Ever since childhood, we all have carried the fond memories of home-cooked food, lovingly packed in lunch boxes by our elders. Even the elders have almost always carried it to their offices way to good health but also a link to our family away from homes. But this is not a very well known fact that this whole culture of packing cooking, beautifully arranging and then packing the food is actually an art, not just in our own culture but in many other cultural histories worldwide. One of them is Japan’s Bento. Bento is a name for boxed lunch in Japan. it is a traditional home-packed meal consisting of rice, fish, meat, cooked vegetables etc. in a (traditionally) wooden box. The food is a rage among the Japanese due to its beautiful presentation, variety of food items, easy to cook contents and stomach full quantity. The Bento boxes are easily available throughout Japan in convenience stores, at railway stations and in special bento shops. Besides, the bento is popular among the households of japan where children carry Bento boxes to school while adults carry them to their work places.
Bento, nowadays has begun to be prepared with a modern touch in a style called Kyaraben. In Kyaraben, the food is arranged and decorated to resemble a famous character out of Japanese fiction, comics, movies, manga and video games. Popular ones could be the pokemon and the various video game heroes which almost every child would like to have on his or her plate! As obvious, it has gained popularity with children who earlier used to fuss around with food!
Oekakiben is another bento innovation. It means picture Bento. This is prepared when food items are adorned and arranged to look like people, animals, buildings and monuments, flora etc. The concept of Bento is similar to that in India with the name Tiffin, in Korea by the name Dosirak and in Philippines by the name Baon.
The art of Bento originated in 1185 in japan during the Kamakura period. It was during the Kamakura period itself (1185 to 1333) when the cooked rice called Hoshi-ii was prepared for the first time in japan. Hoshi-ii was the cooked and dried rice. It can be eaten as is or boiled with water to make cooked rice. The during the 1568 to 1600 i.e. in the Azuchi-Momoyama Period wooden boxes like today’s were made and the bento or the boxed lunch was enjoyed during the Fower Viewing called Hanami or the tea Ceremony called the Cha No Yu. The bento became even more popular as a boxed lunch culture in Japan in the seventeenth century during the Edo Period when the travelers began to carry along with them waist bento that is, koshibento on their trips. This contained some rice balls/triangles called onigiri wrapped in bamboo leaves or stored in box weaved with bamboo. Japan is famous for its drama called Noh and Kabuki and another style of Bento art that became popular in this time was the makuno-uchi, prepared between the acts of the play. After the popularization of boxed lunch culture, Japan was soon flooded with books and instruction manuals telling how to prepare for, cook and decorate a bento for occasions like Hanami and Hinamasturi.
The first ever Bento sold in the train station was during the Meiji period in the nineteenth century. It was called the eki bento or the station-bento. Historical recored even claim that the ekibento was first sold on 16 July 1885, at the Utsunomiya railway station. It has two onigiri and a serving of takuan wrapped in bamboo leaves. During those times in Japan, early schools did not provide lunch so mostly students and teachers carried boxed lunch from their homes, the bento. Similarly, employees also carried bento from home to their workplaces. During the same time, a bento containing sandwiches also began to be sold and was callled the European style bento.
Then the aluminum bento box was introduced in the Taisho Period in the twentieth century japan. It was still a luxury of its ease of cleaning and its silver look. During the same time, income inequalities spread all over Japan during the war periods and thus a bento began to be an indicator of a student’s wealth in school. It was felt that a bento rich with food on one hand and another one with basic items affected children both physically by the kind of diet and psychologically by the make of the bento. Therefore, after the post World War II period, the practice of carrying boxed lunch to the school began to decline. Same kind of food began to be provided to all students and teachers in school.
Bento actually regained its popularity in the last quarter of the twentieth century when the convenience stores sprung up and microwaves began to be essential in the households. Moreover, the expensive wood and metal boxes gave way to very cheap and easily available as well as quickly disposable polystyrene boxes. The bento has now, made yet another comeback in schools and offices and the ones made at home are wrapped in a furoshiki cloth, which is both, a bag and also becomes a table mat. Now a days even the airports have begun to serve bentos to offer local japanese cuisine to the passengers and to popularize the bento culture, japan holds annual festivals and contests to award the aesthetically most beautiful bento.