Friday food treat: Bento boxes

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Bento boxes are meals packed in boxes, that have s number of different parts. It is reflective of Japanese meals – they often have a number of dishes on offer at a meal. The bento box is like a Japanese lunchbox with different compartments to hold the different dishes.

Traditional bento
Traditionally, rice or noodles, fish or meat, pickled or cooked vegetables filled the bento box. They are frequently put in hand-crafted laquerware.

Bentos can be purchased in convenience stores (of which there are many), railway stations, department stores or specialist bento box stores. If prepared at home, a lot of effort goes into preparing a bento box for a loved one. A former work colleague who lived in Tokyo for a time talked about expected standards in bento box preparation for school.

Today’s bentos
People can get carried away with presenting food in the images of Japanese animation, comic books or viedo games. The aesthetic appeal of food prepared with such attention to detail is not lost on the Japanese. It can become very competitive.

Origins of the bento box
Originally in the late Kamakura period (1185 – 1333) cooked and dried rice was developed to be carried to work. This was able to be soteed in a small bag. Later the wooden lacquered boxes were produced to carry the food and the the bento was eaten at tea parties (hanami). 

 In the Edo period (1603-1867) bento culture developed and spread. Travellers carried simple bentos with things like onigiri (rice ball) wrapped in bamboo leaves or in a bamboo box.

In the Meiji period, ekibento or train station bento was developed. These were sold with onigiri and takuan (pickeld daikon).

The Taisho period (1912-1926) saw the introduction of aluminium bento boxes. These were considered a luxury because they were easy to clean and silver-like in appearance.

The following Showa and Heisei periods (1980s) saw the advent of convenience stores and use of microwaves requiring  disposable and microwave friendly receptacles to be used.

Convenience and taste
The bento box has compartments to separate dishes from mixing together. This convenient method of storage enables the practical transportation of a meal with numerous tasty components. I used to think this was a great invention for school lunches. The effort involved in the preparation of elaborate presentation might leave busy parents wanting an easier solution though. Perhaps that will remain a distinctive feature of Japanese school lunches only?

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