What Is Japanese Bento?

Japan has one of the best cuisines in the world. You can find good restaurants everywhere and Japan is actually the country with the most michilin 3-star restaurants. But even if you don‘t go to a restaurant you are going get amazing food. I‘m talking about the bento, Japan‘s most special meal. Everybody eats it, from tired office workers at 10pm at the convenience store to grandmothers who don‘t want to cook, to high school students like me. On top of that bento convinient and delishious. Why is it more than just a lunchbox and why is it Japan‘s most special meal? That‘s what you can read in this article.

What Is Japanese Bento?

High school students eating their bento.

Japanese bento (弁当) is basically a take-out lunchbox that you buy at a supermarket or prepare yourself. In Japan eating healthy is very important but lunch breaks are very short. So to still have something healthy to eat during your 30 minute lunch break most people bring a bento lunch box with them to work, school or wherever they go.

Everybody Eats Bento

The lunch menu at my high school's cafeteria

In Switzerland almost nobody takes lunch with him to school. We always went out to eat. So when I entered a Japanese high school I was surprised at first because we weren‘t allowed to leave school for lunch. But the food at the cafeteria was cheap and delishious (for its price), so I went there often. But I soon realised that most of my friends actually remained in the classroom to eat their lunch they brought with them and they only came with me because I was new.

Because I wanted to fit in, I also started bringing with me what I would call a bento. But that doesn‘t mean that Japanese people would call it a bento. Since I am not Japanese I didn‘t know that there‘s a lot more to a bento than I had thought.

What Usually Goes in a Bento Box?

One of my attempts at making bento

Bento doesn‘t mean „put your favourite food in“, it‘s not just prepared food. That’s what I had gotten wrong. Actually there‘s a lot you have to know before making a bento. In my first weeks I ate an apple and something else that I could find. For which I got weird looks (read here why). Then I started buying already steamed chicken, put it in a plastic box and also brought an onigiri (a rice ball) and a banana with me. But that still wasn‘t right. So I tried copying my friends and bought a real bento box and put cooked salmon, rice and broccoli in there. But I still got stranges looks from my friends.

So I asked them, what makes a bento a bento? And what they said surprised me.

You have to put all colours in there! To get a good balanced and healthy meal it seems you have to put all colours in the bento. Because obviously if your food is a mix of red, green and yellow, it has to be healthy. For red you could put in tomatos, for green broccoli and for yellow tamagoyaki (rolled omelette). So my bento wasn‘t that off, it only lacked yellow (which isn‘t that important I think).

But what I definetely got wrong was the appearance. Because a bento has to be beautiful. That means you put every colour in there, put all the different ingredients into a small cup-like thing and lastly cut a wiener so that it looks like an octopus. You could also say it takes a lot of time and effort to make a bento. But it doesn’t stop there. If you want to take your bento to the next level, there’s one more type of bento for you.

Character Bento

cute Japanese style bento lunchbox
Character bento. By luckysundae – https://www.flickr.com/photos/cuteobento/1563438362/sizes/o/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4944930

Kyara ben or also character bento is as you might tell from the name a character themed lunchbox. Even though some parents take their bento-making serious, there aren’t many people that prepare such a bento everyday, I suppose. But according to friends you take kyara ben with you on special occasions like a sports festival in elementary school.

You Can Get Bento Anywhere

The bento section in a supermarket

The last thing that makes the bento so special is that you can get it anywhere, whenever you want. It doesn’t matter if you are a salary man rushing home after a long day working overtime, just don’t feel like cooking, need a meal on the go or are a high school student like me. Just head to the next convenience store, super market or every other place that sells food. At convenience store you will also get a great and cheap bento even if it’s three o’clock. And besides that there are also shops specialised on bento, which you most often find at big train stations for people going on the Shinkansen.

Of course Japan isn‘t the only country where you can get food from a convenience store at three o‘clock in the morning. But it‘s the only country where that food will actually taste good. And besides from convenience stores you will also find a huge bento section at every super market, selling a variety of different bentos. Including, sushi, smoked salmon, tonkatsu (pork cutlet) and many else.

That‘s why I myself also often go for a bento box from the super market. Because it‘s convenient, cheap and tastes well.

Bento from the supermarket

Those are the reasons for why I think bento is Japan‘s most special meal. And from now I also want to make bento like the Japanese.

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