Perhaps it goes back to our childhood, when we were happy with very little things, like tiny boxes and the secrets we thought we might uncover in those mysterious containers. A box was also very often a gift given to us by someone very dear, like our mother or father, a brother or a sister. Seeing the food prepared and neatly arranged in each compartment of a bento box, apart from the fact that it also looks delicious, immediately re-awaken those fond memories.
“Bento” refers to a quick, convenient, and easily affordable meal. But what was started long ago, out of sheer necessity in Japan, has nowadays evolved into quite a trendy affair. Yet there is much more to this very popular fast food than what meets the eye. Looking at the true meaning behind what seems obvious at first glance is particularly rewarding.
To start with, Japan has a long and rich history of bento. It is said to have first appeared in its most basic form during the Kamakura period (1185-1333) when the boxes were only meant to carry rice. It was during the late 16th century that the distinct, lacquered, wooden box was developed. The start of the Edo period (1603-1868) ushered in an era of peace and prosperity during which people began going on leisure trips around the country which led to a big evolution in bento.
It became common to carry food in bento boxes for outdoor activities or even to the theater. As kabuki theater became increasingly popular around the 18th century, performances could last an entire day and theaters started providing hungry audiences with ready-made meals in bento boxes. It soon became a trend to dine on luxurious “Makunouchi” bento at kabuki shows. The name is derived from the Japanese word “Maku” or curtain, as it was typically eaten as the curtain was drawn after the first act of a play. Foods that were easily and quickly swallowed were featured since they were meant to be eaten during intermissions. They would include a wide variety of ingredients such as grilled rice balls, an omelet, a slice of fish paste, broiled tofu, or even sushi.
Even today, bento features a great variety of prepared food still known as “Makunouchi” bento. In the old days, this word signified a celebratory event and tradition which has been carefully preserved to this day. It marked the occasion of people breaking their daily routines and setting off to have a fun day out. This happened especially during cherry blossom viewing parties which ultimately led to the creation of many different types of bento in Japan. In those early days, a bento for a cherry blossom viewing party would have contained a variety of foods considered luxuries, such as seabreams, sweet Japanese apricots, bracken-fern sprouts, hijiki seaweed, and other delicacies.
While there are no specific guidelines for what goes into a bento box, there are several different types that are synonymous with specific events, themes, or locations. During the Meiji period (1868-1912), and as a way to modernize Japan, the government promoted creating railways throughout Japan. This is when “Eki-ben” (station bento) were sold at stations for passengers on trains to eat, and for each region to attract tourists to their city.
Initially, bento was developed so that when people were traveling, they could carry cooked food, consisting of a variety of ingredients, packed into a single container. But in the middle of the 20th century, a different style of bento emerged. Elaborate kaiseki cuisine began to be combined with the convenience of a bento. Kaiseki cuisine usually introduced dishes one by one, but they began to be presented all at once in an elegant manner, and with the same principles, just in a compact form.
Both bento and kaiseki are based on the same fundamentals of Japanese cuisine: five tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami), five colors (green, yellow, red, black, and white), and the five cooking techniques (grilling, simmering, steaming, frying, or raw), and they offer a variety of flavors too. Japanese cooks can create an astonishingly varied and subtle range of tastes from a surprisingly small array of ingredients and seasonings. The most common of these are soy sauce, mirin (sweet rice wine), miso, seaweed, sesame seeds, ginger, rice vinegar, and wasabi (Japanese horseradish).
Bento has a simple elegance and a beauty that instantly attracts you to it. And that must be the feeling conveyed by that bento meal. A Japanese meal is a lot like a haiku. Its form is simple and structured, yet within that ordered framework, the food is carefully balanced and full of reverence for the beauty of the natural world. A typical meal still centers around rice, soup, and pickled vegetables, as it has for centuries. Dishes are still classified as they were in the early days of “shojin ryori” (Buddhist temple food), not by their main ingredients but by how they are prepared. “Shojin ryori” makes full use of seasons and values the taste of each region. The Japanese have always felt in awe of nature, offering prayers to divinities and expressing gratitude through festivals at shrines.
From the Rising Sun Flag lunch box or “Hinomaru” bento to the lovingly prepared wife’s lunch, the O-bento is a microcosm of Japanese cuisine. Since only small portions of each food are included, and a well-balanced variety of foods is necessary, preparing a proper o-bento can be a time-consuming ritual. It definitely requires much dedication, great care, and a lot of love.
As with almost all Japanese dishes, attention to detail and an attractive presentation are paramount. In Japan bento is viewed as an art form that many Japanese people aim to perfect.
As springtime rolls around each year, the “Sakura Matsuri” (cherry blossom festival), a centuries-old celebration, occurs and people gather in parks, public gardens, and other popular viewing spots to gaze at the flowering blossoms, a perfect excuse for parties and picnics. Oftentimes, offices will hold large welcome gatherings for their employees. There is plenty of singing and music along with the feast of food, and in many places, “hanami” celebrations will spill over into the evening. When the sun has gone down, you can see paper lanterns hanging in tree branches and lighting up the “Yozakura” (night sakura).