History of Bento
A traditional meal in Japan since the late Kamakura Period (1185 to 1333), a Japanese bento lunch box offers both style and substance. The word “Bento” comes from a Southern Song Dynasty slang term (biàndāng), which means “convenience”. In Japan, a bento box usually contains rice, fish or meat, and pickled or cooked vegetables; the boxes range from disposable containers to hand crafted lacquerware. Besides the creativity that goes into turning the ingredients into popular characters (from manga and anime, usually) or animals and pastoral scenes, a Japanese bento lunch box is a healthy choice—after eating one, you’ll have none of the fatigue of an overfilling, highly salty or sweet lunch.
How to get started
To get you started, we’ve gathered a few recipes that will fill a modern Bento Lunch Box nicely. In a slight twist on the traditional rice and fish lunch, try a sesame beef with vegetables bento. Stir fry the beef the night before (sesame oil or olive oil at medium heat is best for preserving healthy fats) and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Add a dash of fresh orange juice for flavor, if you like. Spinach or kale lightly steamed is a very healthy compliment to meat, as is brown rice or udon noodles—which you can make several days ahead of time and keep in the fridge. The vegetables can be cooked the night before, but, if you have time in the morning to steam them, so much the better. Carrots or bean sprouts add both color and nutrients to this well-rounded (so to speak) bento lunch box.
If you’re ready to try packing a truly Japanese bento lunch box, don’t fear: it’s not that complicated. This recipe comes from Just Bento, and it’s a good starter for folks new to Japanese cuisine.
- The ingredients are white rice (which is often shaped into balls and wrapped with seaweed), fresh salted salmon or tuna, and tamagoyaki (a delicious, sweet omelet). These main features are often paired with snow peas and broccoli. Making and arranging this bento takes about twenty minutes, and it’s best done in the morning, but can be made up the night before.
- Always pack the rice in first—in Japan, the rice gets the biggest compartment, but choose according to your own health needs—as it serves as a bed for steamed snow peas (mangetout, in Japanese). You can flatten the rice out with a spoon or a clean hand to make it more manageable and attractive.
- The fish can be precooked and frozen, and taken out in the morning; by lunch, it will be thawed out.
- Broccoli and snow peas can be steamed together in a shallow pan of salt water, and sprinkled with pepper for yang heat.
- A one-egg tamagoyaki is easy to prepare: mix one large egg, one tablespoon water, one teaspoon soy sauce, a half teaspoon sugar, and a tablespoon of bonito flakes, if you have them on hand. Heat a small frying pan with a shot of vegetable oil, and pour the egg mix in when the pan is hot. Stir gently with a fork until the omelet is half set, then fold it in half with a spatula. From here, you make a little package of the egg: fold one third over itself, then fold the other side halfway down. Press gently with the spatula, flip the tamagoyaki over, and press again—careful not to let it over-brown.
- After you take it out of the pan and let it cool, cut it in half and pack it in your Slimline bento lunch box, in the same compartment as the fish. This step too can be done the night before, without sacrificing any taste or texture.
Children's Lunch ideas
Finally, a simple idea for a child’s lunch: cut their favorite sandwich into a circle, add crusts for ears and paws, and use carrot bits for eyes and a mouth. Place the rabbit (or bear, lion, or monkey—whichever you come up with) on a bed of celery strips with peanut butter, suggesting a forest. This is a healthy lunch, which children will actually eat—it’s fun to eat designs, lunch is suddenly more interesting. Just packing a Japanese bento lunch box is more interesting than the usual brown bag routine—browse our modern take on the traditional bento design by trying our PackTOGO Slimline Bento Lunch Box offerings to find one that suits your needs.