Since I’ve recommended two wooden boxes as the Bento Box of the Week so far, a few people have asked how practical wooden bento boxes are.
Wood was the traditional material used for bento boxes and tabletop presentation containers (also called bento, or if a multilayer one juubako). It was either coated with lacquer, or left uncoated. Also recently wooden tableware has has a small resurgence in popularity in Japan, especially for kids’ tableware, since it won’t break if dropped and is considered kinder to the environment. Wood does need a bit of care to keep in shape, and you should never put it in the dishwasher. But I think wood is such a nicer material than plastic, and it’s a pleasure to use it on occasion. (Even teakwood salad bowls may make a comeback…who knows. I remember tossing out a bunch of them from my father’s old house in the late ’80s when he moved, thinking they were ugly…how I regret that now!)
Also, a reader emailed me wondering why the lacqured box featured here was so much more expensive than ones she’d seen on eBay. The main reason that the featured box is rather expensive is that it’s hand carved and lacquered. They even state that they will re-lacquer their wares upon request. But I looked around on eBay, and it looks like most of the bento boxes described as “lacquer” are actually lacquer-look plastic. You have to read the descriptions carefully in that case. I’ve also seen items listed as wood and lacqured for around US $25, such as this one. It looks very similar to this box which is sold through Amazon Japan for 1,600 yen. That one gets terrible one-star reviews though (see also here) saying that no matter what is done, it smells strongly of lacquer, so that it’s unusable for food.
There are perfectly usable machine-carved lacquerware items out there, but I would generally be skeptical of a box that was sold in Japan for under 2,000 yen or on the auction sites for under $30. Lacquer itself is not a cheap thing, and it takes skill to know how to apply it properly. I guess you get what you pay for as with most things.
One problem that I used to have when I lived in a New York City apartment was that some of my lacquerware would start peeling and chipping. This is due to a lack of humidity - the typical overheated apartment is about as dry as a desert. This problem is best solved by increasing the overall humidity in the area with humidifiers - your sinuses and houseplants will be much happier too. Better quality lacquerware is much less likely to peel, and the most vulnerable items are things like miso soup bowls with a curved surface.
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