Brief Overview of Japanese Bento
Japanese Lunch Box, “Bento”
Bento is a kind of portable food and is the equivalent of one meal. It can be classified broadly into two kinds: Homemade and ready-made bento which is on sale. Custom of carrying cooked food is found worldwide. Examples of the simplest kind include tsampa of Tibet. India has the custom of carrying chapati and curry in stackable containers called dabbawala while United States (mainland) has the custom of carrying a light sandwich with peanut butter and jam (called peanut butter and jelly sandwich) and fruit in a lunch box.
Japanese White Rice is an Essential Part of Bento
Japan has a long history of bento, and its development has been unparalleled in the world's history of bento. Probably this is because Japonica-origin rice (generally eaten in Japan) tastes relatively good even when it becomes cold (after cooked) unlike india-origin rice. Traditional Japanese bento comes with rice, seafood, and meat as a side dish, and tsukemono (Japanese pickled vegetables) like umeboshi (pickled ume (plum) as a relish. Bento filled with rice ball or rice stuffed with sushi is also popular. The portable container used to put ingredients in is called a 'lunchbox.'
Bento is Available Everywhere Anytime
Traditional Japanese bento is prepared by each family. Preparing bento used to be one of the most important roles for housewives. During the Meiji period, in Japan, railway stations started to sell bentos, and supermarkets and the outlet stores started to sell them after World War II. In Japan, a bento store (vendor) which specialized in takeout bento or convenience stores emerged from the late 1980's to the 1990's. Then, the number of people who purchased ready-made bento from these stores increased. Suppliers that deliver bentos to convenience stores operate 24 hours a day. Some suppliers make hundreds of thousands of bentos a day. There are also many catering restaurants and fancy Japanese-style restaurants that can respond to events such as group tours or memorial services (Buddhist service) where large quantities of and certain levels of luxurious diet bentos are required.
Bento became Widespread to the Asian Countries
Also, when neighboring nations were annexed by Japan, bento culture was spread outside Japan. In Taiwan, the custom of using bento including Ekiben (box lunch sold on trains or at stations) took root there when the nation was governed by Japan. Therefore, there are now many bento stores in urban area and on National Routes which are prosperous. It is thought that the spread of Bento in Taiwan is partly because the rice variety such as Chi Shang rice, similar to Japanese rice, was introduced. Unlike Taiwan, South Korea does not have many bentos available except Ekiben (called dosirak). Even so, bentos are sold in convenience stores.
Documentary of Bento of Japan (27:12)
History of Bento
Bento History Started from Heian Period (794-1185)
The origin of bento goes back to the Heian period. At that time, besides 'tonjiki' (egg-shaped glutinous rice ball), cooked dried-rice called 'dried boiled rice ('干し飯' (ほしいい or '糒' - ほしいい) was used as a potable food. Dried boiled rice could be kept in a small container, and could be eaten as is or after cooked in water. After the Azuchi-Momoyama period, a lacquer lanchbox that can still be found Today was introduced. After that, bentos came to be used for occasions like cherry blossom viewing or a tea ceremony.
Popular Makunouchi-Bento appeared in Edo Period (1603-1868)
During the Edo period when nationwide peace was maintained, bento became a wide ranging and a graceful culture. Travelers and tourists prepared a simple 'packed lunch' to carry around. Packed lunch was a set of rice balls wrapped in bamboo sheath or placed in a bamboo basket. Makunouchi-bento' is still popular and which also emerged in the Edo period. There is a theory that the name Makunouchi-bento comes from the fact that people who saw Noh and Kabuki (traditional drama performed by male actors) enjoyed this special bento during intervals (between acts), that is, Makuai, and this theory is widely accepted.. It is said that many how-to books on bento were published during that time. These books covered the detailed and specific instructions on how to cook, wrap, and decorate bentos intended for people who prepared for the Doll Festival or cherry blossom viewing.
