What Is a Bento Box?
Bento boxes are a kitchen staple of all Japanese people. They are compartmentalized wooden or plastic trays that feature a single portion or individual meal. Bento boxes are either prepared at home or purchased from any number of locations, such as department, convenience, and grocery stores. Many restaurants also sell bento boxes as take-out/carry-out dining options.
The History of Bento Boxes
Bento boxes, like many aspects and traditions of Japanese culture, trace their origins back several centuries. While convenient portable meals first originated in the 12th century, bento boxes themselves were first used in the Edo Period of 1603-1868. Many began using bento boxes while traveling, engaging in outdoor activities, and basically any other situation where a traditional sit-down meal was not an option. They briefly decreased in popularity after World War I but saw a resurgence by the 1980s.
Symbolism of Bento Boxes
Bento boxes are excellent ways to express many aspects, symbols, and elements of Japanese culture. For example, the number five plays an important role in Japanese culture. The five colors white, black, green, red, and yellow are found throughout Japanese architecture, artwork, and more. These five colors are usually present in each meal, and bento boxes allow for easy color-coded food distribution and decoration.
The Japanese also use five different methods to prepare and consume food, as it can be raw, simmered, fried, steamed, and roasted/grilled. Additionally, there are five different flavors that should be present in each Japanese meal. They should be salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami (savory). Finally, food should be enjoyed with all five senses of taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound. Many bento boxes are constructed with these “rules of five” in mind.