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What is a Bento Box?

A bento box adds fun and variety to lunchtime. Traditionally, these boxes combine a few elements of Japanese, Taiwanese, Chinese, or Korean cuisine to create a single portioned meal. 

Japanese food bento box with tonkatsu and tempura

Bento boxes have become a staple in Japanese culture since the 13th century. Nowadays, there are different takes on what should be included in these boxes.

These boxes or trays are designed with several compartments, each of which is allocated to a different part of the spread. They come in a variety of sizes with many that are suitable for children. 

Inside a traditional Japanese bento box, there will be spring rolls, gyozas, dumplings, and hand rolls. Ginger and wasabi are then used to enhance the flavor and salad and rice are served as side dishes.

Bento Boxes – what are they?

A traditional bento spread contains carbohydrates and also provides you with a source of protein whilst combining different tastes and textures.

Japanese Bento Box with Sushi Rolls, Salad and Main Course

It consists of a foundation of rice or noodles which are then accompanied by meat, fish, eggs, and cooked or pickled vegetables. The contents of a bento box balance nutrition and convenience. 

The Western world has had a lot of influence on what is included in modern bento boxes.  Though they can still be varied they usually include a sandwich and salad, fried potatoes, and a dessert of some kind.

Essentially, a bento box isn’t defined by what it contains but how it is presented. The aim is to pack each of the different elements into neat compartments inside a deep container or a tray. 

What are the different bento styles?

There are a few different styles of bento available.

bento box with sushi and rolls
bento box with sushi and rolls

Originating from Southern slang, the term ‘bento’, means convenient and the design intends to make lunch easier to enjoy. The concept behind the different styles of bento boxes reflects a certain occasion or season.

Perhaps the most popular style of bento is makunouchi. This is a term that is used to describe a box with two sections.

Whilst one side of the box contains rice, the other contains an assortment of accompanying dishes. These side dishes are usually bursting with color and can include eggs, meat, fish, vegetables, and some salad.

Kyraben is a bento-style that was originally aimed at children. The purpose of such a box was to encourage children to broaden their eating habits and palette by eating a more varied selection of foods.

The theme of the box is either animal-inspired or surrounds a character that is well known in the media. Whilst Kyraben bento boxes may add some fun to lunchtime, they can be rather time-consuming to create and require a lot of planning to bring the idea to life. 

Aisai Bento refers to a box that is specially made by a young woman who is in a relationship, for her significant other or for those that are married, their husbands.

The contents are usually of the sweet variety and some may even choose to add a sentimental note to the box before packing it. 

japanese Typical lunch box (bento)

Ekiben also known as ‘railway bento’ refers to a range of boxed meals that are specifically served in train stations or on trains.

The design of the boxes aims to make eating on the go an easy task and they will either be made from ceramic, plastic, or wood. Depending on what’s in the box, chopsticks may also be provided. 

A Shikaeshi bento does not have as nice a meaning as the other styles of Bentos that we have listed. This box is also referred to as the ‘’revenge lunchbox’’ and is sent by an angry or unhappy wife to her husband.

The meal inside will not be very appealing and in some cases, may even be regarded as inedible.

What are the steps involved in assembling a bento box?

Now that you know what is inside a bento box, you may be curious as to how you go about assembling one. Whilst bento boxes may look aesthetically pleasing, there are a few basic but traditional rules that should be followed. 

Bento for kids on bamboo mat korean style with chops
Bento for kids on bamboo mat korean style with chops

It is recommended that you add the dishes following a 4-3-2-1 ratio. Simply put, you want to add 4 parts rice and 3 parts of protein. Then add 2 parts of vegetables and 1 part treat.

Depending on who you are making the box for, this treat may be of the pickled vegetable or sweet dessert variety. 

You will likely find that your bento box calls for the use of a few ingredients but in smaller quantities.

Of course, the ingredients that you require will depend on your creative inspiration for the box and the theme that you are trying to emulate. 

When adding the dishes to the box you will likely find it beneficial to use dividers. This is because some foods have a tendency to run and with others, there is a risk of them sticking together. Using a divider will help you to retain the flavor of each item. 