Ekiben (Box Lunch of the Train) appeared in Meiji Period
Unlike Today, during the Meiji period when school lunches were not available and the food service business had not been well developed, government officials working at administrative institutions still went to work carrying a packed lunch like ones used during the Edo period. Therefore, a low-paid lower ranked government official was called 'packed lunch.' Because schools in the Meiji period did not provide school lunches, students and teachers had to bring their own bentos. At this time, the first Ekiben (box lunch sold on trains or at stations) were put on sale. There are several theories regarding where Ekiben was started. Therefore it is not certain when, but it has been estimated that Ekiben were started from the late 1870's to the early 1880's. Initial Ekiben was quite simple as it included only rice balls and takuan (pickled radish) wrapped in a bamboo sheath. At this time, a European style bento like sandwich came to be available.
Bento played very Important Roll in School Lunch
In the Showa period, an anodized aluminum lunchbox was developed. The lunchbox was bright silver as described in the novel "Twenty-Four Eyes Trailer" written by Sakae TSUBOI, and furthermore maintenance was easy. So it became the envy of people of that time. When many elementary schools used a stove as a heating appliance, anodized aluminum lunchboxes brought to school were directly placed onto the stove in order to keep it warm or heat it up. After World War II, lunch at school was replaced by school lunches that came to be available for all students and teachers in schools. This gradually reduced the custom of bringing bento to school. Today, however, school lunch system was abolished in some areas due to the public administration's effort to reduce the cost. Then, the custom of bringing bento from home is said to have been revived.
Ekiben became Diversified and More Attractive
In the 1970's, with the help of the Discover Japan campaign launched by the Japan National Railways (JNR), the number of tourists who used the railway increased. With this increase, Ekiben became diversified by using local products, local dishes, or something related to a particular tourist spot. Vendor that delivered bentos to small businesses which did not have their own cafeteria became popular. During that time, a jar type thermos lunchbox was developed and sold. The spread of this type of lunchbox allowed one who brought bentos to their workplaces or schools to enjoy a warm bento. However, this type of lunchbox was disadvantageous in that it was too large to put in a bag. Therefore, one had to carry a lunchbox over one's shoulder besides a bag in order to have a warm bento at lunchtime. There was also the problem if dropping a lunchbox, it would damage what was inside.
Take Out Bento and Convenience Store Bento Swept the Country
From the late 1970's to the 1980's, Bento reappeared in new markets. One was the rise of takeout bento (so-called Hokaben). It is notable that Hokka-Hokka Tei founded in 1976 dramatically increased its sales using the franchise system. The other were the sales at convenience stores that had spread rapidly. Its sales point was you could warm a bento in a microwave oven there to eat. Meanwhile, bentos also became available on sozai corner (selling corner of daily dish) at supermarkets. These created a new trend of 'taking a bento home to eat.' Then number of vendors who came to sell lunches to the inner city, with few dining halls, increased rapidly. Bento businesses boasting warm bento delivered at specified times also became available. In response to such a move, heat-resistant plastic lunchbox gradually replaced metal lunchbox typified by a packed meal in an oversized lunch-box.
Evolutions of Bento Style has arisen in Heisei Period
In the 1990's when the Heisei period started, convenience stores as well as warm bentos became popular in local areas, Ekiben heated by chemical reaction became available. Since about 2003, soraben (box lunch sold at airports) had been experiencing a boom. Passengers eat it while waiting to board their airplane. Since about 2005, kyara-ben (character bento), bento with love (mainly from mother to child) had become prevalent. Since about 2007, low-priced 250 YEN bento had been available in shops along the street, and became prevalent in the center of metropolitan areas where economically sensible. Low-priced bentos had been available before 2007, but it was these days that this type of bento was established as one of the categories. In 2008, due to the recession, the number of people who brought their own bento increased in an effort to cut corners. That year spawned a new word 'bento boy' which meant a single man who prepared bento by himself. Furthermore, the thermos lunchbox developed and released in the 1970's further evolved, and it was not what used to be (large lunchbox of a decade ago) but a new type of thermos lunchbox slim enough to slip into a man's bag. In recent years, colorful and fancy downsized thermos lunchboxes for woman are appearing.
