A bento (弁当, bentō) is the Japanese iteration of a single-portion take-out or home-packed meal, often for lunch. Outside Japan, it is common in other East and Southeast Asian culinary styles, especially within Chinese, Korean, Singaporean cuisines and more, as rice is a common staple food in the region. The term bento is derived from the Chinese term biandang (便當, pinyin: biàndāng), which means "convenient" or "convenience".
A traditional bento may contain rice or noodles with fish or meat, often with pickled and cooked vegetables in a box. Containers range from mass-produced disposables to hand-crafted lacquerware. Often various dividers are used to separate ingredients or dishes, especially those with strong flavors, to avoid them affecting the taste of the rest of the meal. A typical divider is green plastic grass, also known as the 'sushi grass'. This also works to slow the growth of bacteria.
Bento are readily available in many places throughout Japan, including convenience stores, bento shops (弁当屋, bentō-ya), railway stations, and department stores. However, Japanese homemakers often spend time and energy on carefully prepared box lunches for their spouses, children, or themselves. Outside Japan, the term bento box may be used (e.g., on English menus for Japanese restaurants). Bentos can be elaborately arranged in a style called "kyaraben" ("character bento"), which are typically decorated to look like popular characters from Japanese animation (anime), comic books (manga), or video games. Another popular bento style is "oekakiben" or "picture bento". This is decorated to look like people, animals, buildings and monuments or items such as flowers and plants. Contests are often held where bento arrangers compete for the most aesthetically attractive arrangements.
There are comparable forms of boxed lunches in other Asian countries such as in mainland China, Taiwan and other Sinophone communities as biàndāng in Mandarin and piān-tong in Taiwanese Hokkien or in Korea as dosirak (Hangul: 도시락; Hanja: 道食樂). Other Asian countries would either just use bento as a loanword or hokben, which means steaming bento. There has also been discussion regarding what the bento means for Japanese society and what it represents. The analyses range from a simple semiotic approach to one that outlines the deeper ideological meanings behind the bento.
In Japan, "bento" is written in the Kanji 弁当. The word itself originates from the Chinese Song Dynasty slang term 便当 (便當, pinyin: biàndāng), meaning "convenient" or "convenience" (This sense is still used in Wu dialects such as Shanghainese). When it was imported to Japan, it was written with the ateji 便道 and 弁道. The word "bento" has been used since the 13th century, and the container itself, also called "bento", has been known since the 16th century. In modern times, the term is commonly used in East and Southeast Asia. In mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, "bento" remains written as the original name 便當 (pinyin: biàndāng). In other Sinophone communities, both biandang and bento are often interchangeably used.
The increased popularity of bento and its term can be traced back to the 12th century during the Kamakura period, when cooked and dried rice called hoshi-ii (糒 or 干し飯, literally "dried meal") was developed, to be carried to work. Hoshi-ii can be eaten as is or boiled with water to make cooked rice, and is stored in a small bag. By the 16th century, wooden lacquered boxes were produced, and bento would be eaten during a hanami or a tea party.
In the Edo period (1603–1867), bento culture spread and became more refined. Travelers and sightseers would carry a simple koshibentō (腰弁当, "waist bento"), consisting of several onigiri wrapped with bamboo leaves or in a woven bamboo box. One of the most popular styles of bento, called makuno-uchi bentō ("between-act bento"), was first made during this period. People who came to see Noh and Kabuki ate specially prepared bentos between maku (acts). Numerous cookbooks were published detailing how to cook, how to pack, and what to prepare for occasions like hanami and Hinamatsuri.
In the Meiji period (1868–1912), the first ekibentō or ekiben (駅弁当 or 駅弁, "train station bento") was sold. There are several records that claim where ekiben was first sold, but it is believed that it was sold on 16 July 1885, at the Utsunomiya train station, in the northern Kantō region of Japan, and contained two onigiri and a serving of takuan (pickled radish) wrapped in bamboo leaves. As early schools did not provide lunch, students and teachers carried bentos, as did many employees.
In the Taishō period (1912–1926), the aluminum bento box became a luxury item because of its ease of cleaning and its silver-like appearance. Also, a move to abolish the practice of bento in school became a social issue. Disparities in wealth spread during this period after an export boom during World War I and subsequent crop failures in the Tohoku region. A bento too often reflected a student's wealth, and many wondered if this had an unfavorable influence on children both physically, from lack of adequate diet, and psychologically, from a clumsily made bento or the richness of food. After World War II, the practice of bringing bentos to school gradually declined and was replaced by uniform food provided for all students and teachers.
