If you’re a fan of Japanese food, you’ve probably had a bento box before. The bento box might just seem like a trendy Japanese meal presented in an aesthetically pleasing box, but bento boxes have been a staple of Japanese culinary history for centuries -- about 8 centuries, in fact! Read on to learn all about when, how and why the bento came to be the uber popular meal-in-a-box it is today – with Sakura Hibachi Grill & Sushi All You Can Eat, your friendly Japanese foodie and purveyor here in Glenview, IL.
The word “bento” is derived from the Chinese word biàndāng, a Southern Song dynasty slang term which means “convenient” – which refers to both the bento meal and the bento box itself. The earliest and most basic iteration of the bento can be traced back to the Kamakura period (1185 to 1333 CE), when people carried cooked and dried rice in small sacks to eat at work. During the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568-1600), the classic wooden lacquered bento boxes began being produced and used as lunch boxes instead of sacks.
Over the next few hundred years, bentos gained in popularity and prominence, becoming more refined and elegant. Specially prepared bento were used for tea services, theater intermissions, travel, entertaining, and more. During the Edo period (1603-1867), numerous cookbooks were published dedicated to preparing, cooking and packing bento for special occasions.
Rise and Decline in Popularity
The bento became a staple during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) among schoolchildren and teachers as well, since early Japanese schools did not provide lunches. Bento boxes also began being sold at train stations during this time. During the Taishō period (1912-1926), the aluminum bento box became quite popular, and was seen as both a luxury item and a topic of social controversy. Disparities in wealth were seen all too easily in the type of bento box people carried, especially in schools. The aluminum bento box as well as the meal inside it (rich, varied foods vs simple and basic foods) became status symbols.
However, food shortages began sweeping the country soon after and bentos gradually started becoming less commonplace. And after WWII, the practice of bringing bentos to school declined further as schools began providing lunches for students and staff.
Bentos regained popularity in the 1980s, in large part due to the emergence of the microwave and the rapid rise of the now ubiquitous 24-hour Japanese convenience stores (called conbini) which began selling affordable and tasty bentos. Many bento shops and sellers replaced expensive wood and metal boxes with inexpensive polystyrene bento boxes. Handmade bentos have also made a comeback. They are seen fairly commonly in schools, used by many workers as a packed lunch, by families on day trips, by students and teachers on school excursions, and are even quite popular on social media. You can find bentos nearly anywhere in Japan today, from convenience stores to train stations, from airports to shops, and even in restaurants that specialize exclusively in bentos.
Throughout its long history, the bento box has been about convenience and a nutritious, portable meal. From very simple and basic to meticulously planned, prepared and decorated, the bento is a cornerstone of Japanese culinary history that has spread around the globe and is enjoyed by people everywhere today.
Craving a delicious bento box in Glenview, IL? Enjoy one here at Sakura Hibachi Grill & Sushi All You Can Eat – freshly prepared and thoughtfully filled with all of your favorite Japanese foods!