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A typical bento box has a balance of dishes, most often including rice, meat or fish, and pickled vegetables.

Kate Heddings
October 31, 2018

Has the world gone bento box bananas? There is no other boxed meal that demands as much attention and care as a legit bento box. The hashtag #bento has over 2.7 million tags and there are numerous Instagram accounts devoted to the craft—see @lovefirstbento:

... and @suitching_bento—they're seriously next-level:

But how much do you really know about this humble carry-all?

Well, to start, Japan has a long history of bento. The boxes first appeared in their most basic iteration about 1,000 years ago, during the Kamakura period (1185 to 1333), when they were used to carry rice. During the late 16th century, the distinct lacquered wooden box was developed, and over the next few hundred years bento was used not just to pack lunches, but for entertaining, theater excursions, travel, tea services and more. While the popularity of the bento box waned during the early 20th century due to food shortages and the fact that bento box was considered a luxury, the boxed meal surged again in popularity in the 1980s due to the emergence of the microwave and convenience stores.

Here are some fun facts you need to know about bento boxes:1. A typical bento box has a balance of dishes, most often including rice, meat or fish, and pickled vegetables. To start with the basics, try these recipes: 

Sushi rice

© Chris Court

Black cod with miso

Teriyaki salmon

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Steamed rice with pickled plums

2. There are several types of bento boxes:

  • Ekiben is sold at train stations and is often based on local specialties. There are over 6000 varieties of ekiben in Japan.

  • Kyaraben is a bento that features elaborate characters from pop culture like Hello Kitty and Pokemon. Take a look on Pinterest to see some insanely creative boxes.

  • Makunouchi bento is the traditional style box that’s eaten at the theater and contains several dishes like rice, meat, fish, egg, pickled plum and vegetables. 

  • Noriben is a classic and simple bento with fewer than four ingredients.

  • Hinomaru bento resembles the Japanese flag, with pickled plum in the center of the rice.

  • Koraku bento are large boxes meant to be shared. They’re commonly used during hanami, the cherry blossom season. 

3. Preparing your kid’s bento box in Japan is no joke. It’s considered an act of love and there is even some competition among mothers to make the most beautiful and nutritious boxes.

4. Bento boxes come in everything thing from lacquered wood to aluminum, plastic and bamboo. They can be rectangular, circular or oval, and often come with matching silverware, chopsticks and carrying pouches called kinchaku. 

5. Pissed off? Say it with a bento box. The shikaeshi bento box (aka the revenge lunchbox) is packed by wives who are angry and might fill the box with things like raw rice, raw egg or angry messages they write from strips of nori. On the flip side, the aisai box is a special box made to express love.

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