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Bento - Japanese Food

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Bento is the Japanese version of a packed lunch, usually taken to work and school by adults and schoolchildren alike, as a convenient and nutritious meal. Traditionally, it is a meal divided into two parts: one half of the box will be filled with rice, and the other half will be filled with a variety of accompanying foods, such as vegetables, fish, eggs, or meat. A well balanced bento will consist of rice to side dishes in a 1:1 ratio, and within the side dishes a 1:2 ratio of fish/meat to vegetables.

Common side dishes can include:

  • Tamagoyaki - Omelette strips (or squares) cooked with salt and sugar
  • Fried or scrambled eggs
  • Sausages
  • Fava beans
  • Seafood - fish, octopus, eel, Kishu fish soaked in vinegar, shrimp, prawns
  • Sushi rice
  • Lotus root
  • Boiled burdock, wrapped in a slice of anago (sea eel)
  • Bamboo shoots
  • Steamed, boiled or pickled vegetables
  • Umeboshi1 - A pickled apricot, a long-standing traditional bento box-dweller, considered to keep the rice from going bad. It can be placed inside a rice ball, or just on top of a bed of rice.

For dessert, a piece of fruit, such as an apple or a tangerine, is usually eaten.

The person who prepares the bento will usually make it while they are preparing a larger main meal, perhaps in the evening, and choose foods which will stay fresh the longest and that will be good to eat later. Japanese people also place a lot of importance on the presentation of their food, and spend time arranging it in aesthetically pleasing ways. For example, cutting up a sausage so that it resembles an octopus, or a spaceship.

History of Bento

The word bento is said to have originated from a 16th Century military commander called Odo Nobunaga (1584-1632) who fed the large numbers of people that inhabited his castle by handing out simple meals to each individual. The word was created to describe the small convenient meal.

However, Nobunaga did not begin the trend, he just seemed to make it more solid as a feature in Japanese culture. Bento can be traced as far back into Japanese history as the 5th Century, when people who spent all day working away from the home (hunting, farming, fishing or fighting) needed something nutritious that they could prepare quickly to take with them as they travelled.

One of Japan's oldest historic records, Nihon Shoki's Chronicles of Japan describes how falconers used to use feed sacks to carry their lunch in as they went out hawking. And Ise Monogatari's 10th Century collection of lyrical stories, Tales of Ise contains illustrations of people eating dried (either uncooked, or rehydrated later with hot or cold water) rice during trips. The meals they took were based around a staple diet of white rice, rice mixed with millet, or potatoes, depending on what foods were available to them at the time, or the region that they lived in.

Later, during the Edo period (1603-1868), people took bento as a meal to venues such as the theatre and other outdoor trips. Makunouchi bento (small rice balls sprinkled with sesame seeds, and assorted side dishes) first made its appearance during this era, serving less as a practical necessity, and more as a part of leisure time (makanouchi refers to the interval in the play, and bento refers to the fact that it was eaten during this time.) From this time forth, bento served on special occasions (such as during celebrations in the home, Buddhist ceremonies and entertaining private guests) evolved into a unique, sophisticated art form.

The two factors of food (practicality and entertainment) came together during the Meiji period (1868-1912) of Japanese history, a time of modernisation much similar to the industrialisation of Britain. The Japanese railway system came into being at that time, making commuting to employment a factor of many people's lives. The first ekiben ('station' bento) appeared around 1885 consisting of rice balls with apricot inside (or rather, umeboshi) and were reportedly sold at Utsunumiyo station in Togichi Prefecture. Ekiben are still sold at Japanese train stations to this very day.

Bento in Modern Japanese Culture

In modern Japanese culture, bento is consumed at work, on picnics, at home, at school and even at private parties, as they offer a simple, convenient and attractive form of hospitality. They are also served at Japanese restaurants as a form of take-out, so customers can enjoy the taste of their favourite chefs in the comfort of their own home.

As in Western schools, Japanese schools sometimes provide lunch for their students, or require them to bring their own to eat during a lunch period. These are usually prepared by the children's mothers, but as women are gradually moving out from their traditional role in the home and into the job sector, some students like to prepare their bento themselves.

