O-BentoEditor's Note: For an early elementary lesson featuring hands-on activities about nutrition and Japanese food culture through introducing the obento, see Obento: the Japanese Lunch Box. The opening scene in the excerpt Heart from the film Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball shows a mother preparing a typical obento for school.
The container for a Japanese meal does much more than hold food; it is a work of art, an appetizing display, and a demonstration of care and caring. It is nurturance in several senses. The box called the obento (or bento, adding an "o" at the beginning gives it an honorific connotation) frames its contents with culture and tradition, but also allows the cook a playground, a place where creativity as well as nutrition is offered to the recipient. The word bento is translated into English as lunch box, but that scarcely begins to describe the centrality it has in the imagination and in the production of the experience of eating what is inside. A bento is a display case, a literal frame for the landscapes of food artfully organized within its walls. It also contains stories of history and function, as soldiers carried bento to the battlefields and long-ago theater-goers ate conveniently out of them as they sat or sprawled in their tatami-matted spaces at interminable performances of Noh or Kabuki plays. And still today, sumo wrestling fans eat very special meals ritually imbued with meaning from their bento as the gargantuan athletes try to toss each other out of the ring. Formally presented, the bento can reach the heights of culinary aesthetics but it also can contain the most plebeian and comforting of meals.
The origins of the lunch box style of food service, o-bento, remain contested. The first bento may have been packed in wartime, or in peaceful entertainments for theater goers during the Tokugawa, or Edo Period (1600-1868). It may have begun backstage as a meal to be eaten by actors and stagehands while preparing a performance. The phrase makunouchi bentoo came to mean a style of square box with internal partitions separating rice, the staple food, from other small bits of accompanying cooked foodstuff such as fish, chicken, pickles, and boiled vegetables. This use of the term refers to the makunouchi, or the space curtained off for parties of outdoor picnickers, or the backstage separated by a curtain from the audience. Others see its origin in the sankin kotai system in the Edo Period, in which officials from outlying provinces lived in Edo but were required to take an annual trip (or more) between their constituencies in the provinces and their official residences, where their families stayed in Edo.
A bento's chief characteristics are that it be portable and that all the foods contained within be ready to eat. It is usually prepared for one person, with foods individually portioned. The container may be wood, lacquer, wicker, or now cardboard or plastic. In pre-modern times the foods were salted or dried, convenient for carrying or keeping over time. The main foodstuff is rice, whether wrapped in seaweed, shaped into rice balls, or packed into a compartment in the container. The first bento may have been the box used to pack rice and fish for transport. The first sushi were actually fermented preserved fish made in these boxes and layered with rice, far from the image of the fresh-caught fish associated with today's sushi.
The term lunch box implies in English a container for a take-out meal to be eaten as a stopgap while away from home, and considered second to eating at home or at a restaurant table. But today's bentos in Japan are often painstakingly prepared, celebratory and elaborated meals.
More compelling than the foods nurturant qualities, for both producer and consumer, is the care taken in the appearance, taste and presentation of the foods. Bento are often almost overwhelmingly beautiful in their design and in the symbolic associations with season, locality and event. The aesthetics of the lunchbox, the landscapes of food in the sections of the box, demonstrate the kodawari or dedication of the maker and his or her skill in preparation and artistic presentation.
Among the events calling for bento is the spring cherry-blossom viewing (hanami), which takes place almost everywhere in Japan as the cherry trees (sakura) begin to bloom. These celebrations provide a holiday mood for workmates, families and friends who gather on straw or plastic matting spread under the cherry trees. The corporate parties are particularly raucous as they are accompanied by vast amounts of alcohol. The foods presented during the cherry blossom holidays are often pink, the color of the flowers, and might include foods dyed with shiso leaf (beefsteak plant or perilla) or foods made with azuki beans, which lend a pink tint to rice and other foods. A popular sweet at this time is sakuramochi, or sweet rice balls with bean paste wrapped in a shiso leaf. Cherry blossom viewing is very informal, of course, and so finger foods and other casual foods are common. Along with a bento filled with things like inarizushi (see recipe below), a group might bring along a small hibachi to grill yakitori (grilled chicken on a skewer) or kushidango, sweet rice dumplings brushed with a sugar-soy mixture.
- 15 pieces of deep fried bean curd, cut in half and carefully teased open into a pouch shape
- 3 cups sushi rice
- 3 medium carrots, and about the same amount of burdock root (gobo), julienned and soaked in a lightly vinegared water with salt.
- Instant dashi mix, cooked as directed to make three cups of dashi broth.
- 2 Tb black sesame seed, toasted for five minutes in 350 oven
- 1 cup water mixed with 3 TB rice wine vinegar
Cook rice as for sushi. While the rice is cooking, simmer the bean curd pouches for about five minutes over high heat in half the dashi, to which has been added one TB of sugar and 1 TB of soy sauce. Cook the carrots and burdock root in the remaining dashi broth until just tender. When rice is done, let it sit covered for five minutes. Drain the vegetables. Drain and let the bean curd pouches cool spread out on a platter.
Add sesame seeds to rice along with the vegetables and toss lightly so as not to press the rice too much. Open a pouch and fill with the rice mixture, leaving enough of the pouch empty to fold a half inch or so over. Place seam down on a serving platter. Continue and serve at room temperature. These are great for lunch boxes.
