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The Traditional Japanese Bento Box is a single-serve Japanese style lunch box that is also widely used in many other Southeast Asian countries. The box is usually divided into several compartments that can hold rice, fish, and vegetables (these are the most common foods consumed thorough the Asian continent, but that doesn’t mean you can’t put pretty much any type of food you like in these lunch boxes).
Traditional Japanese bento boxes back in the day looked something like this:
Traditional bento boxes were made out of wood as there wasn’t really any other material back then, except probably stone or clay, but that would be a real struggle to make and such materials were rarely used.
Nowadays, though you can find bento boxes made of pretty much any type of material you can think of.
But the most common are the bento boxes made of plastic. Often they are using BPA fee and food safe plastic, so there’s nothing to worry about really. If you are still concerned about those pesky plastic particles (Microplastics) ending up in your blood stream, then you should consider buying some of the other types of bentos, like the wooden, ceramic or stainless steel bento lunch boxes. The plastic bento boxes may not look as fancy as ceramic or porcelain bentos, but they are the more budget friendly option which you could consider.
What is Bento?
When we talk about Japanese cuisine, most people first think of sushi or maybe a steaming bowl of ramen noodles. But if you want to know what most Japanese like to eat at lunch, then you need to look no further than bento. The name is given to the increasingly popular bento lunch box, but also refers to the style of preparation and arrangement of the food stored in these boxes.
The Japanese bento box is so popular nowadays, as pretty much everything coming from Japan and few other Asian countries. Everyone from kids to prime ministers love these exquisite and practical lunch boxes.
The bento style food is a single-serving canned meal that is usually made up of basic carbohydrates (rice or noodles), meat or fish, and an assortment of pickled or lightly cooked(steamed) vegetables.
The world comes from the Chinese slang term Biandang, which means practical. Since the thirteenth century, it has become a symbol of Japanese culture and tradition. Balanced eating and portability are ideal for school kids or having a lunch at work, and can be seen as the perfect and mostly healthy afternoon snack. And of course, this convenience comes in a often beautifully designed and perfectly crafted bento box.
Ok, so let’s look a little closer at the best Japanese bento boxes you could find on the market today.
4 of Best Traditional Japanese Bento Boxes You Can Buy In 2021
This traditional bento by Grub2go has a simple design. The box is made from high-grade food-safe plastic with an attractive bamboo finish. It features two air-tight detachable containers placed on top of each other that have a capacity of 40oz. The two dividers make it easier to arrange all your snacks. You don’t have to worry about food spilling, thanks to the perfect leakproof lids. It is microwave safe and retains heat for a long time. Although it’s dishwasher safe, we’ll recommend you hand-wash the bento box to prevent cracks or other damages.
- High capacity of 40oz
- Detachable and leakproof containers
- BPA and lead-free material
- Easy to organize with two dividers
- The plastic is not very thick
If you’re looking for a compact bento box, Skater’s small bento box could be a perfect pick. It’s great for people who prefer to eat small portions of food. The box comes with two compartments that are held together by a rubber band. It also features adjustable dividers to keep your food organized. You can use the rice ball press to make small-sized rice balls (onigiri). The bento has an overall capacity of about 640ml. An exclusive bento bag allows you to store or carry the box effortlessly and is also decorated with a floral design. Keep in mind that you cannot microwave or dish wash this bento box.
- A unique compact design
- Two compartments with adjustable dividers
- It also has a rice ball press
- Aesthetic floral and rabbit print
- It also includes a bento bag
- You cannot microwave or dish wash it
Thy collectible’s huge bento box set is perfect for serving meals for multiple people. It consists of three large-sized compartments made of food-grade plastic. The bento can store food up to a capacity of 2000ml, making it ideal to use for outings. Its three detachable containers can be stacked on top of each other with the help of a lid. However, the lack of multiple lids can be a problem for some people looking to store them separately. You can wash this bento box in a dishwasher. It can also be kept in a freezer or a microwave with ease.
- Traditional Japanese style design
- Massive storage capacity
- Hard and durable plastic
- Easy to clean
- It’s not leakproof
Even today, quite a lot of people in Japan still prefer to use handmade decorative bento boxes for their loved ones as a gift which is quite a wonderful gesture, especially for kids. It’s easy to find these meal boxes in all stores across Japan or Korea nowadays. If you’re tired of eating outside, getting yourself the ideal Japanese bento box will let you carry your favorite home cooked meal conveniently whenever you feel like going on a picnic or hiking with friends.
