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What Is Bento?

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  • Written By: Soo Owens
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 21 November 2016
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In Japanese cuisine, bento, or o-bento, refers to a well-balanced and visually striking meal that is packed in a box. Bento meals are usually placed in boxes that can be easily carried and are available in a number of sizes with numerous internal compartments. These meals traditionally include rice along with meat or fish that is packed with some cooked or pickled vegetables. Their use dates back to the Kamakura Period, while the corresponding boxes were not created until the Azuchi-Momoyama Period.

There are different types of bento, each fulfilling a different culinary need. Ekiben, short for ekibento, are sold at airports, train stations, and various other locations as portable, disposable box lunches that are usually filled with local fare. Kouraku bento is used for picnics and other outdoor events and contains enough food to feed a small group of people. Makunouchi bento is a more elegant, formal affair, usually arranged in a lacquered box and served at restaurants where it is eaten at a table.

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Bento can be carried in just about any box-like container, and boxes that are specifically designed for carrying these meals are called bento-bako. They can be large or small; wooden, plastic, or metal; and even multitiered for carrying stacks of food. The type of box used depends on what kind of meal is prepared and where the meal will be eaten. Children's versions are small, lightweight, and often display a picture of their favorite anime or manga character, while boxes used by workers are usually made from stainless steel

Kyaraben, or charaben, which translates as "cute bento," "art bento," or "entertain-bento," gained popularity following the turn of the 21st century. These elaborately prepared meals are small culinary works of art. They are designed to look like popular anime, manga, or video game characters. Oekakiben, or picture bento, is formed into images of architecture, animals, or people.

Carried lunches in Japan date back as far as the Kamakura Period, which began in 1185 and lasted until 1333. Hoshi-ii, which literally means "dried meal," first appears in this period. It was carried in a small bag and could be boiled or eaten without cooking. About 300 years later, the first lacquered wooden boxes, similar to modern versions, were created.

Throughout Japan's Edo Period, from 1603 to 1867, the practice of bento spread. Its techniques were refined, and cookbooks were written about what foods to make and how to cook and pack the food. Japanese who traveled often carried a koshibento, or "waist bento." These typically contained onigiri, or rice balls, carried in a bamboo box. During the Meiji Period, from 1862 to 1912, ekiben were sold in train stations to travelers, and students and teachers began carrying the boxes to school.

In the 1980s, bento returned to common use after microwave ovens and convenience stores became popular throughout Japan. Meals packed in polystyrene boxes are sold at most convenience stores and are easily disposed of after eating. Handmade bento is still a common sight at Japanese schools. It is also carried by workers as well as by families during trips, picnics, and other outdoor occasions. When a meal is made at home, the box is usually wrapped with cloth, called furoshiki.

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