Japanese or not, everyone is familiar with a rapidly growing food trend: bento boxes. Bento boxes were created simply to pack lunches, but recently they have become something of a culinary art as many people make creative designs with the food they prepare. Some boxes feature rice balls decorated like pandas, boxes with art from manga and anime, and picturesque food arranged into artistic mosaics. There are even bento art contests! But where does bento come from?
How bento boxes came to be
The origin of the word “bento" is a murky one. Some claim that the name is of Taiwanese origin, from a slang term meaning “convenience.” Some scholars believe it was coined by famed military commander Oda Nobunaga during the 16th century to describe the meals that he distributed to a large number of people in his castle. While their name remains a mystery, bento boxes began to be used in Japan almost a thousand years ago.
During the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), people began to pack dried meals, called hoshi-ii, when going out to work or hunt. “Bento” during this time was merely a small bag used to store dehydrated rice that was either eaten dry or rehydrated. The Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568 – 1600) is when the typical wooden lacquered bento boxes appeared, though instead of packing lunches, they were used mainly for storing food at gatherings and parties.
During the Edo Period (1603-1868), bento boxes become common. During this age of cultural flourishing, people have not only sought to use bento for entertaining, at tea ceremonies, and at Buddhist memorial services, but also for travel lunches, as their ancestors had. Tourists and travelers commonly carried bento, especially if they planned to go to a theatre or engage themselves in any outdoor activity, like picnics and excursions. Travelers usually packed what is called a koshibento, a bento box hung from the waist. A typical lunch would consist of rice balls, chestnuts, seafood, mushrooms, pickles, and bamboo shoots. As often happens in Japan, bento became codified in a number of popular books and guides to the creation and arranging of a packed lunch, and these cookbooks spread like wildfire across the nation.
In the Meiji Period (1868-1912) came the Japanese railway system. People took advantage of this transportation system and its crowds of passengers by selling ekiben, or "train station bento," near the stations. A typical ekiben meal is composed of takuan, a pickled daikon radish, and rice balls with pickled plums that were wrapped in bamboo leaves. As time passed, ekiben dishes grew in variety, and eventually stores and restaurants even sold European-style bento with sandwiches instead of rice balls.
In the Taisho Period (1912-1926), bento became a symbol of wealth disparity. During World War I, many people went through financial hardship due to the crop failures in the Tohoku area. Bento boxes became far less popular, as wealthy individuals were the only ones who could afford to bring them to school or work. Aluminum was the newest and most popular material for boxes at the time, especially since it looked like silver from a distance, but a strong pushback against this wealthy aesthetic gave new metal bento boxes a poor reputation and even had them banned in some schools. It was only in the 1980s that bento boxes were again able to gain popularity due to the convenience of microwave ovens and falling prices. Even then, they were never seen in schools as frequently as before, because most schools had replaced the homemade packed lunch with cafeterias to prevent apparent wealth and reputation disparity among students, as well as to standardize lunches among children to prevent malnutrition.
After bento became easy to buy after World War II, it quickly grew again in popularity. Now, even other nations have begun creating and selling their own local bento, from China and Taiwan to even the United States. Hawaii especially has started adapting its local cuisine into bento boxes! So the next time you're traveling abroad, no matter where you come from or where you go, you might just find bento for a tasty lunch on the go.