The Jubako bento box offers beautiful lacquered plastic art decoration which brings another level of awesomeness to your otherwise boring ritual of snacking up at lunch tine. It’s perfect for picnic or a party and could be a wonderful conversation piece too.
The three tier Jubako bento Box Set Measures 7-3/4 x 7-3/4 x 8 inches. It’s handmade in Japan by traditional craftsmen and is also packed in a beautiful gift box.
- made in Japan
- beautiful traditional Japanese art design
- suitable for most types of snack food
- holds more food compared to most of the other models
- despite looking pretty it’s not very sturdy and may feel cheaply made
History of Japanese Bento Boxes
The use of traditional Japanese boxes dates back to the 12th century. Workers first used them to carry simple, but nutritious meals at work. As they became more popular, people started crafting handmade decorative bento boxes made of wood. You can still find many of these unique bento boxes in Japanese museums even today, that were made somewhere around the 16th century.
For some, these boxes were a way to reflect and showcase their social status. The bento gained even more popularity at the end of the 20th century, because of its portable and minimalist design and became an indispensable part of modern Japanese culture. From then on, many brands and companies have introduced bento boxes with unique and innovative designs.
The word bento was not used in the early days of lunch box design. During the Kamakura period, around 1185, the term was actually hoshi-ii or “dried rice meal”. It would only be made of dried rice, without any packaging, which could then be consumed as is or boiled in water. It was not until 1568, in the Azuchi-Momoyama era, that lacquered wooden boxes were produced to create the real bento that we know today.
During the Edo period, from 1603 to 1867, bento food became an everyday meal. Travelers and tourists carried koshibento (bento attached to the waist), which often included riceballs wrapped in bamboo leaves. For special events such as hanami (flower-watching festivals), large superimposed bentos were prepared to celebrate the occasion.
In the twentieth century, aluminum began to be used in the preparation of bento boxes, which paved the way for konbini bento (the famous side shops found all over Japan), ekiben (station bento) and hokaben (takeaway bento).
How Are Bento Boxes Made?
Before the invention of modern materials like plastic and tin, bento boxes were hand carved from wood. They have been lacquered and designed by Japanese craftsmen to create a real pieces of art and today some of these masterpieces cost a fortune or are only displayed in history museums across Japan.
Today, most of the world’s bento boxes are made in Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan. Industrial molds and machines are used to produce large quantities of your favorite lunch boxes, and original designs are available for each individual preference.
Screen printing is often used for more complex patterns and illustrations during the production. Stencils allow flat or round boxes and sharp edges to be beautifully embossed. The bento boxes are then hand-packed and shipped worldwide, to make lunch more convenient for everyone.
It’s a mass production at scale and this honestly makes it possible for us mere mortals to also have the chance to own one of these exquisite lunch boxes, which were once reserved only for emperors and royals.
What Are Bento Boxes Used For?
Well, a bento box is basically the Japanese version of your ordinary lunch box. In Japan, parents often make bentos for their children during their early school years. It can be a laborious and daunting task, so the preparation work is often carried out the night before. Although presentation has always been a big part of the meal, once schools in Japan started demanding them, it became a real competition to see who had the most creative and complex bento box offering. A child’s lunch box often says something about his social status and family life, the same dressing stile is used in other countries.
Bento boxes are used to provide the best possible nutrition (mostly for kids at school) in the smallest and easiest to consume way possible. The cuteness factor of the meal isn’t just for the show, though. It’s also a way to get picky eaters actually excited about foods they wouldn’t normally eat. The most characteristic fast-food-style bentos are less glamorous in appearance, but with costs often below 500 yen (about $4.60), the healthy and cheap meal simply can’t be beaten, especially if you are on a limited budget.
What Are The Main Types Of Traditional Japanese Bento Boxes?
There are several types of bento lunch boxes you can choose from, depending on the occasion. The makunouchi bento is one of the most common designs. It is characterized by two-part box and usually can be found in convenience stores, supermarkets and department stores in Japan, but recently it’s also available thorough most other countries. One compartment will often contain rice, while the others will have an assortment of colorful side dishes and snacks.
The koraku bento (for picnic) is a large bento box that is usually shared in a public place, such as the park, and especially during the cherry blossom season, from late March to early April. It is mainly filled with traditional Japanese dishes that are chosen according to the season.