If possible, you should also try and add color to your bento box, you can do this by making sure that the foods you add to each division are a different color.

Whilst the rice is white, the main is usually brown so you can then add some vegetables and other dishes that are green, yellow, orange, or red. Ideally, you should try and include a minimum of five colors.

Japanese Bento Box with deep fried pork cutlet (tonkatsu set), salad and sauce
Japanese Bento Box with deep fried pork cutlet (tonkatsu set), salad and sauce

When packing the box, the food should be tight. If there is too much leftover room, there is a risk of the food moving around.

When the recipient of your box goes to open it, they will be greeted by a rather messy mixture of food that you have dedicated a lot of time and effort into putting together.

Ensure that you select the appropriate sized box for your bento. If you are making one for a child, there are smaller types that you can purchase. Likewise, there are small adult bento boxes available that are going to be ideal for lighter lunches.

You may include foods in your bento box that can be reheated. In this case, you will need to keep all of the hot dishes together and all of the cold foods together. This will reduce the amount of time that you spend separating and preparing the food before eating.

Where are bento boxes available to purchase?

Bento boxes can be purchased from a variety of online retailers. The majority of bento boxes are made in Japan, in fact, they make approximately 5 billion boxes every year. Now, most are manufactured in Ishikawa Prefecture which is located in Japan. 

bento box

As we have mentioned, these boxes are available in a range of shapes and sizes. As such you can guarantee that you will be able to get a box in whatever shape you desire. Although molds tend to be used to create the boxes, they are then made more unique thanks to their original designs.

Of course, the size of the box that you require is going to depend on when you are going to be using it. If you need a box that is going to fit into a rucksack or a handheld bag then a rectangular box is going to be much easier to carry around.

If you have children they are bound to enjoy shopping through an exciting selection of fun-themed containers which they can take with them to school or on outings. 

There are many popular bento retailers. They include Bento&Co, a company that sells an array of affordable bento-related items at affordable prices, and Karma Bento, another popular retailer that is known for its practical but stylish bento products.

Monbento is another option. This brand creates elegant but convenient bento boxes and their products are made in France.

These are just a few examples of shops that stock and sell bento products. Remember that the list is endless, so you are bound to have luck in finding one whose products cater to your taste, needs, and budget.

It’s worth paying attention to the shipping policy too. Depending on where you are located and where the box is being manufactured, it may take some time to arrive. 

What is the history of bento boxes?

To some, bento may simply appear to be a way of packing a lunch so that it is neat and appealing, however, it means much more than this. It is considered to be an art form and is very much a part of Japanese culture. 

bento box with roll and salmon

It’s existed ever since the 1100s and has been referred to by different titles during this time. The Kamakura period began in 1185 and concluded in 1333.

At this time, bento was called Hoshi-ii, thus meaning cooked and dried rice. This meal was taken to work inside a bag and eaten as it was. 

These boxes were given the name bento during the Azuchi Momoyama period which lasted from 1568 to 1600.

By this time, the bags had been upgraded to wooden boxes that were coated in lacquer. They made it possible for people to transport a meal to different locations whilst looking stylish at the same time.

It was during the Meiji period (1868 to 1912) that the Ekiben boxes came into play. As rail transport became more popular, there was a greater need for food that could easily be eaten by those who were on the go.

The dishes included many regional favorites, however, as the demand for railway transport increased, the availability of these boxes decreased. 

Since this time, the design of bento boxes has evolved significantly. Also, the introduction of modern appliances like microwaves made it easier to cook different foods from home.

They are now readily available in the majority of convenience stores and they are no longer only popular in Japan but countries all over the world. 

Over the years, the style and concept of the bento box has changed quite considerably. Whilst there may be newer, more updated versions, the traditions and rules for packing bento boxes remain the same.

Today, bento boxes are used by adults to carry their food to work and children to take their food to school. You will often see them used on day trips too.

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Written by Brian Nagele

Brian has over 20 years experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry. As a former restaurant owner, he knows about running a food business and loves to eat and enjoy cocktails on a regular basis. He constantly travels to new cities tasting and reviewing the most popular spots.