Makunouvhi-Bento is an Origin of Modern Bento
Makunouchi-bento is a type of bento (lunch box) with white rice and several accompanying dishes. As the word "Makunouchi-bento" has a history of several hundred years, there are various theories as to its detailed definition and features. The history of bento themselves is long, and if a bento is defined as meals to go, its origin is not known. Records show that there was such a practice in Japan in the fifth century at the latest. The origin of bento with white rice and accompanying dishes is not clear, either. It is considered to be the mid Edo period that people started to call the bento consisting of white rice and accompanying dishes, which is more well-prepared than just rice balls, 'Makunouchi-bento.'
Makunouchi-Bento was created in Kabuki Theatre or Sumo Match
It was around this time that the original form of Japanese-style restaurants was established and they started to prepare and sell bento. They targeted audiences who came to see theatrical plays as well and their bento were provided to the places for entertaining guests such as tea houses called Shibai jaya which were located inside theaters. The bento were eaten during the intermission, makuai or makunouchi in Japanese, which resulted in the name 'Makunouchi-bento.' There are other explanations for the origin of the name: one is that makunouchi means 'behind curtains,' describing where actors ate their bento. Another is that as Komusubi (a sumo wrestler of the fourth highest rank) is one of Makunouchi-rikishi (wrestlers in the senior division), people came to call the bento with small rice balls (which can be called Komusubi in Japanese) Makunouchi-bento. There is an opposing theory that as sumo-jaya (sumo teahouse) served similar kinds of bento to the sumo audiences, the word "makunouchi" was brought to the world of sumo such as Makunouchi-rikishi, but objections exist to this theory, too.
Makunouchi-Bento still plays mainstream of Japanese lunch Box
Containers such as tiered food boxes were frequently used to serve Makunouchi-bento, but also used were disposable boxes made of paper-thin sheets of wood like the ones of the present time. After the Meiji period, Makunouchi-bento spread as one style of ekiben (a bento sold on a train or at a station). Being sold as an ekiben meant that containers could not be collected, which contributed to the rapid spread of using disposable paper-thin wood boxes. However, as a Makunouchi-bento was the typical and standard type of bento, people did not always call it 'Makunouchi-bento,' but just called it bento or obento, a boxed lunch. In the late 20th century, ekiben tended to feature local specialties as well as specific ingredients but Makunouchi-bento remain popular. Now bento are available at convenience stores and Makunouchi-bento make up a certain part of the section. Makunouchi-bento, although inconspicuous, continue to be appreciated as the mainstream of the boxed lunch.
White Rice is an Essential of Makunouchi
Generally, white rice is used. There are different opinions on whether to categorize bento with takikomi-gohan (rice cooked with other ingredients) or maze-gohan (cooked rice with added ingredients) as Makunouchi-bento. A traditional Makunouchi-bento has barrel-shaped rice balls sprinkled with sesame (mainly black sesame) lining inside the box. The reason for this is probably because it started with rice balls. Recently, Makunouchi-bento with real rice balls are rarities, as they usually have white rice embossed with a barrel-like shape and sometimes sprinkled with black sesame, dried seaweed or tsukudani (small fish, shellfish, konbu, etc. boiled in sweetened soy sauce) and so on.
Makunouchi-Bento consists of Varied Accompanying Dishes
Makunouchi-bento usually have a varied assortment of accompanying dishes, which do not contain much moisture, each in a small amount. In particular, broiled fish, a Japanese style omelet, kamaboko or fish sausage (the above together are sometimes called the three sacred imperial treasures of Makunouchi-bento), deep-fried food, Japanese pickles and boiled and seasoned food can be seen in many Makunouchi-bento as they are the typical accompanying dishes of Makunouchi-bento. Those with a hamburger, an omelet or sausage are often called Western style Makunouchi-bento. Some bento feature local specialties or luxurious food as accompanying dishes and are often named after these featuring dishes, but in reality, they can often be categorized as Makunouchi-bento.
Similar Shokadi-Bento is originated from Kaiseki Cuisine
Shokado-bento have a similar style with a combination of white rice and accompanying dishes. However, a Shokado-bento is a newer style bento which was developed in the early Showa period. Their origins are very much different: while the Makunouchi-bento was developed from Honzen ryori (full-course haute cuisine), the Shokado-bento arose out of Kaiseki ryori (tea-ceremony dishes).