The Bento: What You Need to Know About This Popular Packed Lunch


Packed meals are a convenient staple when it comes to everyday sustenance outside of the comfort of one’s home. It has been, and still, a standard part of school and work life. In fact, a lot of businesses have been tailored around the concept and convenience of packed meals, such as lunch box catering, which has started to gain popularity all over the world, from business offices in Melbourne, Australia to stadiums in Dallas, Texas.

Before the rise of lunch box catering and other packed meal services, there was the Japanese bento (lunch box). Bento is arguably one of the most popular forms of packed meals, but how much do you know about it?

Name and History

The Japanese word bento is a borrowed word from Chinese meaning “convenient,” which aptly summarizes what bento boxes are.

Bento boxes originated in Japan. Its existence and use have been first recorded about 1,000 years ago, during the Kamakura period (1185 to 1333). Nearing the end of the 16th century, the iconic lacquered and multi-compartmented wooden box that we associate today with bento was developed. The emergence of convenience stores and microwave started the resurgence of bento box’s popularity, not only in Japan but worldwide.

Balanced Meal

Bento box meals are carefully thought out and balanced. They often include rice, fish, meat, and vegetables (which are either raw, cooked, or pickled), and the boxes are often accompanied with fruit as dessert. The portions are also often well-chosen, not only for the balance of flavors, but for one to receive the proper distribution of nutrients. Even today, contemporary and commercial bento boxes include a balanced and healthy menu.

Types of Bento Boxes

packed lunch

Bento has evolved and diversified in various ways to fit multiple occasions, situations, places, and even represent pop-culture:

  • Ekiben. Eki means station and ekiben (railway boxed meals) are bento box meals that are exclusively sold in trains and/or train stations. These are usually designed to be disposable, but some ekiben are made of ceramic or wood and are intended for reuse. They often contain food and preparations that are local to where the station is located.
  • Makunouchi. Is a popular bento box variation containing rice, egg, meat, pickles, vegetables, and pickled plum (called umeboshi). This bento box originates from makuno-uchi or “between act” since it is often served during breaks or intermissions during theatrical performances.
  • Chuka bento. This is a special variety of bento box that contains Chinese food.
  • Kyaraben or Chara-ben (Character Bento). These are bento boxes with ingredient and food carefully picked and arranged to look like pop-culture characters.
  • Noriben. This bento’s name comes from nori (seaweed) and is a classic traditional bento preparation consisting of only rice, nori, soy sauce, and dried bonito flakes.
  • Hinomaru. This is a bento box arranged to resemble the Japanese flag, with umeboshi (pickled plum) as the center.
  • Koraku bento. This is a large bento that’s made for sharing and is usually prepared and eaten during cherry blossom viewing season.

The next time you take your lunch with your officemates or classmates, you’ll have a few facts about bento boxes that you can share over your packed meal.

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