Japanese Bento: Its Origins and Popular Sides

By Umami Recipe
Japanese Bento: Its Origins and Popular Sides

The "Bento Box", you may have heard of it--a meal concept that is becoming increasingly known outside of Japan, it consists of a portion of rice with several side dishes, all within the confines of a portable, usually, rectangular box.   

In Japan, because of its portable design, bentos are often brought to school, work or prepared for picnics. Bento is also readily available at convenience stores and bento shops which are common throughout urban and suburban Japan. Preparing your own bento can be time-consuming, but over time, families are known to develop their own combinations of side dishes. 

What kind of sides are popular in Japanese bento? Also, where does the bento come from, as it has evolved to become Japan's solution to portable cuisine? In this article, we explore the colorful origins of the Bento Box and a few classic side dishes.

The Origin and Spread of Bento

The first signs of portable eating is said to date back to the Heian period (794-1185), where rice balls and pre-cooked dried rice was prepared in a way that allowed for outside consumption. Dried rice was popular for its  resistance to spoiling and excellent preservation properties.

It was during the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1603) that bento boxes came to be enjoyed as we know them today. In the Edo period (1603-1868), the koshi bento (waist bento) became popular, which consisted of rice balls wrapped in bamboo bark.

In the Meiji era (1868-1912), the concept of eating out at a restaurant type establishment was yet to be a reality, so business people had their lunches prepared at home for eating later. Its true that bento shops and train station lunches existed to anyone who could afford them, but the reality was that there was a large portion of the population who were still too poor to even prepare homemade bento lunches. 

In the Showa era (1926-1989), bento boxes made of aluminum were developed. Books on bento were also published and the variety of bento side dishes increased. After the end of World War II, take-out lunch box stores were born, and convenience stores also became popular. As a result, bento became more familiar to people. Also, the aluminum bento boxes were gradually replaced by plastic options. 

In the Heisei era (1989), the resilience of bento boxes was evident by the excitement around bento boxes available at airports. The Heisei era also saw the emergence of character-based lunch boxes called "chara-ben," which were popularized overseas under the same name. In the Heisei era, various types of bento boxes were introduced, including slim, colorful, and materials that were heat-retaining. With each passing era, bento has evolved, becoming more accessible, portable and varying in their content, underscoring the strength of the "bento" as a part of Japanese life and custom.

Classic Bento Side Dishes

Bento sides are complementary to the rice that it accompanies and come in all ingredients and seasonings. But as an introduction, we will keep it simple, narrowing down the selection to four of the most iconic. 

We can't talk about bento sides and not include tamagoyaki--the Japanese omelette. Even though tamagoyaki is simple in its preparation, a lot of fuss can be made as to what the best should taste like. Many variations exist, for example, there is sweet tamagoyaki, sour tamagoyaki, as well as cheese and crabmeat tamagoyaki, with as many nuances as there are families in Japan. 

Second, there is potato salad, a side that grew in popularity for its taste, but also for the fact that the ingredients are easy to come by and the preparation is easy. 

Third is a hearty meat side, teriyaki chicken. One needs to remember that by the time the bento is ready to be eaten, its contents will likely have cooled down. Teriyaki chicken passes the taste test at room temperature, making it a standard bento side. 

Finally, we have seasoned ground chicken, or chicken soboro in Japanese. Another delicious side that retains its flavor several hours after preparation and is easy to prepare when time is a factor. 

These are just a few of the sides that you will encounter in a Japanese bento box, with regional and seasonal ingredients adding to the color and creativity of these mini-universes in a box. 

Side Dishes Suitable for Bento

We have mentioned in passing the three characteristics that all bento sides must pass before entry into the box: it can be prepared in advance; it taste good cold; and it is easy to prepare.

Especially for those of us who need every extra minute of sleep they can squeeze out of the morning, finding time to cook any side dishes at first dawn--simple or not--is out of the question. A trick the Japanese have mastered is overcooking dinner sides the night before, so they can make a reappearance in the lunch box of the following day. The chicken soboro and potato salad mentioned earlier are great examples of bento dishes that can be made ahead of time.

For the beginner bento enthusiast, getting past eating food cold may be the biggest hurdle to fully enjoying bento. No matter how easy it is to make a side dish, if it doesn't taste good cold, it doesn't make the cut. The best side dishes that retain their taste cold are lean meats and non-oily dishes. If the ingredients are swimming in fat or oil, these will harden at cooler temperatures, causing an unappetizing surprise when the lid is lifted. As a last resort, if you find that many of the dishes you make do not taste good when cold, try using a bento box that retains heat.

Third feature of bento friendly sides is the simplicity factor. Since bentos are eaten almost every day, it is important that the sides are practical and simple to make. Onigiri (rice balls) are another example of a bento staple that is easy to prepare.

Stick to these three rules the next time you try designing the perfect bento box. Once you have them down, then the sky's the limit to the creativity and flavors that can be packed within the four walls of your bento kingdom.

The Depth of Bento Culture

Through the centuries, bento has become, not only the popular choice, but a form of expression for limitless creativity and affection. The thoughtfully made bento carries with it the feelings of the preparer. Many scenes exist of a loving parent preparing colorful bentos for their child. Some would argue that they go too far! Here at Umami Recipe, we encourage you to learn about Japanese bento culture--who knows, it may inspire you to try a bento picnic on a fine summer day!

Umami Recipe Team

Bringing what's new on Japanese food and culture, from traditional to current trends to your home.