What Is Bento? Breaking Down the Bento Box

A bento box adds fun, whimsy, and creative joy to any midday meal.

Tamagoyaki Bento Box
Tamagoyaki Bento Box | Photo by Buckwheat Queen.

You may be familiar with the bento box as a "little bit of everything" shidashi option at Japanese restaurants. In it, a wide tray is divided into several compartments, like a dollhouse laid on its side, with each individual room assigned to a specific standard offer. In a typical spread, you'll find a few flash-steamed shumai (dumplings), fried gyoza, or spring roll to start; some bites of a crowd-pleasing hand roll, California perhaps; a couple slices of ginger and dab of wasabi to accompany; a green iceberg salad with that addictive ginger dressing; a tidy scoop of plain rice; and the recipient's entree of choice — typically a teriyaki or tempura of sorts.

But this commercialized bento box offering is far from the only way to bento. Let's break it down!

What Is Bento?

In simple terms, bento is a single-serving, packed meal, transported by the eater already assembled and ready to be savored. Like an American lunch box, only so much more.

Bento historically stars rice or noodles as the foundational starch, accompanied by a protein or two like fish, eggs, or meat. These two main focal points are accented with a variety of pickled and cooked vegetables, and a few bites of fruit, creating an easily balanced meal for healthy eating away from home. Modern bentos may take inspiration from the western world, such as the inclusion of sandwiches, yogurt, dessert, green salads, and fried potatoes. Check out these 15 bento box lunches.

No matter what is in the bento box, the components are all neatly tucked into containers that tend to be on the deeper side, more like rectangular bowls than flat plates, and as satisfying to look at as dig into.

What's My Bento Style?

The word "bento" comes from the Southern Song Chinese slang term that means "convenient," but make no mistake — this designation only makes sense for the one enjoying it! Bentos are inventions of convenience for the recipient, but they're often a labor of love from the maker.

Kyaraben is roughly translated to "character bento," and they are absolutely adorable. They take their inspiration from anime, cartoons, comic books, video games, and other pop culture references meant to make adults and children alike squeal with glee. These time-consuming preparations often require a good deal of consideration by the maker to create the shapes and likenesses of favorite characters. Pikachu, Hello Kitty, Angry Birds, and other delightfully rotund creatures like pigs and cows are some of the most popular forms you'll see rice rolled into, decorated with seaweed sheets cut to form eyes, whiskers, and other details that give the food forms personality.

Oekakiben is the next most familiar style. These are picture bentos, where buildings, monuments, flowers, and other landscapes inspire the meal presentation. All elements within the box provide function beyond food; all have integral, intentional placements designed to create a comestible image that puts a smile on the eater's face even before they taste it. If you've cut carrots into blossoms, made celery sticks into stems, congratulations! You've already taken the first step.

Aisai bentos, on the other hand, bring new meaning to the phrase "food is love." These often contain specially made treats and sweet, sentimental messages written in furikake seasoning, and are reserved for those made by significant others for their partners or mothers for their children. Master how to shape a heart and you're well on your way.

Shikaeshiben takes it in the other direction, allowing the preparer to express displeasure at the recipient. If you've ever made edible Halloween treats, you've got a solid foundation for these, as angry preparers have long created monster faces on a palette of rice, cut sausages into severed fingers, or added vinegar or unappetizing seasonings to hilariously trick the eater into dining on something unpalatable. These "spite bentos" prove that revenge really is best served cold — especially since bento is meant to be eaten that way!

Kyaraben-style Bento Box
Kyaraben-style Bento Box | Photo by Ko Sasaki, Getty Images.

How Do I Assemble a Bento?

There are a few principles beyond aesthetic style and theme to follow when it comes to putting together a proper bento meal. Variety is key for a great bento, and not just in terms of the carb, protein, vegetable, pickled vegetable or fruit mix, which should appear in a 4:3:2:1 ratio, respectively. You want to shop seasonally for the ingredients, and have a lot of different items in small quantities on hand to bring your creative vision to life, however inspiration moves you!

With that said, planning the designs ahead of time and assembling the assorted items in advance is a must. All elements should be prepared separately to retain their flavors and textures. Think sweet, lightly acidic pickles against mild egg noodles, toothsome rice with crunchy vegetables, and tender, savory meat and juicy fruit. Combining sensations like this also helps with satiety, making it as good of a health tip as it is one for better enjoyment.

And finally, make sure a combination of red or orange, yellow, green, white, and black appear in some form somewhere — a rule of thumb to help you eat that rainbow!

Where Can I Buy a Bento Box?

Buy bento boxes online. Although most of the world's bento boxes are manufactured in the Ishakawa Prefecture of Japan, global trade has made it easy to get them to your door. They come in all shapes and sizes, from 2 compartment or 3 compartment plastic boxes, to stackable round or rectangular stainless steel boxes, to fun kid-friendly containers featuring snow owl, fox, and lion decals. Specialty retailers like Karma Bento, Yiruishi Shop, Genius Villain, and Lunchbox.Sale carry all styles and types, featuring gorgeous craftmanship, ingenious designs, and whimsical shapes. For affordable options, look for the Sistema brand, the New Zealand-based experts on strategically divided food storage, good for kids and adults — although the younger set might prefer the fun, child-sized ones from Bentgo or OmieBox. You can also buy direct from designers like Takenaka, whose simple, clean designs are soothingly zen.

In the meantime, while you're waiting for your fancy box to ship, you can also make do with cupcake liners to keep things separate… or, just enjoy the planning stages. Itadakimasu!

Where Did Bento Come From?

Bento is an art form that dates back to the 1100s. The first documented use of bento as a concept can be traced back to Japan's Kamakura period (1185–1333), when cooked rice would be carried into work in a small bag. But it wasn't until the Azuchi-Momoyama period, between 1568 and 1600, that bento as we know it appeared.

It was then that lacquered wood boxes came into existence, becaming Japan's elegant version of a picnic basket. The art of urushi, a time-consuming practice that is not without its dangers (raw liquid lacquer is poisonous to the touch; its fumes, poisonous), made toting a meal stylish as well as practical. Designed to hold several different bites for several different folks to share, preferably while sipping tea under shady trees and sunny skies, this leisurely practice became mainstream during the Edo period, which lasted into 1868. Outdoor events and long theater performances, in particular, called for stacked boxes of multiple courses sampled among friends. Also during this time, the two-part boxes with rice and side dish sections came into popular use, which carried over into the next stage of bento evolution.

It was with the emergence of rail travel during the Meiji period that a new style of bento came into being: ekiben. These boxes for individual consumption for folks on the go were and still are prized for their focus on regional specialties. But as these became more common at train stations, bento lunches became less available, and the use of stainless steel began to serve as a wealth indicator at school. By the end of World War II, the practice of bringing bento to school in lieu of standardized lunches was all but gone.

However, in the 1980s, on-the-go ready meals returned to trend as modern inventions like the microwave and convenience stores took root. Disposable boxes eliminated the issue of class discrimination, and the increasing sight of people with them paved the way for their return to the classroom in obsessively adorable forms.

Today, in Japan and in the United States, bentos are back stronger than ever, with new styles, new takes… and a refreshed level of respect for an age-old tradition that makes desk lunches anything but sad.

Check out our collection of Japanese Recipes.

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