Convenient, tasty, nutritious— bento boxes have it all!
They are also fun to make and even more enjoyable to eat.
Have you ever wondered about the box that inspired our magazine’s name?
A bento box is a single-portion, portable meal, made at home or bought in take-away form from a shop or market to be enjoyed on the go, or else eaten at a sit-down restaurant. The bento box is part of the modern Japanese cultural scene, and there are countless online tutorials and social media captures of kawaii (meaning “cute”) bento boxes, as well as fierce bento competitions.
The history of the bento box started as far back as the 5th century, as a convenient, nutritious and portable food option for farmers, hunters and warring men. Later, in post–World War I Japan, the bento became a symbol of wealth and social status, where a “good” and balanced bento packed for schoolchildren was a show of economic status and wealth. By 1954, school lunch programs had replaced the bento box so that all schoolchildren ate a standardized meal. In the 1980s, when convenience became a prime factor in meals, the bento made a comeback, and the birth of the kyara-ben (character bento) in the 1990s brought bento-making and -eating to a whole new level, where it remains to this day.
The everyday bento box is really that: a bento box that is easy and quick to make, making it ideal to pack for your everyday lunch. Often featuring rice with an umeboshi
(pickled plum) in the middle, and including a medley of protein (usually fish or chicken), vegetables and perhaps fruit, the everyday bento is not as concerned with cuteness or
“wow” factor as some of the other types of boxes.
Children especially adore the fun characters that are created with food in the kyara-ben, or character bento. Anything goes, from simple happy faces to more intricate animals or popular Japanese anime characters. Kyara-ben were first introduced as a way for parents to entice their children to eat a nutritious lunch. Now, large competitions are held where competitors try to create nutritious and fun-looking kyara-ben, with everything from veggies cut into flowers to cartoon characters made from rice.
The koraku bento is a large bento box intended to feed a group, usually when picnicking. Colourful and tasty, the koraku bento is the perfect accompaniment for cherry blossom picnics. The items included in the koraku bento are specifically picked to match the season, and often include maki sushi and/or onigiri.
This is a classic style of bento with rice, a pickled umeboshi, often a slice of broiled salmon, rolled egg and other protein selections. This type of bento, whose name literally means “in between stages,” was first sold during the intermission of kabuki theatre performances to satisfy the appetites of hungry theatregoers and actors alike. Nowadays it’s a popular purchase from convenience stores, supermarkets and department stores.
In the late 1880s, eki-ben started being sold at railway stations or onboard trains. Most of these railway boxed meals are inexpensive and filling, and many train stations are well-known for their specialty eki-ben made from local ingredients.
There are two main groups of eki-ben: regional eki-ben and the more standard makunouchi bento. Most eki-ben come with disposable chopsticks and spoons, and they are sometimes served in keepsake containers.
What to include
So, are you ready to start bento-making but need some ideas as to what to include? Read on…
Sweet and savoury at the same time, tamagoyaki, Japanese rolled omelette, is a pleasant, delightful addition to any bento box. It is often flavoured with salt or sugar. To make, thin egg “crêpes” are rolled in layers. Definitely a bit of an acquired skill, but one worth mastering.
Known in English as Japanese salt plums, salt plums or fermented plums, umeboshi are round, salty and very sour. These sour fruits are perfect with Japanese rice and often used whole in an onigiri ball or to make hinomaru bento (Japanese flag bento).
The Japanese equivalent to the sandwich, onigiri—or filled rice balls—take practice but are an integral part of bento lunches. Rice is pressed and formed into triangles, ovals or (rarely) balls, and at the core is concealed a variety of tasty morsels to enjoy.
Kinpira-gobo is a popular Japanese veggie dish that is often included in bento boxes found at Japanese markets. Vegetables (like carrot and burdock root, or gobo, and sometimes lotus root) are julienned and then stir-fried with sugar, soy sauce, mirin and sesame seeds.
Yaki, meaning grilled, is a popular way of preparing salmon (shake) to include in bento meals. Salmon is first marinated and then grilled, sometimes using a cedar plank, imparting a delicious sweet and salty flavour. Flaked yaki shake is also a good filling for onigiri.
