today’s Modern day Bento ?
In Japan, some schools provide lunch to the students, while others require students to bring their own lunches. The students’ mothers usually prepare the lunches. The custom of bringing lunch from home is quite prevalent not only among students but also among working adults.
According to the Japanese , ( Even in India we follow the same rule while preparing food for our family. ), when a person eats a box lunch prepared by a loved one, the preparer’s feelings are transmitted through the food.
In other words, the Bento serves as a vehicle for communication between the maker and the eater.
A Bento prepared at home is filled with the love of the eater’s family.
A Bento box is a compact container designed to hold a single serving of rice and several side dishes. In ancient times, lunches were wrapped using such materials as oak leaf, magnolia leaf, bamboo leaf, and bamboo sheath. Later, wooden boxes came into use. In some regions, fancy Bento boxes with lids were made by interweaving thin strips of bamboo or willow, or by bending strips of wood into shape. These Bento boxes are still produced and sold today as traditional handicrafts. Many designer Bento boxes, as well as boxes decorated with popular characters such as Hello Kitty, are on the market. Some people like to go all out and buy matching chopsticks, silverware, and carrying cases to go with their Bento boxes.
Modern Bento boxes are made of a variety of materials, including wood, metals such as anodized aluminum, and plastic. They are usually rectangular, oval, or circular in shape. The wide range of Bento boxes available today includes watertight vessels that can be used for foods with liquid content, containers that keep foods hot, and mini trunks that fit small drink bottles inside.
Now a days they are super easily available at major stores and even on Amazon India !!
Because Bento are usually eaten some time after they have been prepared, cooked foods must be well done to prevent changes in the flavor or color. Items that go bad easily are not used, and excess liquid is eliminated before placing the food in a bento box.
Another important consideration in packing Bento is visual presentation. To ensure that the food will make a good overall impression when the eater opens the lid, the preparer should choose an attractively colored assortment of foods and arrange them in a way that looks appetizing. A well-balanced Bento consists of rice and side dishes in a 1:1 ratio. The ratio of fish or meat dishes to vegetables should be 1:2.
Mothers pack their children’s bento boxes while trying to think of how to make the children smile when they open the box.
Next post of the Bento series – Assembling a Bento, Materials needed, and Bento basics.
By Prats Kamath for DialABaker