Because of this break from tradition, modern consumerism has found its way into the bento market: ready-made boxes being available in department stores, supermarkets and convenience stores, all ready for the student or the individual on his or her way to work to purchase and take with them. There are even shops specifically dedicated to selling bento as a take-out option. Besides the consistently popular makunouchi bento, different varieties such as Western and Chinese bento are also available.

Ekiben have also remained consistently popular, running alongside the remarkably efficient Japanese railway system as a means for the rush hour travellers to pick up something to eat even if they are late for work. Two to three thousand different kinds of bento are sold at railway stations throughout Japan. Alongside the makunouchi bento and sushi bento there are many different kinds of food available for every type of customer. Before the arrival of the world-famous Shinkansen (bullet train) and special express trains, bento was sold right through open windows to the travellers inside the train as it passed through the stations. The vendors carried the boxes in trays supported by straps over their shoulders for convenience. But now, because of stricter schedules, faster trains, and unopenable windows, they are only sold in stations. Still, it remains one of the unique features of Japanese travel.

Bento Boxes

Originally, bento was wrapped, not boxed, in natural materials such as oak, magnolia and bamboo leaves. Later, it became more practical (and perhaps more fashionable) to use wooden boxes as containers. In some regions, fancy boxes were made out of weaved thin strips of bamboo or willow, or by bending wood into shapes. These methods are still used today, and then sold as examples of traditional handiwork.

During the Edo period, the aesthetic value of presentation of food became important, and so the boxes that bento was packed in reflected this social trend. Prosperous merchants would pack tiered boxes with varieties of their favourite foods to enhance activities such as flower viewing and theatre trips.

Popular traditional box shapes can include:

  • Hangetsu (half-moon) - This shape was reputedly favoured by Sen No Rikyu who established the art of the tea ceremony in the Momoyama period (1573-1603). The shape is said to be designed to contribute to the meal, so the eater can experience the bento with all five senses.

  • Chabako (tea box) - Chabako is used to hold the apparatus used for open air ceremonies.

  • Shokado - These were inspired by the partitioned paint boxes that early Edo period monk and painter, Shokado Shojo used. They usually consist of a box divided into four equally sized compartments.

In places that do not need to concentrate on the transportation or conservation of the food, the focus on the bento box is a much different one; the emphasis being placed upon the serving of the food as a creative, compact and elegant act. In Japanese restaurants, boxes are used to serve individual portions of kaiseki ryori2, and exquisite food served at sit-down parties.

Modern bento boxes can be made from a variety of materials, including wood, anodised aluminium, and plastic, and are usually of a rectangular, oval or circular shape. Popularity of which shape or material is carried can depend on the latest fashion (the popular Japanese cartoon figure 'Hello Kitty' has branched out into every available corner of the consumer market, and provides matching accessories to the boxes they manufacture), or indeed just how it is to be transported by the owner. The wide range of boxes available today can be watertight, and include vessels for liquids and hot food, quite similar to the Western packed-lunch box.

Preparing and Packing Bento

Because bento is a dish that is eaten a considerable amount of time after it is cooked, any food that is used in the meal is chosen and prepared carefully. Perishable foods that do not store well or go bad easily, are never used, and any excess liquid is eliminated from what is used. Raw fish is not included, unless previously soaked in vinegar. Most foods are boiled, grilled or deep fried and when stored, cut up into small pieces to make eating it in public a little easier, where social graces come into the process of eating a lot more than they do at home.

A feature of bento that separates Japanese culture from Western culture, is the ideal of aesthetics. Food presentation is considered extremely important as part of the meal. So, to ensure a good impression when the box is opened, the visuals of the food used are chosen carefully: using bright colours, and arranging them in an attractive manner. Bamboo leaves are used to separate different foods, so the tastes don't blend, and the box is packed as full as possible, so that the food doesn't get damaged in transit. Makes you wonder what exactly we are all doing when we find ourselves at McDonalds, doesn't it?

1Apricots, peaches and umeboshi are three different species of Prunus, and so umeboshi are a third kind of fruit, different from both western plums and western apricots. 2Kaiseki ryori is a traditional menu comprising many courses, each carefully chosen to complement each other, all of which reflecting those foods currently in season. As a consequence, the kaiseki ryori menu changes four times a year to coincide with the changing seasons.

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