Written by

Andrew Millar


January 6, 2008

If gluttony rules the airwaves, then there is no sign of its translation to the actual everyday eating habits of the Japanese – although I have my doubts with Krispy Kreams! (See Bleat to follow)

Japan is not like America where all you can eat means you need to eat all. And I have seen people in America try….

No, food is part of the sacred culture of this country and in real life it is treated with respect.

The ultimate expression of this is Bento.

Bento is a single serve prepacked meal. Traditionally this consists of rice, fish or meat and one or more pickled or cooked vegetables as a side dish. Bento is easily available across Japan through convenience stores, bento shops, train stations and in food halls of department stores. As aesthetically pleasing as any Japanese art or craft, it is still common for the Japanese to spend time and energy preparing bento for those who will be eating away from home that day. Bento is an art form and can be as elaborate.

Even if the food isn’t, the boxes are.

Most Bento now comes on a decorated segmented plastic tray and starts around $5. However, I did see one for $250 in the food hall of Diamaru in Sapporo. That came in a multi layered, black and red lacquered box which was probably plastic. The genuine lacquered boxes cost thousands.

I’ve also seen elaborate boxes in museums.

So here is the art part. Like most Japanese crafts there are strict rules.

Firstly proper Bento must embrace the concept of goshiki or five colours; Red or orange, white, black or purple, green and yellow. Each of the colours apparently has a meaning. The only one I can identify at the moment is red which equates with love, mostly the love of the ‘preparer’ for the ‘eater’.

Red can take the form of carrots, peppers, tomatoes, salmon or strawberries and so on.

White is there in the form of rice but can also be white beans, bean sprouts, lotus root or chicken.

Black is normally represented by Nori or Sea weed or Black Beans. Yellow by lemons, yaba or squash. And green by, well, anything green.

The second rule is that you need to employ goho, or 5 different cooking methods. These can be grilling, frying, simmering, steaming, pickling and boiling. I’m not sure if raw qualifies as a cooking method or not. But I’ve eaten many raw bits and pieces in the last couple of days, not all of which I can identify.

The origin of Bento can be traced back to around the 16th of July 1885. The time is largely unknown but was probably in the morning. It has sort of been in and out of fashion since then.

Apart from local variations, Bento has a few forms.

The most common Bento is ekiben. Train Station Bento, the one I’ve eaten most of. (eki means station)

Kamameshi Bento is sold in the clay pot it was cooked in.

Noriben Bento is the simplest, being seaweed wrapped rice.

Shidashi Bento is made in restaurants and delivered to your office. It is often good quality as it is freshly made.

Sushizume Bento is just sushi served in a box… always with one piece of carved carrot!!!

Hinomaru Bento consists of rice with one umeboshi plum stuck in the middle. It symbolises the national flag but the acid from the plum used to eat a hole in the lid of a metal box. So it became unpopular.

The big brouhaha at the moment in Japan concerns the Japan Rail East Company awarding the contract to supply bento for their stations to an American company. So I suppose this culinary tradition made with skill, love and care will soon go out the McWindow.

It’s a shame really.