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The Best of Bento Box: Japanese Traditional Lunchbox

June 4th, 2018


“Bento” (Lunchbox) is an indispensable form of meal in Japanese daily eating habits.
From a daily Bento to take to school or to work, or a special occasion Bento such as Hanami (cherry-blossom viewing), sports day, excursion, Bento brightens our life in various ways.
While food is best eaten when it’s freshly made. Bento is designed and carefully balanced so that it is delicious when it’s cooled.
The culture of a Bento is packed with wisdom handed down from ancient times, Japanese aesthetic sense and hand dexterity. Moreover, the word “Bento” is going abroad, spreading along with Japanese style lunch boxes.

When did this style of food begin?
Additionally, what is the origin of well-known Bentos such as “Hinomaru -bento” and “Makunochi-bento”?
Let’s begin the journey of approaching to the secrets of Bento.

What is the etymology of a “お弁当(Bento)”?

It is said that “お弁当(Bento)” originates from the Chinese language, “便當(Bento) “. 便當(Bento) is a coined word made in China during Southern Song Dynasty meaning “convenient” or “useful”. When this word was transmitted to Japan, Kanji such as “便道” “弁道” was applied.
In the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573 to 1603), it is said that the character “弁” was applied from the meaning “provide and allocate”.
The word Bento was originally from China, but Japanese sensibility was added and became today’s “お弁当(Bento)”.

What is the history of Bento?

1, Heian period (794 to 1185 A.C.)

The history of lunch boxes dates back to the Heian era.
When I introduced the history of Onigiri (rice ball), I introduced a portable meal called “Tonjiki” at the time.
In addition to the Tonjiki, dried cooked rice called “Hoshii” became also popular as a portable meal and was put in a small container while carried.
Surprisingly, Hoshii, dried rice can be preserved for 20 years. It can be eaten dried, or after soaked into the water for a while and was regarded as highly useful food among samurai worriers who protect nobility.

2, Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573 to 1603AC),

In the Azuchi-Momoyama period, a box-shaped tool called “Bento-bako (Lunchbox)” appears replacing what was wrapped in bamboo or bamboo leaf.
A word “Bento” was also listed as an item in the “Nippo Jisho” (Japanese = Portuguese dictionary) issued by the Jesuits.
Food was set into lacquer ware and box-shaped containers and was eaten at cherry-blossoms viewing and tea ceremonies.
The colors and designs were applied to the Bento boxes suggesting that the efforts were put to device more enjoyable meal and that they were not merely a box to carry food.

3, Edo period (1603 to 1868 A.C.)

In the Edo period, Gokaido, the five roadways were established throughout Japan, enhancing the movement of people, resulting in increasing number of people traveling and site seeing.
The Bento (lunch box) became more familiar along with people’s movement. People used to carry what is called “Koshi-bento (waist lunch box)”, a simple lunch tied around their waist to carry around.
Koshi-bento refers to a simple lunch, usually few Onigiri wrapped in bamboo leaf or bamboo basket.
Like today, many books showing how to make Bento were also published in the Edo period.
For ordinary people preparing for Hinamatsuri(Girls festival on 3rd March) and Cherry blossom viewing, these books contained written cooking methods, wrapping methods, and how to decorate lunch boxes in detail.
We can imagine people’s cheerful smiles opening up these Bentos.
In addition, “Makunochi-bento”, a lunch box that is still popular in modern times, was first appeared in the Edo period.

4, Meiji Period ( 1868 to 1912AC)

In Meiji period, eating out was not as common as today.
Therefore, those who went to work had brought “Koshi-bento”, the kind of lunch box that had existed since Edo period.
Schools did not have a cafeteria system at the time, so it was common for students to go to school with bento.
Bento boxes, made of aluminum or alumite coated with aluminum film, a more convenient, reasonable bento boxes were born.
It was also during the Meiji period when the railway was developed and the first “Eki-ben, (Station lunch box)” was sold.
Although there are various opinions, the first Eki-ben is said to be sold in 1885, when the Omiya–Utsunomiya railway was opened, one of the hotels in Utsunomiya started to sell Bento at the station.
Nowadays, various stations sell tastefully prevailed Bento. However, the Eki-ben at that time was very simple, two Onigiris (rice balls) and 2 pickles at 5 SEN (1SEN=1/100YEN, 1YEN=SGD0.012)
Not only Japanese-style Bento with rice and other side dishes but also western style lunch box with sandwich appears for the first time in Meiji period.

5, Showa Period (1926 to 1989)

As the development of the industry, plastic and jar type heat-retaining bento boxes were invented, enabling to carry a warm food as a freshly made meal.
Not only the Bento made at home but also the Bentos which we can buy at stores have progressed dramatically.
Bento specialty shop appeared and spread rapidly all over Japan in the franchise system.
Bentos were also sold at convenience stores. Using the microwave in the shop, we are able to0 eat warm Bento any time during the day.
Bentos are also sold at the supermarket’s side dishes section. It has become ordinary to buy Bento outside and eat at home.

Looking back on the history of Bento, we found that the development of Bento was accompanied by the development of people’s movement.
The opening of the Gokaido, the five roadways, and the opening of the railway has dramatically expanded the travel distance of people, and along with that, the demand for Bento also increased.
The modern luxurious Eki-ben (station lunch box) is no doubt delicious, but the first Eki-ben with just two Onigiri and pickles seems tasteful and interesting as well.

Various types of Bentos

There are several types of standard Bentos.
We are so used to these names that we casually use them but its origin and the characteristic, we don’t know so much.

