Move over lunchbox, there's a new lunch box in town. Meet bento! In all fairness, bento is not technically new. It's quite old, dating all the way back to fifth century Japan. So what the heck is a bento box? I'm glad you asked. A bento is a single-portion packed meal common in Japanese cuisine. Long story short, it's a packed lunch in a lunchbox.
The term "bento" originated from a slang term meaning "convenient." Traditionally people working outdoors (whether in the fields, mountains, on fishing boats or in town) carried their lunches with them because they didn't have time to go home for meals. These boxed lunches typically contained staples such as white rice or potatoes. The boxes provided a simple, convenient way to carry food and to eat on the go.
As time went on, bento evolved from a matter of convenience to a culinary art in its own. Today it is not uncommon to find bento arranged in a style called kyaraben or "character bento," decorated to look like popular Japanese cartoon, comic book or video game characters. Another popular bento style is "oekakiben" or "picture bento," which is decorated to look like people, animals, buildings or natural elements such as flowers and plants. Contests are often held where bento arrangers compete to design the most aesthetically pleasing bento arrangements.
Modern Japanese bentos typically consists of rice, fish or meat and one or more pickled, cooked or raw vegetables. Although bento meals are readily available for purchase throughout Japan, everywhere from convenience stores to bento shops, train stations to department stores, it is still common for Japanese homemakers to spend time preparing bentos for the family each day.
A little closer to home, bentos have hopped the pond, popping up in offices and school cafeterias around the United States. My recent re-vegetarianism has affirmed a harsh reality: it can be a challenge to find fast, vegetarian-friendly lunches on the go. (And this "harsh reality" was all the confirmation I needed to give myself permission to begin shopping for a bento box of my own!)
Below you'll find a handful of the neato bentos (and bento accessories) I have found along the way...
Not sure you can turn rice balls into adorable pigs? No worries. Here are a couple "doable" bentos even the most amateur bento makers can assemble. Click the image for the recipe...