Bento Boxes: A culinary art form

When you think about Japanese food, you’ll probably think of sushi, or perhaps a steaming bowl of ramen. But if you want to know what most Japanese people actually eat for lunch most days, then you have to consider bento boxes. Let’s take a look at what bento boxes are used for, how they’re made and how they came to be.

What are bento boxes?

Bento boxes are single-portioned boxed meals that are usually composed of staple carbs such as rice or noodles, meat or fish and an assortment of pickled or cooked vegetables. Bento boxes come in a range of styles ranging from mass-produced disposables to hand-crafted lacquerware. Bento boxes are readily available in many places throughout Japan, including convenience stores, bento shops, railway stations, and department stores. However, it’s not unusual for people to spend time and energy carefully crafting a lunch box for their spouse, child, or themselves. 

Bento boxes are often arranged and styled to reference characters, people, animals, buildings, monuments, flowers and plants, each having their own unique style and aesthetic. Contests are often held where bento arrangers compete for the most aesthetically pleasing arrangements. You can find many depictions of bento boxes all across the world, with somewhat comparable forms of boxed lunches in Asian countries including the Philippines, Korea, Taiwan and India. Hawaiian culture has also adopted localized versions of bento boxes, featuring local tastes after over a century of Japanese influence in the islands.

History of the bento

The word bento was not readily used during the early days of the lunchbox’s conception. During the Kamakura Period around 1185, the term used was actually hoshi-ii or dried metal. It would consist of only dried rice, without any packaging that could be eaten right away or boiled in water. It wasn’t until 1568, during the Azuchi-Momoyama period, that wooden lacquered bento boxes were produced to create the true bento that we know today. During the Edo Period from 1603-1867, bento boxes became an everyday meal for the people of Japan, with the contents and serving style depending drastically on social class and occupation. 

Travellers and sightseers would often carry koshibento, a type of waist bento which often included rice balls wrapped in bamboo leaves. For special events such as hanami, flower viewing parties, large, layered bento boxes were prepared to celebrate the occasion. By the twentieth century, aluminium began to be used in the preparation of bento boxes, which paved the way for the microwaveable konbini bento, convenience store bento, ekiben, train station bento, and hokaben, take-out bento.

Making of the box

Before the introduction of modern materials, bento boxes were hand-carved from wood. They were lacquered and designed by master craftsmen and the more lavish the box, the more expensive it was to purchase. Nowadays, most of the world’s boxes are manufactured in the Ishikawa Prefecture of Japan. Special moulds are used to produce high-quantities of these popular lunch containers, and original designs are fitted to each one. Presses are used to create and fix dividers and lids and then the raw plastic is coloured using a specialised paint gun. Screen-printing is used for more intricate patterns and illustration as stencils allow for flat or round boxes and sharp edges to be beautifully embossed. These bento boxes are then hand-packed and shipped all across the world, making lunch convenient and fun for all.

When it comes to making the food for bento boxes, there are very specific characteristics that need to be adhered to. The creation of bento boxes, whether it be mass-produced or homemade, is relatively the same thanks to the healthy and wholesome ingredients used. With a sectioned container as the base, there are four types of foods that should be included; carbs, protein, vegetables and fruits, with carbs being the greatest proportion, and fruits and vegetables being the least. A variety of textures and flavours are key to the production of bento boxes, with each bite being its own unique experience. 

At Atelier Japan, our makers only use the finest traditional craft techniques. Our makers have stood the test of time and have prevailed among huge global disturbances, remaining unwilling to go backwards. Explore the many Atelier Japan collections to explore the products that our makers have taken care and time to craft for you to enjoy.