ORIGINS: For the Love of Bento
A compact history of the compact lunch.
November 10, 2016
Portable, compartmental, stackable: bento boxes are an OCD dreamscape (bento literally translates to “convenience” in several languages). But before they were a serving container for immaculate $13 poké, bento boxes functioned as lunch sacks for farmers, ceremonial receptacles for memorial services, and the sole food offering at Japanese train stations.
In this installment of ORIGINS, Priya Krishna digs through the Internet and a few choice tomes — shout-out to Re-orienting Cuisine: East Asian Foodways in the Twenty-First Century and The Essence of Japanese Cuisine: An Essay on Food and Culture — to provide a compact history.
1185: Bentos are born as the world’s first answer to #SadDeskLunch when Japanese workers start bringing packed lunches consisting primarily of dried rice (to later be rehydrated) when they headed out into the fields to hunt or farm.
1568: Bento receives a major upgrade in the form of those fancy lacquered boxes that we now know and love. These boxes are used to serve food during social gatherings.
1603-1850s: Bento boxes get a nice long couple of centuries to find their niche. Different variations emerge, and their popularity goes way, way up. We see the invention of something called a koshibento, or onigiri (rice balls) tied in bamboo leaves—for easy transport. Makeunouchi Bento becomes the bento box for theater—consumed during intermissions of Kabuki plays. Bento boxes also make appearances on restaurant menus, at the Japanese Cherry Blossom festival (Hanami), during tea ceremonies, and at memorial services. Everyone, it seems, wants to have a bento box. (India concurrently experiences the rise of tiffin-boxes, stacked steel compartments that served the same purpose in a vertical vessel.)
1860s: Bento boxes officially become a train station staple with the arrival of Japan's first railway system—these variations are dubbed "ekiben": eki meaning station, ben, lunch. As with most major trends, the dates get a little fudged, but according to a snippet in Jack's Japonica, the first ekiben — rice balls with pickled apricots inside, hello — was reportedly sold in 1885 at Utsunomiya Station in Tochigi Prefecture. Regardless of who did it first, by the beginning of the twentieth century, European influence starts to trickle in, and bento boxes start swapping out classic onigiri for sandwiches.
1912-1926: Japan suffers widespread crop failures due to the WWI export boom, and as a result, many Japanese workers are out of a job and the need for packed, commuter lunches declines. Wealthy kids, however, start bringing sleek-looking aluminum bento boxes to school, and the bento box become the ultimate status symbol. (This is still a thing. Don't pretend like you don't remember the cutthroat lunchbox game of your youth.)
1980s: Microwaves, TV dinners, and convenience stores give way to America’s obesity crisis! Meanwhile, Japan sees a resurgence of the bento box. Companies start to manufacture and mass market affordable versions, and the bento box becomes a household staple once again.
Early 2000s: For conclusive proof that Japan definitely does food better than you, look no further than Kyaraben, the ultimate in bento box styling practice that goes viral and becomes a worldwide craze. People start to style their bento box interiors to look like everything from anime characters to animals to video game backdrops. These become the Black Tap milkshakes of the pre-Instagram era—and Kyaraben continues its meteoric rise to this day.
Seriously, look it up.