Think Outside the Lunchbox: Meet the Japanese Bento Box,Your Creative Lunch On-the-Go

by Samantha Suarez | photography by David Specht

If you’ve ever eaten at a Japanese restaurant, you’ll know that presentation is a huge part of Japanese cuisine, and the bento box is no exception.

Simply speaking, a bento box is a Japanese lunch box that comes with many small compartments. The term “bento” apparently derives from a Chinese word meaning “convenient,” which is appropriate since bentos can carry a variety of food in one chic rectangular container you can bring on-the-go. 
Beyond the aesthetic of the box itself, what differentiates the bento from just bringing a PB&J sandwich to work with you in a Batman lunch box is the artistic preparation and the sectioned-off balance of ingredients.

A proper bento is crafted with care and should contain a complete, single-serving meal with a variety of tastes, colors, textures, and food groups. The most traditional setup holds rice or noodles, some form of protein (usually fish or meat), and pickled and/or cooked vegetables, all in one lovely container.
These containers can range from disposable and mass-produced to stylish, reusable, handcrafted containers made of bamboo, lacquered wood, or some other material.

 

WHAT’S IN THE (BENTO) BOX?!

Bento boxes have recently become a culinary fascination in the United States – and it’s easy to understand why. For health nuts, they are a form of portion control that is pleasing to the eye, since the different compartments facilitate a balance of food groups. For foodies, they are a fun way to indulge in Japanese culture. For the everyday person, they are an eco-friendly and cost-effective way to pack a pretty lunch without resorting to anything unhealthy, like heating instant mac and cheese in the office microwave. The most colorful foods, after all, are usually fruits and vegetables!

“A proper bento is crafted with care and should contain a complete, single-serving meal with a variety of tastes, colors, textures, and food groups.”

Jordan Han, manager of Jaku Sushi & Grill on the East Beltline, is no stranger to bento boxes, both in the premises of his restaurant and in the comfort of his home.

“I have my own bento lunch boxes that I bought from Amazon,” he told Women’s LifeStyle. “I like when my food is clean cut and perfectly sectioned off. It helps me stay organized and encourages me to not overeat.”

Unlike most other Japanese restaurants in town, Jaku Sushi offers their bento boxes all day long, not just for lunch.

“We have an Unagi Bento, which has grilled eel, rice, tempura, edamame, and comes with a soup or salad. Many of our other bentos are of a similar format, but with a different meat, like our Bulgogi Bento, which is marinated Korean beef,” Han said. “There’s also the Tonkatsu Bento, which is a Japanese breaded pork cutlet. Our Sushi Bento probably has the most variety. It comes with salmon and tuna nigiri, a sushi roll, edamame, gyoza, and salad.”

A BENTO BOX OFFICE HIT

While enjoying an authentic, delicious bento at a Japanese restaurant is a wonderful experience, you can also enjoy a Japanese-style lunch by traveling to your kitchen!

“In America, you mostly see bento boxes in restaurants, but in Japan, they are a prominent part of everyday life,” Han explained. “There are different bento boxes for specific situations. School-specific bentos for kids, for example, usually have things like hotdogs or eggs.”

“Sometimes, the food is even designed to look like anime characters or animals!”

There are also bento boxes specific to convenience stores, train stations, airports and even supermarkets. It is not uncommon for an office worker in Japan to bring their own homemade bento to work.

“Sometimes, the food is even designed to look like anime characters or animals!” Han added.

The art of making bento box lunches look cute is called “Kyaraben” in Japan. It started out with homemakers wanting to make their food more appealing to their children by decorating the food into cute characters, flowers and other pretty arrangements. They became all the rage with the youngsters, and soon moms all over Japan were under pressure to make cuter and more elaborate bentos. Today, there are even national Kyaraben competitions in Japan.

BENTO FABULOUS TIPS & TRICKS

Most of us don’t have time to prepare something as fancy and complicated as Kyaraben on a daily basis. We barely have the energy to make that sad sandwich packed in a ziplock as it is! Fortunately, there are simple tips and tricks you can apply to make your DIY bento both balanced and attractive to the eye, such as:

1) Use a cookie cutter to make star or heart-shaped foods.

2) Roll up different lunch meats, like salami.

3) Make decorative skewers out of ingredients, such eggs, meats, figs, olives or cheeses.

4) Write notes and messages with a food marker, say on the outside of a banana.

5) Arrange fruits or vegetables into cute shapes, like a smiley face made of grapes or a flower made of broccoli.

The most important things to remember when preparing your own bento is to ensure the presence of different food groups, textures and colors. Keep this in mind, and you’ll be able to apply your own “Instagrammable” creative twists on this time-honored Japanese tradition. Putting anything in a bento box looks pretty anyway, so long as you organize the foods by compartment.

We hope we were able to convince you to give bento boxes a try, whether it’s out at a restaurant or through a packed lunch at work. Perhaps next time you decide to buy something for yourself or a friend, you’ll consider an elegant bento box! Who says kids get to have all the fun with their colorful lunch boxes, right?

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