Dating all the way back to the 12th century, the "bento" was (and still is) an integral part of Japanese culinary culture. The word "bento" (弁当) literally translates to "useful thing" or "convenient," but the word has a double-meaning that means "container" or "lunch box."
The invention of the "bento" has humble beginnings. In the 12th century during the Kamakura period, Japanese workers began carrying cooked and dried rice called hoshi-ii (干し飯) to work in bento-style boxes with separate compartments. The workers were primarily humble farmers and fisherman.
The popularity of the bento spread to high society by the 16th century and became more refined. The bento became a staple for outdoor events, tea parties, and hanami (the practice of viewing cherry blossoms when they are in full bloom). The type of bento during this period was known as the koshibento (腰弁当) or "waist bento" because travelers and sightseers would carry the bento on their waist. The bento usually consisted of onigiri wrapped with bamboo leaves.
In the 19th and 20th centuries during the Meiji period, the ekibento or ekiben (駅弁当) was invented. Ekiben literally translates to "train station bento." These bentos were sold at train stations to travelers and contained rice balls with pickled apricots. Around this time, many students and teachers began carrying bentos to school.
After the advent of the microwave in the 1980s and the proliferation of convenience stores, new styles of bentos were introduced. The traditional wood and metal boxes were replaced with less expensive plastic and microwave-safe materials. Today, numerous styles of bentos exist all across the world. In fact, the subreddit r/Bento dedicated to "creative bento art" has nearly 68,000 members. It is no secret that the bento covers a wide variety of styles. Here are some examples:
- Ekiben (駅弁): A packed meal sold at railway stations.
- Kyaraben (キャラ弁 short form of キャラクター弁当): Ingredients are elaborately arranged to feature a popular character of popular culture, animals, plants, etc.
- Makunouchi bento (幕の内弁当): The traditional style of bento that was served at the theatre. It contains several dishes: rice, meat, fish, egg, a pickled plum, vegetables.
- Noriben (海苔弁): Simple in nature, containing less than 4 ingredients. The rice is covered by nori (seaweed).
- Hinomaru bento (日の丸弁当): Resembles the Japanese flag with a pickled plum being in the center of the rice.