1, Hinomaru-bento

The Hinomaru-bento was invented during World War II.
In 1939, the first day of each month was set up for Kowa Service Day in order to raise morale for the war. (Kowa Service Day was set as part of the campaign to fulfill the nation at the expense of one’s self. Hoisting of the national flag, shrine visits and labor services were done)
On this day, in order to remember the hardship of soldiers working on the battlefield, people were recommended to eat a simple meal.
From this reason, Hinomaru-bento, that overlays the image of the Japanese flag, placing just umeboshi (pickled plum) on white rice was invented.
Although such Bento already existed, the condition of wartime made the name “Hinomaru-bento” a buzzword at the time.
The Hinomaru-bento was particularly encouraged at elementary and junior high schools. But as it did not contain enough nutrients for the growing youth, some parents hid other food inside the rice.

2, Makunouchi-bento

It is said that the Makunouchi-bento was born during Edo period for people watching Noh and Kabuki. “Maku” means curtain in Japanese. The special bento was created and was named as such because it was eaten between the acts (Maku Ai).
After the Meiji period, the Makunouchi-bento becomes one of the styles of Eki-ben (station lunch box).
The typical Makunouchi-bento style is white rice in the shape of a bale, placed side by side, black sesame sprinkled and picked plum placed on the rice.
It is said that the rice in shape of a bale is the remnant that Onigiris (rice balls) were initially included in Bento.
For side dishes, it is common to fill a small portion of various ingredients without juice.
In particular, grilled fish, fried egg, kamaboko (boiled fish paste), fried food, pickles and simmered food are included in many Makunouchi-bento and are considered as typical side dishes.

3, Nori-bento

Nori-bento is a style where seaweed is used as a side dish.
The basic form of this bento comes in a bento box filled with rice topped with sheets of soy sauce seasoned seaweed.
Usually, seasoned bonito or seasoned kelp (tsukudani) are sprinkled before placing the seaweed.
The timing which Nori-bento was first created is uncertain. However, it is said to be during Edo period when production of seaweed began and become easily obtained by ordinary people.
The naming “Nori-bento” became widely known as a product name when in the 1980’s, “Hokka Hokkatei” which sells fresh take-away Bentos sold “Nori -bento”, with fish fly and tempura of Chikuwa at the time of establishment.
Because the ingredients are most commonly used items, Nori-bento is known as an inexpensive bento.

4, Shokad Bento

Shokad Bento is characterized by using a lunch box divided into sections by a separable cross-grid inset, and a high-edge covering lid.
In each section, sashimi, grilled dishes, simmered dishes, rice etc. are richly arranged. It is somewhat similar to the Makunouchi-bento but its origin is very different. The origin of Shokad Bento is found in Japanese haute cuisine, “Kaiseki”, a traditional dishes presented to the guest before the tea ceremony.
It’s relatively new bento, born after entering the Showa period.
The name “Shokado” is taken from the name of a Tea hut (house) which the Buddhist priest, Shojo established in the early Edo period.
Shojo got an idea from the cross-grid inset box in which the farmer used to hold seeds and used a sectioned boxed as a cigarette tray and a paint box for a tea ceremony.
Sometime later at the beginning of Showa period, the founder of “Kitcho”, known as a long-established Japanese cuisine, visited Shokado(the tea hut).
It is said that when the founder saw the Shojo’s “four-sectioned box”, it inspired him to use it for the arrangement of dim sum at tea ceremonies, and this was the beginning of Shokad Bento.
Because the box is sectioned with the cross grid, ingredients such as a simmered dish, grilled dish, sashimi, rice etc. are kept from mixing together. It allows us not only to enjoy the taste and scent of each dish but also to enjoy the beautiful presentation. Shokado is a container that unites beauty with a practical feature.

5, Kyara-ben (Character lunch box)

When preparing Bento for children, every mother puts their effort to devise an attractive presentation to make children happy for them to voluntarily eat dislike foods.
Kyara-ben, or character lunch box is a cute Bento popular for children nowadays. It is said that it first appeared in a book published in 1974 that showed how to make Bento.
In the book, directions on how to make octopus-shaped sausage and how to draw animals’ face and bicycle using seasoned minced chicken and seaweed on rice were written.
The book also showed how to make a three-dimensional car with bread, in which a small sign of today’s Kyara-ben can be seen.
Since then, “Kyara-bento” were introduced in various publications and newspapers submissions, but it gained tremendous popularity when the Kyara -ben recipes were exchanged among ordinary people through the internet.
There was a case where a housewife who is not a cooking professional introduced a daily Bento on her blog and was published as a recipe book.
SNS posts showing cute Kyara-ben is always very popular giving ideas on every day Bento making to the mothers.

Halal Bento : Multicultural, multi-religious corresponded bento

Now that Japanese style lunch boxes are spreading to the world as “Bento”, traditional Bento is enjoyed by people with diverse food culture and religion.
There are relatively few taboos in Japanese food, but if you look at the world, there are people with dietary restrictions such as vegetarians and those who follow Halal, avoiding pork and alcohol.
In order to serve Japanese Bento for those who visited Japan or for people abroad, Bento that correspond to multicultural and multi-religious are required.

“SAMURICE” is a rice ball and Bento specialty shop that use Japanese rice for its products and runs five outlets throughout Singapore. SAMURICE serves Bentos that can be enjoyed by vegetarians and people who follow Halal restrictions while leaving the authentic taste of Japanese food.
Devises to realize Japanese taste while corresponding to multi-religious includes changing soy sauce and sake essential for Japanese food to Halal- correspond soy sauce and sake, using mushrooms flavor instead of meat, substitute tofu for meat etc.
Singapore is a country where people with diverse nationalities and cultures gather.
At a business meeting for example, where all kinds of people gather, a lunch box that everyone can consume safely is desired.
SAMURICE will continue to strive on developing multi-cultural multi-religious corresponded Bento to expand Japanese Bento to the world.

SAMURICE’s Bento is available online.
ORDER ONLINE