Bento - packed lunches with Japanese style
If you've watched much anime, particularly ones centred around high schools, you might have noticed some of the characters chowing down on a packed lunch in several containers divided in to compartments. That would be a bento. These often colourful, tasty and interesting lunches almost always contain rice, a staple of the Japanese diet, and then some fish or meat and vegetables. That being said there are even some recipes out there for taking western food and turning it in to bento style.
Image courtesy of Laitr Keiows
Bento are widely available in Japan, being sold in bento shops, railway stations and even in restaurants. However there are still plenty of people who lovingly prepare a bento in the morning for their spouse, children or themselves. This has lead to some people taking bento to the extreme and turning it in to an art form. Kyaraben ("character bento"), is a bento which has been made to resemble characters from anime, manga or video games while oekakiben ("picture bento") is made to look like animals, people, flowers or plants. It's sort of like how your mum would cut a smiley face in to a sandwich but turned up to 11 in that special way that only Japanese culture seems capable of doing.
History of Bento:
The word bento originates from the Song Dynasty slang term 便當 (biàndāng) which means “convenience” or “convenient” and has it's roots as far back as the late Kamakura period. During this time Hoshi-ii was developed. This was a kind of cooked and dried rice carried around in a small bag. It wasn't until the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568 to 1600) that the lacquered wooden boxes we associate with bento started to be made. Bento would be eaten from these boxes at events such as tea parties or Hanami (the tradition of going to see the cherry blossoms).
It's during the relatively peaceful Edo period (1603 to 1867) that bento really starts to flourish. Firstly with the koshibentō which were carried by travellers and typically consisted of some onigiri (Japanese rice balls) wrapped in bamboo leaves or in a woven bamboo box. Then with the development of the makunouchi bento. This was often packed in to lavish, tiered and lacquered boxes and eaten at the theatre between maku (scenes). A typical makunouchi bento would comprise of small onigiri, sprinkled with sesame seeds, and an assortment of side dishes.
The first ekiben ("station bento") were sold during the Meiji era. The very first one is reported to have been sold at the Utsunomiya Station in Tochigi Prefecture on July 16, 1885. It is said to have been two onigiri and a serving of takuan (pickled daikon radish).
The Bento is now a well established concept, both in Japan and further afield. As already mentioned it can be seen in anime, Japanese schools and work places, there's even a film centred around it! Seriously, check out “Bento Monogotamori” for a few examples of oekakiben and snippets of japanese culture, though be prepared for a fairly weird 20 minutes. There are a plethora of websites devoted to bento. These range from showcasing people's artistic flair to practical advice on how to make and enjoy bento as an every day packed lunch. My personal favourite is justbento.com which has a massive archive of bento recipes and the person behind the website has published a bento cookbook.
One of the great things about bento is it's room for self expression and it's inclusivity. On that first point there are now numerous bento competitions throughout Japan where people compete to create the most beautiful bento that boggle the mind with the sheer amount of time, effort and love that go in to them. The largest of these is the Sanrio Charaben (Kyaraben) Contest. Sanrio is the company responsible for Hello Kitty and so this competition heavily features their characters. As for inclusivity, there is now a staggering ammount of different styles of bento box and accessories out there now. Whether you are a businessman who wants something practical, understated and stylish or a middle school kid who wants one that looks like a samurai then there's a bento for you. I personally already have two and can see myself buying a few more in years to come.
Crucially, for me, bento is a way to really go that extra mile, for yourself or someone you care about, to ensure you get something tasty for lunch. All of the extra accessories, fancy boxes and artistic presentation just makes the entire experience that much more fun. So on that note...
Make Your First Bento:
I figured that if you're still reading this and are interested in getting in to this you might want a place to start so here is a very simple recipe to get you going.
Ingredients: Eggs, Soy Sauce, Mirin, Sugar, Rice Vinegar, Salt, Short Grain Rice, Bagged Vegetables, Sesame Oil, Sesame Seeds.
So this bento has 3 main parts to it, the sticky rice, steamed vegetables and tamagoyaki (Japanese omlete).
- Empty a cup or two of rice in to a bowl.
- Cover the rice in cold water and rub the rice in your hands.
- Drain away the cloudy water.
- Repeat steps 1-3 until the water is clear, this usually take 3-5 times depending on rice.
- Add about 3 cups of cold water to the rice and leave to sit for at least 30 minutes.
- Either put rice with water in to a rice cooker or on to a medium high heat.
- Leave to boil and once cooked allow to sit and simmer for about 5-10 minutes longer for as much water to evaporate or absorb as possible.
- Add a pinch of salt, sugar and a tablespoon or two of rice vinegar and mix together.
- Allow rice to cool before placing in a box or eat it hot.
- Empty vegetables in to a container and steam until tender.
- Drizzle the vegetables with sesame oil.
- Sprinkle some sesame seeds on top.
- Crack 2-3 eggs in to a bowl.
- Oil the bottom of a frying pan and allow to heat up.
- Add a table spoon of soy sauce, mirin and sugar to the eggs and beat thoroughly.
- Make sure the pan is hot enough to cook the egg pretty instantaneously.
- Pour a thin layer of egg in to the pan, when it starts to firm up roll the egg to one side.
- Pour another thin layer of egg in to the pan and then roll the original roll back over the new egg.
- Repeat this process until all the egg is used up. The thinner the layers the better the texture.
That should be enough to get you started. Some quick points worth mentioning though. There are some great videos out there on proper authentic Japanese videos and techniques for tamagoyaki which I strongly recommend looking up and you can purchase little bags of vegetables for steaming from most supermarkets.
I hope you've enjoyed this whistle stop tour of the world of Bento and we'd love to hear from you or see some of your Charaben on our facebook page.