Sumo bento have their own traditions: one interesting observance is the taboo against including the meat of any four-legged animal in the fans bento. The luckier food is chicken, as it stands on two legs, like the conquering wrestler who at the end of a bout is still standing, his opponent down on all fours. Sumo caterers also create a sense of locality in the foods included as the tournaments take place in different areas of Japan: Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka. For example, in Fukuoka there may be chicken fried in nuggets, while in Tokyo the chicken may be made grilled on skewers as yakitori. There is no standard national pastime food like the American baseball hotdog, in spite of some ritual conventions.
Another bento-event is New Years, the pre-eminent holiday in the Japanese family calendar. At family gatherings, foods are presented in stacked lacquer boxes, fitted out with elaborately prepared foods for sharing over what is usually a three-day gathering. This version of the bento is the jubako, the ten stacked lacquer trays forming a tall bento, each containing different types of foods (osechi ryōri) such as sweetened black beans, for entertaining and celebration at the New Year. Foods in these boxes are prepared ahead with the intention of freeing women in the family for enjoyment during the holidays, but of course there are hot soups, grilled mochi and other dishes to prepare as well for each session of eating.
- 1 cup Japanese black beans
- 4 cups water
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 tsp soy sauce
- tsp salt
- tsp baking soda
Wash beans. Combine the rest of the ingredients in an iron pot (which will help the beans stay black) and bring to a boil. Add the beans. Turn off, cover and let sit overnight or for 8 hours. Bring the mixture to a boil and then turn very low. Simmer, covered, until beans are tender but not mushy. Skim foam that might rise as you cook. It may take up to five hours. Cool and set aside. If water boils off, add more as the beans cook. The beans are eaten at room temperature.
Less elegant but equally entrenched in Japanese food customs is the ekibento, the station lunch box which was first sold in 1885 for passengers going from Utsunomiya Station to Tokyo's Ueno Station. Bento became quickly a significant aspect of travel, and now stations everywhere have many kiosks selling great varieties of bento evoking seasonality and the regions of Japan. Far from being a stopgap meal, or junk food, these bento have special cachet. Regular travelers know where to buy each variety of bento and some stations have to stock up on favorites for the droves of visitors at certain times of year: buying the right ekibento at the right time marks a traveler as a member of the cognoscenti. On the other hand, the styrofoam boxed, mass produced lunch boxes available in some convenience stores are the (tasty and well-prepared) equivalent of the lowest-common-denominator junk foods of the global chain fast food shops.
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The homemade bento most people know best is the school lunch box. This box has become regularized by practice and custom as mothers are encouraged to follow the culinary, nutritional and visual balance that epitomizes Japanese meals. Children carry lunch boxes in many schools in Japan and the correct lunches, according to nutritionists and school officials, observe the formula of something from the ocean, something from the plains and something from the mountains, meaning fish, fish cakes or paste, or seaweed, chicken, pork, beef, or egg, and vegetables and grains (usually rice). The lunch is also a symbol of the close relationship between mother and child, and should also demonstrate maternal skill in making food appetizing and attractive, encouraging children to eat healthily and be grateful. During war time, when many foods were scarce, workers and children's lunch boxes might contain millet, sweet potatoes or pumpkin, or, if the scarce and coveted rice were included, a single red pickled plum (umeboshi) embedded in the center of a rectangle of rice would symbolize the Japanese flag, the Hinomaru. This Hinomaru bento was thus supportive of the war effort both in encouraging a spartan diet and in the visual representation of a national icon. Today's school lunches are often hot meals served in the classrooms and are more likely to include stews, curries and breads than Japanese items like fish, pickles and rice. But where the bento comes to school with the child, in nursery schools and elementary schools, its homemade quality is said to embody the love of the hardworking mother, just as the wartime box evoked the national struggle. Mothers who buy ready made box lunches at convenience stores, or who pack sandwiches, might hear subtle criticisms from teachers, though some children actually prefer the store bought versions. Many housewives confess that making an attractive bento according to the formula school officials propound takes time and a lot of effort, and might find the school lunch liberating.
ONIGIRI FOR SCHOOL BENTO
- 1 cup sushi rice, cooked
- 1 TB rice wine vinegar
- 1 TB sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- One large sheet of nori, (pressed black seaweed) toasted lightly for a second on each side over a gas stove burner and cut into one-inch-wide, eight-inch-long strips
- 1 small can tuna mixed with 2TB mayonnaise and 1 tsp soy sauce
- Six slices of small (English or Asian) cucumber
The aesthetic arrangement of food in the bento is also said to train the eye of young children to respond to nature and the elements of beauty, as it is meant to engage them playfully as well. My daughter, who attended elementary school in Japan, delighted in her bento: she said it was like a dollhouse for food, and each food has a room of its own.
The obento song sums up the happy moment when preschoolers open their lunch boxes, and introduces meal time at many schools:
Obento, obento, ureshii na
Oteto mo kirei ni narimashita
Minna sorotte goaisatsu (Itadakimasu!)
Obento, obento, ureshii na
Nan demo tabemasho, yoku kande
Minna sundara goaisatsu (Gochiso sama!)
Te o awasete
Minnasama to issho ni
So happy, (hooray!)
My hands are clean too
Now that were all together
Lets say, lets eat!
So happy (hooray!)
Lets eat it all and chew it well
Now that were finished
Lets say thank you for the meal
Lets put our hands together
Itadakimasu (Lets eat!)
Please, start eating.
Allison, Anne, "Japanese Mothers and Obentos: The Lunch-box as Ideological State Apparatus," in Anthropological Quarterly, October 1991, 64:4, pp.195-208
Ekuan, Kenji, The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998
Yoshida Mitsukuni and Sesoko Tsune, Naora, Communion of the Table, Tokyo:Cosmo Public Relations Corp., 1989