Bento (written 弁当), or obento (お弁当) to use the honorific term, is the Japanese word for a meal served in a box. Beyond that basic definition though, just about anything goes as to what kind of box or container is used, as well as what is put inside that box,.
(See also: Types of homemade bento.)
There are several different kinds of bento, with different purposes. Makunouchi bento are elaborate bento meals presented at formal meals, meant to be eaten at table. This is the type you will see served in restaurants, arranged in elegant lacquered boxes. Kouraku bento are picnic bento, to be shared by a group of people enjoying themselves outdoors - the most popular settings is while enjoying the cherry blossoms in spring ((o)hahanami). Ekiben (a shortened form of eki bento) are boxed meals sold at train stations for travellers (though nowadays you can buy ekiben at many other places, such as department store food halls or convenience stores).
The kind of bento that have garnered the most attention recently, especially outside of Japan are what are called kyaraben or charaben, ‘cute bento’ ‘art bento’ or ‘entertaining bento’ (entertain-bento), extremely elaborately decorated small works of art, as exemplified by the work presented on sites like e-obento (Japanese). These are usually made by mothers for their small children. There can be a high level of competitiveness in this arena - there are tons of contests and such that feature these bentos.
Finally, there’s the plain simple bento that most people bring to work or school for lunch. It’s important to note that most Japanese people do not spend their time making elaborate charaben or ‘cute bento’ - that’s more in the realm of a hobby and craft rather than practical everyday living. The type of bento that JustBento concentrates on for the most part are practical, tasty, healthy everyday bento lunches.
As with a lot of things, my first inspiration for making bento lunches is my mother. Even with three kids and a full time job, my mother always managed to make delicious lunches for us to bring to school. They weren’t always the very prettiest, but they were tasty, filling and healthy. I also take inspiration from other members of my family - my sisters and aunts and my late grandmothers. Finally, I also refer to a number of Japanese bento books.
Here is the basic bento philosophy that’s behind the bento examples presented on this site.
Please also keep in mind that most of my bento are made with adult eaters in mind, rather than kids. They can be adapted for kids of course by perhaps reducing the quantities, or just used as-is for teenagers.
Since one of my main objectives is to make my bentos healthy, many are totally vegetarian or vegan, while all rely heavily on vegetable products. Meat is not used often as a main ingredient. However, some dishes do use non-vegetarian flavoring or texturizing ingredients, such as oyster sauce, fish sauce, dried bonito flakes or dried shrimp, and eggs. I’ve indicated when an obento is 100% vegetarian/vegan or not. Many bentos that are not vegetarian can be adapted to become so if needed. (I also use things like a little bit of sugar, tomato ketchup and so on as flavoring on occasion.)
Rice is the base for Japanese style bentos, and I have chosen to use brown rice (genmai) in most cases, since it’s nutritionally superior to white rice. White can be used instead. About half of the bentos presented here have Japanese flavors, but there are also plenty of not-Japanese bentos.
The traditional Japanese bento ratio of rice or carb (shushoku), protein and other (usually vegetables) components is 4:2:1, or 4 parts rice to 2 parts protein to 1 part other ingredients. The recommended ratio, advocated by various nutritionists, for people trying to lose weight or eat healthily is 3:2:1. I aim more for a 1:1 ratio in terms of volume between rice and protein, with the rest taken up by lots of vegetables. In other words I try to have a bit less rice or other carb, and a lot more veggies. There is usually 3/4 to 1 cup of rice, which is about 160 to 220 calories, in each ~600 calorie bento box.
Below are links to more pages in the Bento Basics handbook.
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And visit our sister site, Just Hungry for great Japanese home recipes and more.