Bentos regained popularity in the 1980s, with the help of the microwave oven and the proliferation of convenience stores. In addition, the expensive wood and metal boxes have been replaced at most bento shops with inexpensive, disposable polystyrene boxes. However, even handmade bentos have made a comeback, and they are once again a common, although not universal, sight at Japanese schools. Bentos are still used by workers as a packed lunch, by families on day trips, as well as for school picnics and sports days. The bento, made at home, is wrapped in a furoshiki cloth, which acts as both bag and table mat.
The bento made its way to Taiwan in the first half of the 20th century during the Japanese colonial period and remains popular to the present day. The Japanese name was borrowed as bendong 便當 (Taiwanese Hokkien: piān-tong) or (Mandarin: biàndāng) Taiwanese bento always includes protein, such as a crispy fried chicken leg, a piece of grilled mackerel and marinated pork chop, as well as the side dishes. Taiwan Railway Bento is a well known bento manufactured and distributed by the Taiwan Railways Administration at major railway stations and in train cars. It is estimated that, with five million boxed meals sold per year, the annual revenue from bento distribution is 370 million NTD (approx. 10 million USD).
In Korea, the packed lunch boxes are called Dosirak (also spelled "doshirak") (Hangul: 도시락; Hanja: 道食樂) and they are either made at home or bought at the store. They are similar to Chinese and Japanese variations with some slight differences. Korean bento boxes are usually made with a few different vegetable and meat side dishes. The special ingredient is Kimchi which adds the Korean element to the bento box.
In Singapore, such packed lunch boxes are often acculturated and localised with cuisines slightly different to Japan. These may include roasted pork (similar to char siew) and soy eggs, as well as fried rice. It has been a common method of meal preparation within Singaporean cuisine as early as the start of the 20th century, which was intensified during the Japanese occupation and cultural influences in subsequent decades, with Japanese-style bento also being common in the country today.
In 2021, the Singapore Food Tech Event showcased as to how bento of the future might look like for a sustainable food system.
In Japan, it is common for mothers to make bento for their children to take to school. Because making bento can take a while, some mothers will prepare the ingredients the night before, and then assemble and pack everything the following morning before their children go to school. It is often a social expectation of mothers to provide bento for their children, to create both a nutritionally balanced and aesthetically pleasing meal. This activity is expected of the mother and emphasized by society at large, and is common in nursery school institutions.
The traditional bento that is eaten at school or at work is most often prepared by the mother or the wife. However, it can also be bought in konbini (mini-markets) or from street vendors who appear on street corners at lunchtime. For those in a hurry who have to spend their lunch time aboard the shinkansen (bullet train), there is also the bento ekiben which, as its name suggests, is on sale in the train stations. Bento is also present in more solemn moments, even on the Japanese New Year's table for example. Then called osechi, it comes in two or three levels and contains expensive dishes that are eaten at this high point of the Japanese calendar.
Many scholars have written about the bento since the late 20th century. The foundation of their approach is based on the idea that food can carry many different meanings.
In the 1970’s, Chie Nakane used the ekiben, a specific type of bento sold in train stations, as a metaphor for group organization in Japan. By comparing this variant of bento to groups in Japan, he considered how different organizations in Japanese society often include identical components so it does not depend on any other groups for its success. For O-Young Lee in 1984, the bento is utilized to present the reductionism tendencies of Japanese culture. All the food in this Japanese style lunch box is only able to be reduced to fit in a little box due to it being Japanese food; it naturally lends itself to being tightly packed. Roland Barthes, on the other hand, used a symbolic approach to describe the lack of a centerpiece in Japanese food. He described the distinct contents of a bento box as a multitude of fragments or ornaments that are thrown together to beautify each other. Joseph Jay Tobin in 1992 discussed how the meticulous assembly of individual bentos has been aided by the reinterpretation of Western goods, practices, and ideas through a process he classified as domestication.
Takeaway bento sets are also available, including Salted Egg Prawns with Egg Fried Rice and Honey Chicken Char Siew with Egg Frice Rice.
(rough translation): ..."hanami bento", formally called "sagejū" is...