What is Bento (or obento)?
Simply put its the Japanese term for a meal in a box, that’s it. It’s not the food, its not even the box. Many Americans do buy boxes from Japan online or at local stores if available. But you most certainly don’t have to. Almost any food safe box will do, depending on what you want to take with you.
What usually occurs though is you keep packing and eating bentos and finally give in to getting a cute box. Even when you don’t like cute. That’s what happened to me. And I even started a blog about it as a result! But buying a real bento box was and is totally unnecessary, I just fell for the marketing ploy and gimmicks.
I have figured out that Japanese bento boxes do serve form and function in ways that American food storage boxes don’t compete with. Mere size for one, as most American lunch boxes are GIGANTIC compared to Japanese boxes (kinda like how we eat), as well as the easy use of tiers. But that’s really all, everything else (aka the IMPORTANT job of holding your meal) is the same. Accessories however are different and do not compare to anything on the American market – not if you are looking for the “green” and environmentally friendly options anyway – not just the cute and unnecessary. At least as far as I can tell.
Bento Box Guidelines
Yes, you need to make sure you get the right size box, otherwise you end up packing in too much food, or too little. Biggie over at Lunch in a Box has done a beautiful job of explaining the size you need.
As for what type of box to get, Maki at Just Bento has done a fantastic job of explaining the basics of the box and requirements it must meet. I might add to make sure you only use the container you pick for your bento lunches. There’s something about eating out of a box you know held leftovers that reduces the likelihood of you continuing to bring your meal. Keep the box special, in other words.
And to help take care of all those boxes and supplies Biggie at Lunch in a Box has composed an extremely handy care guide. Near the bottom of the page she has translations highlighting the various warnings written on Japanese items (for those of us who aren’t bi-lingual in Japanese).
Maki at Just Bento has created probably one of the most useful forms I have ever encountered. A weekly bento planner. Seriously. I haven’t had any lunch issues since using it and am just in complete love with it!
And I just adore Sennet’s Bento for Cheap Bastards guide. Such good advice! Extremely humorous too.
And last but not least both these lovely women have written about food safety – Lunch in a Box and Just Bento. Listen to them! I work in an environment with a fridge, microwave and toaster oven so I ignore a lot of food safety rules (as my bento is packed for only 30 mins before going into the fridge at work). If you do not have the same luxuries take heed and be careful. I have had food poisoning too many times and it is never fun.
Where to buy supplies
Firstly try your local superstores & grocery stores for things like plastic boxes, bamboo picks or cupcake liners (if you want to use any of these). And use your imagination – you would be surprised at what you can use in your bento meals.
Next try your local Asian and Japanese shops and markets. You may get lucky, you may strike out. My local area only has one Japanese market and their focus is primarily sushi and formal china and glassware. True I can get foodstuffs there I can’t anywhere else in the city but they don’t stock any actual bento supplies (other than a couple of forks and chopsticks). I had little choice but to turn to the internet for my authentic purchases.
Terms & Definitions
Dashi – stock, usually made from kelp and/or dried fish.
Furikake – a dry topping sprinkled on top of rice, to give it “flavor”. Usually seaweed, sesame seeds, salt, sugar and maybe dried fish.
Furoshiki – a wrapping cloth used to transport items – for bento it usually becomes your placemat – various techniques and a few more techniques.
Kinchaku – traditional bag, in the case of bento its used to carry your bento box & other items. Usually has ties to close it.
Mirin – similar to Sake but used for cooking. A condiment.
Onigiri – rice balls. Usually have a salty or sour filling of some kind and a piece of nori (seaweed) wrapping.
Oshibori – a wet hand towel, kinda like a permanent wet wipe. I use baby washcloths and easter eggs to transport them in.
Udon – a wheat-based Japanese noodle. Really good either hot or cold, I just prefer them cold.
Umeboshi – pickled ume fruit – related to plums and apricots.
I’ll be sure to add more info to this guide whenever I think it needs it!