Japanese lunch boxes or bento boxes have been quote popular since the 1980's. The introduction of the microwave oven caused a massive hike in bento box use and since then the traditional style bento box has come back.
The first bento boxes were though to have been first used during the Japanese Edo period circa 1603-1867. At the time they were quite bland including rice and a few ingredients but as time passed the idea caught on and within a few hundred years they were being widely used in theaters as intermission meals and a few hundred years later a trend that continues on strongly.
The main ingredients of a bento box was normally cooked rice which was accompanied by pickled vegetables or a mixed salad along with fish or meat. Following is a guide for the most popular bento box ingredients.
It is believed that the Japanese first learned how to grow rice around 300 BC which was introduced by the Chinese. At the time a short-grained japonica variety was common as the mild and humid climate made it easy to grow the crop which spread to the rest of Japan within a few hundred years.
At around the fifth century dried rice was being served in single compartment bento boxes as lunch for people going out to to hunt, work on farms or wage war. The bento box made it easier for them to eat on the go and was either eaten as it was or re-hydrated with water to make rice balls.
Today the rice is one of the main ingredients in almost all bento boxes and can be prepared in many ways which include;
- Hakumai "white rice"
- Genmai "brown rice"
- Sekihan "rice cooked with red beans"
- Zakkokumai "rice with mixed grains"
- Noriben "rice covered with nori seaweed"
- Wakame Gohan "rice mixed with seaweed"
Translated into English as a Japanese salt plum, umeboshi are basically dried pickled plumbs which are most commonly eaten in Japan. Originally eaten by the samurai to combat battle fatigue and a remedy for colds and flues. They are extremely sour and salty however they also have a sweet version which is pickled with honey. Umeboshi is normally served with rice in small quantities to add flavor and presentation to the meal.
Umeboshi were also widely used after World War 2 by the Japanese for their Hinomaru Bento Box which translates to Japanese Flag Bento. The circle symbolizing the sun was a small piece of Umeboshi placed in the middle of a one piece bento box with white rice.
Salads are used in bento boxes to balance the meal out, re-freshen the palate, ad some crisp flavors and add colour to the meal. Japanese salads would include Natto salad which include natto, green onion, green salad and sesame oil. Wakame seaweed salad included dried wakame seaweed, rice vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, grated ginger, grated garlic and sesame seeds. Bonito Salad included frozen sweet Peas, bonito flakes, tuna, egg noodles, large eggs, water, salt and chopped parsley flakes. Broccolini Gomaae was another variation of gomaae but with broccoli.
Tamagoyaki which is a Japanese type of omelet which includes sugar, soy sauce, sake or mirin. The ingredients were grilled in a rectangular pan which was then rolled in thin layers. Other versions included dashimaki tamago which included dashi, dried bonito stock and kelp. Although Tamagoyaki was used in bento boxes it was also served in sushi rolls or served for breakfast meal.
Agemono is basically deep-fried Japanese food. There are many types of Agemono including Karaage which is small portions of seafood and meat with flavouring and then fried. Other types of agemono include Karaage, Japanese fried chicken, octopus, Kaki Furai, Deep fried oysters in a panko batter, ebi furai, Deep fried shrimps in a panko batter, korokke which is a Japanese version of Portuguese croquette, Tempura which we all know and Tonkatsu. Agemono is a perfect addition to any bento box as they are prepared in bite sized portions.
Tonkatsu translates to pork cutlet which looks very similar to the Geraman Schnitzel. The dish made from deep-fried pork cutlets which are coated in flour, eggs, and panko flakes. The Panko flakes make the pork very crunchy which is a great addition to a bento box meal. Tonkatsu is widely cooked in most Asian countries but invented in Japan late in the 19th century by a restaurant called Rengatei in Tokyo.
Typically sliced into thick bite-size pieces and served with a side of shredded cabbage, cucumber slices and drizzled with Tonkatsu Sauce. The dish is an enduring favourite among Japanese of all ages and perfect as an add-on to any bento box meal as the bite sizes are work in perfectly with chopsticks.
Typically mackerel, salmon, or unagi (eel).
Nimono is a Japanese dish that includes a base ingredient simmered in shiru stock which is flavored with sake, soy sauce, and a small amount of sweetening. The base ingredient of Nimono can vary from vegetable, fish, seafood, tofu singly or combined together. Types include;
- Misoni which is fish but can also be made with vegetables.
- Nikujaga is beef and potato stew which is then flavored with sweet soy sauce.
- Nizakana is locally caught fish poached in broth of sweetened dashi
- Kakuni are small bite sized chunks of pork belly stewed in soy, mirin and sake with large pieces of daikon and boiled eggs.
- Finally Okinawan which consists of pork stewed with bone.
Gyudon, a flavorful layer of beef served atop a bed of rice.
Sushi which is widely eaten around the world is a specially prepared bite sized meal made from vinegared rice and combined with a selection of ingredients including seafood, vegies or omelette. Often also served with pickled ginger, wasabi, and soy sauce. Seafood types include calamari, eel or crab meat.
Sushi was first made around the 8th century in Japan and was originally a way of preserving fish in fermented rice. In the Muromachi period, people caught on and began to eat the rice with the fish which took on as a new meal. Later in the Edo period vinegar was used in rice instead of the fermentation process as it was easier and quicker to prepare. Today Sushi is a readily available fast food which is associated with Japanese cuisine.