What are bento?
Japanese bento is a similar concept to a western ‘packed lunch’, which traditionally contains rice or noodles, some meat or fish, plus cooked and pickled vegetables in a box for one person. These are either prepared at home and taken to eat at work, at school or while travelling, or they can be bought ready-made as a takeaway from convenience stores, street vendors, department stores and train stations. The word bento translates as convenient, but in Japanese culture the aesthetics are really important.
The containers are also called bento and can be anything from single-use disposable plastic to aluminium, ceramic or beautiful hand-crafted lacquered boxes. They have separate compartments inside to prevent each food element from getting mixed up. Some unique containers are intended to be kept as souvenirs for travellers.
A lot of time and effort can go into preparing bento and in Japanese culture the onus is on the mother to provide a nutritionally balanced meal that is also pleasing on the eye for her child to take to school. Very often the food will be made the night before and then assembled in the morning before school.
Types of bento
There are many different types of bento, from the simplest ‘Noriben’ – nori seaweed dipped in soy sauce on a bed of rice; to elaborate ‘Kyaraben’ for children, where the food is made to look like cute characters from Japanese animation or comic books. ‘Ekiben’ are sold predominantly at railway platforms and come with a disposable spoon or chopsticks and were designed for long train journeys. Typically, these contain rice, grilled fish, fish cakes and pickles but can vary regionally.
Versions of bento are also popular in other Asian countries such as Korea, Philippines, Thailand and Taiwan. Hawaii has also adopted their own style following years of Japanese influence.
How to artistically arrange your own bento
Create your own artistic bento box by following these simple guidelines:
- The foods you choose should be easy to eat with chopsticks, a spoon or your fingers. Put your Kikkoman Soy Sauce for dipping in a mini screw top jar – the ones that single-serve preserves come in are perfect.
- Portions should be bite-sized and packed closely and neatly together to save space.
- Bento box meals should be as colourful as possible, so vegetables and even fruit could be used to brighten the dish.
- Arrange each snack by shape and colour. Round and square items and complimentary colours (green and red, blue and orange, violet and yellow) go best together.
- Get as creative as you like! Cut cucumbers into stars or form the rice into animal shapes. Muffin cases, biscuit cutters and silicone moulds are popular tools for creating that special look.