Bento Boxes have been in use for more than a thousand years dating back to the Kamakura period, (1185 to 1333). Workers were given a bento box to carry dried rice (hoshi-ii) to work which was eaten as is or boiled with water to make cooked rice.
In the the Edo period (1603–1867), the bento box concept spread and became more of a refined object. Travelers would move from one city to the next carrying a waist bento box. It would contain several onigiri (Japanese rice balls) wrapped in bamboo leaves.
During the Edo period one of the most popular uses for bento boxes was in Japan’s theatrical culture (Kabuki & Noh) where people sitting in the theater would eat specially prepared bento box meals between acts. Many cook books were written detailing cook, pack and what to prepare for special occasions.
Moving forward a few hundred years later, although there is much more history behind bento they regained popularity in the late 1980s. Airlines adopted the idea for their meals, microwave meals were all prepared in bento style and the concept is still in use today.
Today we see the use of bento boxes in most Asian restaurants, mostly made from ABS plastic with a red or black lacquer to add to its appeal. They are also made from stainless steel which more robust and easy to clean. The most expensive are made from timber or bamboo bento boxes with a handcrafted base and lid with ABS plastic inner tray.
In Japan bento boxes are still quite common, widely used in schools, students have specially prepared meals to take with them. Workers use them as packed lunches to last them throughout the day. Families prepare bento meals for picnics, long trips and and on sports days.