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Breaking Down the Bento Box: Contents, History & Recipe Recommendations

By Annika Hotta
Updated: March 19, 2024

Bento boxes are a quintessential part of Japanese culture. You'll see people of all ages and demographics eating them, from schoolchildren to friends enjoying a picnic under the cherry blossom trees (hanami) to salarymen. But what does "bento" mean in terms of its history and the food inside it? This blog post breaks down the bento box like never before. 

What is a bento box? 

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Bento, also known honorifically as "obento," are ubiquitous in Japan. But what does the word bento mean? Well, bento, in its simplest translation, refers to packed lunches. To save money, many people make lunches at home to bring to the office or school. Others who don't have the time or energy to make lunch ahead of time may buy one at the convenience store or supermarket. 

Bento boxes traditionally contain a light meal with ingredients that work in conjunction with one another. It is not the same as leftovers — there is a rice or noodle dish, a meat or seafood dish, an egg dish, and a fruit or vegetable dish. Ingredients may change depending on the season, but bento boxes remain consistent in lightness, convenience, and healthiness. 

Different types of bento 

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Although some categories may blend together, there are commonly thought to be eight different types of bento: 

Kyaraben (character bento): bento with the ingredients (especially the rice) shaped to look like characters from the recipients' favorite anime or movies. Typically made for kids by their dedicated grandmothers and mothers. 

Ekiben: bento to be eaten on the Shinkansen. You can find these at bento shops within the train station — sometimes before the gate or on the platform itself. 

Konbini bento: bento you can buy at your local Lawson, Seven Eleven, or Family Mart. 

Jubako: ornate boxes that contain osechi ryouri, or food to be eaten over the Japanese New Year (oshogatsu). They'll usually come in a stack with sets for the whole family. You can find these at bento shops or in department stores. 

Koraku: bento that you bring on a picnic. These will be themed after the season, especially in the spring during cherry blossom season

Hokaben: bento that is made to order at a bento shop. 

Oekakiben: "picture bento" that looks like real-life people, art, buildings, and landscapes. 

Makunouchi bento: a bento split into two panels with rice on one side and the remaining side dishes on the other. 

The history of bento 

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The first version of bento seen in Japan as early as the 5th century was hoshii: rice that is boiled, dried, and sometimes molded into a rice ball. Farmers, hunters, and soldiers who were away from home would bring hoshii along with them to provide sustenance for their long days, sometimes boiling it or eating it as is. 

As for where the term "bento" came from, it's thought to come from the simple meals that the notorious military commander Oda Nobunaga would distribute to people staying in his castle in the 16th century. 

The Edo Period (1603–1868) is when Makunouchi bento first hit the scene as a meal to eat during the intermission of theatre performances. "Makunouchi" literally translates to "when the curtains close," signifying its importance as a culinary accompaniment to the arts.

Ekiben popped up during the Meiji Period (1868–1912) when the first railroads were being built. In 1885, the first ekiben was reportedly sold at Utsunomiya Station, Tochigi Prefecture. 

The following Taisho Period (1912–1926) is when bento became popularized as a midday meal to bring to school or the office. Since then, bento boxes have become not just a convenient lunch but a piece of edible art! 

What to put in your bento 

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A traditional bento typically consists of three ingredients: a rice or noodle dish, a fish or meat dish, and vegetables — usually pickled (tsukemono) or cooked tempura-style. 

You can make them as basic or artistic as you want. The most important component of bento boxes is keeping the balance. You don't want to do anything heavy like omurice, for example. 

Here are a few ideas of bento box meal ideas that you can mix and match as you please: 

  • Rice: rice with furikake seasoning, onigiri, egg fried rice, etc. 
  • Eggs: hard-boiled eggs, tamagoyaki egg roll, or fried egg (placed on top of rice) 
  • Meat: tonkatsu pork cutlets, 
  • Seafood: marinated shrimp, sushi, sashimi, etc. 
  • Vegetables: edamame, salad (dressing separate), takuan (pickled daikon radish), pickled ginger, fried lotus root, carrot salad, korokke, etc. 
  • Fruits: grapes, cherry tomatoes, kiwi, strawberries, etc. 

How to make a bento box 

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If you're looking for bento box recipe inspiration, Pinterest and YouTube are great resources to start with. Imamu Room on YouTube is a personal favorite for her "husbento" series, which features the wide variety of bento boxes she makes for her husband each week. She has subtitles in English for those who want to follow along! 

Another thing you'll notice about bento box content is the different arrangements you can make. Since bento are typically made in the morning to be consumed hours later at lunchtime, keeping things fresh is important. 

The best way to do that is to use cupcake liners if you have a more traditional wooden bento box or get a modern bento box with separate containers. Stores like Don Quijote, Daiso, and Seria sell these liners in big bundles, so pick up those to make bento arrangements that much easier! 

If you're still not sure about making a bento on your own, why not try a bento box cooking class? You can try this one in Nagoya to learn how to make cute seasonal bento from a Japanese grandma, or this one in Tokyo to learn how to make kyaraben, or character bento, featuring your favorite Studio Ghibli characters! 

Whether this article made you want to go out and buy a bento at your local convenience store or attempt making one yourself, we hope this bento breakdown taught you a little bit more about the iconic boxed lunch of Japan. 

We strive to be as accurate as possible and keep up with the changing landscape of Japan's food and travel industries. If you spot any inaccuracies, please send a report.
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Annika Hotta
After studying abroad in Shiga prefecture in 2019, Annika moved to Japan in 2021. In her writing, she highlights the best dishes and places to eat in Japan for both the picky and the adventurous.
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