For most of us lunch boxes never held much fascination. These boxes are usually filled with rice, sometimes mixed with sambar, rasam, curd or more kuzhambu or packed separately. Rice and curry are usually accompanied by vegetable kootu or fry, eggs or fish and rarely meat. It is the more elaborate typical Tamil lunch box you can find.
There is not much innovation you can do in a lunch box with a typical Tamil food.
But that is not true of all cultures. Japan has a unique lunch box culture called bento. Bento is home-made food, which could be rice, vegetables, pickles, meat, fish and desserts, packed in a box-shaped container, sometimes layered to hold many dishes. I first caught bentos in anime, where a girl in love spends hours making bento for her boyfriend or the guy she likes. This expresses the height of affection she harbours for the guy. But that is not all that bento represents.
Bento signifies a lot of things for the Japanese. It is a matter of pride and a form of love and affection. It is also an indicator of wealth. According to a research paper I read on food culture in Japan, in Japanese society mothers are judged based on what type of bento her child brings to school. The time, effort and quality of ingredients the mother uses to make the bento indicated the love, affection and also wealth in ancient times.
But boxed lunches are not a recent phenomenon. History of bentos go way back to Kamakura period to 12th century when dried rice was first prepared to be eaten outside, mostly by farmers who work on field. Years later it caught nobles’ fancy, who began to make bento when travelling, to schools (it is an elaborate bento when it is nobles kids) and at venues of entertainment like theatres where people have to stay for hours.
This culture has continued till date as we see in contemporary Japan. With the advent of canteens and subsidised food, it is hard to see people carrying a bento to school or workplace. This might have resulted in bento losing a bit of sheen, though not completely. There are many restaurants and supermarkets that sell different types of bento.
Bento can be classified based on ingredients used and occasion it is used. Bento boxes too come in different shapes and sizes from plastic to bamboo and lacquered boxes.
Having a picnic during Hanami (cherry blossom flower viewing festival) is a long standing tradition in Japan. So is tradition of carrying a bento. These bentos are called Kouraku bento and is dubbed autumn-expression box as it usually eaten during hanami with family and friends. It is usually filled with food like omelets, octopus shaped sausages, rice, tempura and pickles and are often in tiers as they have to cater to large group of people.
But the most common one you would see in anime/manga is the Hinomaru bento. It is bento filled with cooked white rice with umeboshi (pickled plum) in the centre.
You will also remember Kyaraben bento where the fillings are made to look like characters. In the manga Love so Life, heroine Shiharu Nakamura makes cute bento boxes for the cute twins Aoi and Akane when they go to the zoo. These characters could also resemble anime characters, popular culture, plants and animals or actually anything you want. Girls usually make bentos with lot of heart shape characters in them. Take your pick if you want to try.
Ekiben is the bento you get in train stations, though it is not very clear as to how they originated or where it was first started. Students usually bring noriben to school, which is again classic and is made with less than four materials. Rice is covered in nori aka seaweed, hence the name nori.
If you are wondering what bento the super rice or a gourmand would eat, it is Makunouchi bento, which is a classic style bento with rice of course and everything you can think of, cooked and arranged in perfection. It is served in lacquered boxes and usually reserved for special occasions. You will find this in many high-end restaurants.