What is Bento? Bento or Obento (pronounced “Ben-toe” or “O ben toe”) as most Japanese say, is a packed meal prepared to bring along with you when you are going out. Typically middle school and high school children bring Bento to school for lunch. Nowadays, you can buy various types of Bento at convenience stores and supermarkets. There are even stores that specialize in Bento. Colorfully packed with rice, vegetables, meat and/or fish, Bento is a well-balanced healthy choice of meal for all generations. The culture of Bento has been rooted deep in the daily lives of Japanese people. For travelers, Eki-ben, which is short for Eki Bento is highly recommended. Eki-ben is usually sold at major train stations all over Japan, and each is full of local delicacies. If you are not travelling to regional Japan, deli counters under major train stations in metro area carry excellent choices of Bento.
Now, let me first go back to the very basic and traditional form of bento and its symbolic meanings. The image of Bento and homemade cooking used to be more tightly knit in early days, but sadly not anymore. Our lives have changed and more and more Bento meals are bought at stores instead of made at home, especially for adults. Definition of Bento, once a symbol of home packed meal, has now a more general meaning: a packed meal either bought in stores or brought from home. Regardless of this change in life style, however, homemade Bento is still popular. When children begin kindergarten in Japan, they bring Bento from home for lunch. Many elementary schools have a large kitchen and nutritious lunch is prepared and served on site. The city pays for the utility and labor cost, and each household pays for the ingredients only. Children not just satisfy their appetite with school lunches, but also learn about food and different ingredients and have a chance to eat a calculated well balanced nutritious meal during the weekdays at school. Some communities continue the school kitchen program through middle school, but some don’t. Once the school kitchen program is over, Bento begins again. Bento for children in elementary schools represents a homemade lunch for special occasions: school sports day, school trips and excursions. Middle school students and high school students also bring Bento to school. Students’ life and Bento has an unbreakable connection and children are embraced in the love of their caretaker in the form of Bento throughout their youth. Obviously, when you grow up with Bento in your daily life like this, it never seizes to exist. Even as a grown-up, Bento at picnics with friends and family or short trip to the mountains makes an event an even more delightful one.
Due to the popularity of Bento, there are a lot of Bento related products sold in stores. A container for Bento is called Bento-bako, meaning lunch box. There are variations of Bento boxes for toddlers to adults, from classic designs to modern ones. They come in all sorts of sizes, forms, designs, color and functions: flat, round, square, rectangle, double deck, or even triple deck boxes. Thermos Bento box is now very popular. It keeps the food warm (or cold depending on the menu). Soup containers also rank high especially during the winter. You can have a cup of warm soup for lunch. Other than these boxes, there are also Bento carry bags, chopsticks and other utensils which come in perfect sizes to carry them with you.
Whatever the container shape may be, the most well-loved Bento comes with Japanese omelets, sausages in shape of an octopus, Japanese fried chicken which is called Kara-age, maybe a small portion of potato salad with a small tomato and a piece of boiled broccoli in the corner of the box to fill the gap. This is a typical image of a Bento, but the sky is the limit in what you put in there. The contents of Bento can tell you a story of that person who brings it, not to mention that it also can be a topic for conversation after school. Children look into their friends’ lunch box at school and see what you have never seen in your own Bento before. They come home to tell their parents what they want to have in their Bento for the following day.
Besides the fact that the word Bento tends to associate with an image of “mother” or “love”, there are some unique Japanese words related to Bento that I would like to introduce.
Haya-ben: Bento that you eat before lunch, because you are too hungry to wait.
Chara-ben: Bento with cartoon characters designed with food, created by highly skilled mothers.
Aisai-Bento: Bento made for a husband by his beloved wife.