Evolved from a 5th century Japanese farmer’s seed box, equipped with several compartments, the modern day bento box began to prevail as a popular, sometimes controversial, and convenient way to store and eat lunch on the go. Japanese hunters, warriors, and farmers could take a small variety of food with them on long days in the field. From there, the bento themed lunch tradition spread throughout Asia. Bento boxes were crafted from baskets or lacquered wood demonstrating self-instruction via social status restrictions.
In 1912, during Japan’s Taisho Period, aluminum bento boxes became stylish, taking the bento concept from a practical lunch box to lavish and luxury status statement. More than the container, the culinary contents began to demonstrate affluence and sophistication. Simple fish, rice, and pickled roots developed into elaborate recipes for tofu, exotic and rare fruits and vegetables, red bean dumplings, meats, seafood, and tempura.
As the wealth gap between the haves and have nots grew in Japanese society, so did the disparity in bento lunches. In present day Japan, many schools prohibit certain foods as to level the lunch table. Japanese mothers, caretakers, and bento box makers spend about an hour to prepare, assemble, and decorate bento lunches for their children or customers. There are competitions for the most adorable, creative, and inspiring bentos and a host of tools, supplies, and techniques that are required for success.
But why go to all of this effort? Maybe it is because carrots taste better when they are in the shape of cherry blossoms. Perhaps, it stems from the ancient Japanese appreciation of aesthetic and culture. Or perhaps, it is healthy to sample a variety of foods and flavors to satiate hunger and establish one’s place in society. Whatever the prowess and momentum behind the bento culture may be, there is much to learn, show off, and enjoy in a varied and nutritious lunch.