Culture for Lunch: Japanese Bento

There’s more to life than language. Food, for instance, brings people together in ways that words can’t. We don’t have to speak the same language or have the same values as someone else in order to appreciate and enjoy the food that represents his or her culture. That being said, food is a great way to learn new words—or if you’re already learning a language, put your new vocabulary into practice—and celebrate cultural diversity. Today I’d like to take a look at Japanese food culture and explore the lunchtime staple know as a bento.

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A “bento” (or “o-bento,” using the honorific prefix “o”) is a meal packed into a box. Bent originated as simple packed meals, such as rice balls (or onigiri) carried by travelers, but over time they became more and more elaborate. Much like boxed lunches in other parts of the world, bento are usually made at home to be eaten at school or work for lunch.   A traditional bento holds rice, fish or meat, with pickled or cooked vegetables, usually packed into a bento box, or bento-bako. Over the duration of my time making bento lunches, I have amassed a rather large collection of cute and girly bento boxes. As many bento enthusiasts can attest, finding new interesting boxes can be a bit addictive: you’ve been warned.

It should be noted though, not all bento are homemade. Many shops sell them; convenience store chains are constantly developing new varieties. Train station bento (called eki-ben) will generally reflect the area in which it is bought, either through the dishes served, or the box in which it is contained.

My favorite variety of bento, due to the fact that I have a profound love for all things kawaii (cute) is the character bento or kyaraben. This style is defined by the stylistic arrangement of food to look like people, cartoon characters, animals and plants. Originally, kyaraben were intended to interest children in their food and to encourage a wider range of eating habits. It has now evolved to the point where national contests are held.

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I can’t say my attempts at bento making have yielded results as striking as those of seasoned Japanese mothers who can create art on a canvas of food, but with practice I’ve been able to make decent looking—and delicious tasting—lunches. It’s a special thing to be able to get a picky child to eat vegetables cut into heart and star shapes while at the same time embarrassing the heck out of one’s husband by packing him a similarly cute looking bento lunch for work. I’ve also been able, again after much practice, to add a few new “regulars” to my usual meal rotation like filled onigiri in both the traditional triangular shape and some animal variations.

Would I like to learn Japanese? Yes, at some point it would be nice to be able to watch anime that hasn’t been subtitled or dubbed over, but like just about everyone else I find myself with too much to do and too little time in which to do it. For now, a fun and practical way to enjoy Japanese culture that can be enjoyed by my household is through food. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a panda onigiri in the kitchen that’s calling my name.

What do you think of bento style lunches? They’ve become popular with many people of other countries for their aesthetics, smaller portion sizes, and as a way to save money compared to buying food from a restaurant or convenience store. Are bento lunches right for you?