So what is this 'bento'?
Bento boxes themselves range from handsome lacquered wood boxes, with which you may be served in a nice Japanese restaurant, to children's plastic lunchboxes decorated with cartoon (anime) character art. There are styles to appeal to the businessman, the elegant young lady, the differing tastes of little boys and girls. I once saw an extra-large charcoal-grey bento box that I thought would be exactly right for Tony Soprano!
As with so much of modern Japanese culture, the aesthetic (especially for children and young women) is strongly based on a compact cuteness. If you went to a school where kids brought packed lunches, you know how much it means to a kid when Mum (or Dad, or whoever takes care of these things at home) packs his or her favourites, and what a social advantage it is to have a parent who packs lunches that are admired or envied, particularly if the food is handy for swapping and sharing. The same is true in Japanese schools, but the 'judges' award a lot of additional points for presentation. There is often some rivalry between housewife-mothers to produce the niftiest bento, which can be fun, but is a source of serious and unwelcome social pressure for some women, who rise early in the morning and agonise over what to make today, so their children's friends and teachers won't think they suck.
The base of any bento lunch is cold, cooked white rice, or sometimes noodles - the filling, carbohydrate-rich staples of the Japanese diet. (I wonder if anyone in Japan is willing to try the Atkins diet, or are they all too sensible?) In addition, there's okazu - side dishes, which can include meat, fish, eggs, tofu, fruit and vegetables, all presented in bite-size form for handy chopstick action. They all have to be prepared in such a way that they will taste nice cold (although sometimes bento is reheated). Okazu add colour and flavour, vary with the seasons, and round out the nutritional value of the meal with protein, vitamins and minerals. For colour and dietary balance, try to have one 'protein' item and at least two from the fruit/veg category (remember, a healthy diet includes at least five handful-sized portions of fruit and vegetables a day). Of course, there are also different ways of dressing up the rice or noodles to avoid monotony. As well as seasonal items, bento may showcase regional specialties - this is true of ekiben, takeaway bento sold at railway stations around Japan. You can take an ekiben eating tour of the nation if you like!
And what is this site?
A little personal bento fan site, where I hope to share knowledge and interesting ideas about this delightful slice of Japanese food culture. I've been growing more interested in bento over the last couple of years, but I've had some difficulty in finding the sort of information I wanted as a beginner, so I've tried to bring it together on this site. My approach to bento is not rigidly traditional - authenticity is pleasing when it's practical, but if you just can't lay your hands on or really don't like some of the 'true' Japanese ingredients, I see nothing wrong with local substitutions and following your own tastes. Please browse around, and use the contact form to let me know what you think!
Around the site you'll find some links to Jbox, a Japanese pop culture shopping site that I really like. I'm in their affiliates programme, so I get a commission (store credit) if you buy something from them after clicking through one of my links. If you like this site, I would be very grateful if you made any Jbox purchases in this way. Of course, clicking on my links in no way obliges you to buy anything!