During the Hina Matsuri (doll festival), the Picnic bento box consists of a sumptuous holding frame, koraku-style stacked boxes, bottles of sake, and serving dishes. This style of bento offers a practical and aesthetic way to celebrate any occasion and admire the various doll displays during the festival.
Just like koraku bentos, jubako boxes are simply stacked on top of each other to reveal an extravagant design. They have been used since the eighteenth century, often at the new years holidays and other celebrations. When properly arranged, nature scenes and lodges appear carefully crafted in bright golden tones. The tiered lunch box is the perfect way to prepare enough food for everyone without taking up too much space.
The aisai bento (meaning literally loved wife) is a lunch box made by an important, close person or your loved one and which contains cute treats, specially designed and sweet messages written with furikake (Japanese dry rice seasoning). It can be a really nice surprise to find a cute message or love-themed patterns at lunchtime.
There is also the slightly more creative kamameshi bento, with kama meaning ceramic or iron pot, and meshi meaning rice, which is a specialty of Gunma bento. It is characterized by its warmth and crispness, thanks to the terracotta pot that serves to contain its contents. Any variety of rice, meat or seafood, vegetables, fruits and nuts can be mixed to make a satisfying and comforting meal.
Cleaning And Maintenance Your Japanese Bento Box
Most bento boxes are reusable, and it’s necessary to clean these boxes before each next use. They are made of various materials, and some delicate materials like wood need more attention and care than other standard boxes. It’s even more complicated when you buy lacquerware as they are more prone to damage. You can dish wash some of the models made of thick plastic or steel, but hand-washing is always better for longevity. If you’re someone who likes to eat hot meals, it’s recommended to buy a microwave-safe bento box with good insulation.
How to make your own bento recipes?
The creation of a bento meals, whether from mass-produced or homemade food, is quite easy and there are mostly healthy ingredients used in the preparation of bento style food. With a sectioned container as a base, there are four types of foods that should be used according to Japanese tradition: carbohydrate rich foods, protein foods, vegetables and fruits.
Carbohydrates make for the largest percentage of calories, fruits and vegetables being the least in proportion of the stack. There is actually an unspoken rule to include at least one dish with the following colors: red or orange, yellow, green, white and black. Japanese like colorful food and who doesn’t, really 😉
During cooking, the rice is prepared separately while the protein rich food(comprised mostly by meat and fish) is stewed, grilled or fried. Vegetables and fruits are often prepared in advance in bulk and frozen for ease of preparation later on. A variety of textures and flavors make for a great bento meal, with each bite being its own unique experience.
After classifying each item by type, and using various silicone cups or separators to prevent unnecessary movement, it’s time to put a lid on your creation. Before closing the bento and packing it so that it can travel safely, it must be allowed to cool completely, to reduce the risk of bacterial growth.
Bento accessories and pretty containers can be purchased at relatively low prices and in hundreds of assortment options for each personal preference. Although, it is possible to make a beautiful bento without special tools, it helps to reduce time (not to mention frustrating mistakes) and use specific knives, cutouts and molds to create a pleasant aesthetic display. If that’s the traditional aesthetic feel you’re looking for, you can try wrapping your finished bento in a Tenugui towel.
Of course, if you don’t have the time to make up your own bento box, you can buy ready-made bentos throughout Japan in an variety of prices and arrangements. Fresh bentos can be purchased in the Lawsons or 7/11. Each store will offer several store-specific dishes, but for the most part you’ll find Japanese curry, soba, and udon, classic fish and vegetable dishes, and even some Western variations like the hamburger steak bento (a beef patty topped with different sauces and served with rice and potatoes).
Japanese bento boxes often come with attractive patterns and are very handy for road trips, hiking, or even daily use. They’re an excellent pick for people who admire Japanese culture. These boxes come in different sizes, shapes, capacities, and materials. So, make sure you do your research before making your decision on buying a Japanese bento box.
There you go, we’ve shortlisted some unique traditional Japanese bento boxes in our guide above. All the plastic and most common widely available bento boxes are made of BPA-free and food safe materials. These portable and stylish Japanese lunchboxes will effortlessly organize and carry all your delicious meals wherever you go.
Do you own a bento box or have you used one as a kid? If you have any suggestions or questions about bentos, please let us know in the comments below.