In the US, many children grew up with TV dinners that compartmentalized proteins, starches, and vegetables in a convenient vessel. For many, this is kind of a comfort food. Did you know that Japanese diners have a similar concept that also evokes memories of home and comfort?
They are bento boxes, and the idea is similar. It contains a protein (meat or fish), a starch (usually rice), and vegetables (either pickled or cooked.) While the bento box started out as a utilitarian meal, it has quickly morphed into Instagram-worthy creations that look as pretty as they are delicious. Let’s examine the appeal of the Japanese bento box, beginning with its humble origins.
History of the Bento Box
As with many newly “discovered” food trends, bento boxes have actually been around for hundreds of years. The origins of bento boxes go back to the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) when cooked and dried rice was developed to be a portable meal. The modern presentation of the lacquered bento box came about during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1603). That’s when an appropriate vessel was needed to each food outside during tea ceremonies or cherry blossom viewing.
The word “bento” translates loosely into “lunch box”, and that’s exactly what this attractive container holds. During the Taisho Period (1912-1926) the creation of the aluminum bento box made it perfect for people to take to work because of its easy cleaning and ability to heat foods quickly.
It wasn’t until the 1980’s that bento boxes began to utilize plastic boxes and microwaves in order to quickly heat up its contents. Today’s bento box now features character bentos, where intricately created boxes mimicked different cartoon characters or showed beautiful artistic creations. Moms in both Japan and the United States have latched onto the bento trend for their kids’ lunches.
What’s in a Bento Box?
If you want to peek inside a traditional bento box, here at the primary ingredients that you will find:
Rice: this is the base for all bento boxes. You can include standard white or brown rice, rice with red beans, rice mixed with nori seaweed and rice with mixed grains. Not having rice inside a bento box is like having a hot dog without the bun.
Sushi: raw fish on top of seasoned, pressed rice
Protein: this can vary from stewed beef (gyudon), tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet), nimono (slowly simmered fish, veggies, or meat), or deep fried foods such as tempura, karaage (fried chicken) or croquettes. You can even substitute a bite-sized Japanese omelet (tamagoyaki) for an unexpected dose of protein power.
Vegetables these can be cooked or pickled. Check out Umami Insider’s recipe for Tsukemono-curry vinegar pickles.
Something Sweet: Mochi rice balls, or matcha green tea cake are perfect bite-sized portions to include in a bento box.