Ah, those ever-so-cute Japanese apple rabbits, much adored by kids and adults alike. These are fairly easy to make (mind the sharp knife) for a nutritious and fun bento dessert. Cut, core, score and make the bunny ears. Also, soak the apples in salt water for a few minutes to prevent browning.
Furikake is a Japanese dried seasoning made especially for sprinkling over rice for flavour. Savoury and salty, it can also be sprinkled on any food your heart desires to add a pop of flavour. Most furikake mixes contain dried fish and seaweed, and they can also include dried egg, wasabi and shiso.
Get ready to enjoy onigiri with your favourite fillings.
How to make Onigiri
Follow these steps to make your own onigiri and include them in your bento box. Don’t be afraid to experiment—try different kinds of fillings according to your tastes!
2) Put filling in
Fill a cupped hand with a fistful of rice and then spoon in your chosen ingredient (such as umeboshi, pictured). Add more rice to cover up the filling.
Make your best bento
There are some easy-to- follow rules and simple tools out there that can help you step up your bento-making game. If you’re looking for inspiration, let the Insta experts be your guide !
1. What you will need
When choosing your bento box, consider who is going to be using it and what kinds of foods you want to include. Children will likely prefer colourful boxes made out of durable and light materials that do not leak, whereas an adult might prefer something esthetically pleasing to sit on their desk at work.
Silicone baking cups
Silicone baking cups are handy to keep foods and flavours separate inside your box. Cups come in various shapes, sizes and colours and are flexible, making them an easy fit. A bonus is that most cups are
microwave-safe in case you wanted to warm something before packing.
Dividers are another way of keeping foods separate, though not quite as separate as silicone cups will do. For those who enjoy eating their lettuce (and don’t mind some added moisture or food mixing together), there is the option of a real lettuce leaf. As an alternative, plastic leaves can be bought in bulk as well.
Colourful picks and sauce containers
Fun picks are great for picking up small items like sausage or fruit.
They can also be used to liven up a party tray at your next gathering. Look for fun themed or cute character picks that will make your bento-eater smile. Sauce containers are also very handy when you want to pick-and-dip your food.
A well-put-together bento will be nutritionally balanced and healthy. A properly balanced box will include all food groups, namely carbohydrates, protein, fruits and vegetables. In general, carbs should take up approximately half the box, with proteins taking up a quarter and fruits and veggies making up the rest.
Keep in mind that a colourful box usually means a box that is both mouth-watering and balanced. Bold-coloured fruits and vegetables add visual interest to your box. Split up similar-coloured foods with a pop of contrasting colour or toppings such as black sesame seeds, green onion or seaweed.
You’ll want to pack food tightly to prevent foods from shifting and ending up with a messy box that your child (or yourself) will find unappealing and therefore not touch. Pack pre-made or bigger foods first and then add more flexible, smaller foods in later. Finally, fill in any gaps with colourful accents such as cherry tomatoes or steamed greens.
3.Follow the gurus
If you are just starting out making bento meals, or have hit a creative roadblock and are looking for some bento inspo, look no further than social media for assistance. Cute and healthy ideas are aplenty, and there are a dizzying array of sites and hashtags for those looking to up their kyara-ben skills for their child (or self). Got a new bento and want ideas for your specific box? There are lots of inspiring photos and recipe ideas out there catering to specific containers as well.
Where to go to get started
Ready to dive in? These local shops are stocked with all the bento-making items you might need.
A store specializing in Japanese living, Oomomo is a Japanese variety store that delivers affordable and quality lifestyle items. Oomomo’s mission is to stay on trend, importing high-quality and stylish goods from Japan every month. All items are ones that have received positive feedback in Japan, so you can rest assured that you are getting the best.
896 Don Mills Rd., North York
In East York Town Centre, you can find Ichiban Living, selling everyday Japanese household items. And the best part? Every item in the store has a price of $2.25! Stock up on bento box dividers and chopsticks here, and you’ll barely put a dent in your wallet!
45 Overlea Blvd., East York Town Centre, Toronto
4300 Steeles Ave E., Markham, in the basement of Pacific Mall
Toppu Doru is a Japanese and Korean life and beauty boutique that will help you put together that perfect bento box. Here, you can find everything from bento box containers to maki and onigiri-making accessories.
9737 Yonge St., Unit #218, Richmond Hill