Apr 30, 2014

The Japanese and the Art of Packing Lunch !


In many ways, Japan still remains a mystery to the rest of the world. For here, the ancient and the modern not only coexist but seem to do so in great harmony. The land of the rising Sun is as comfortable with its bullet trains and cutting edge technology as it is with Zen and Geishas.
Japan has a unique culture, with its own peculiarities and quirks that seem natural to the Japanese but intrigue and surprise all foreigners.
Through my 'Japan and I' series, I attempt to talk about the Japan I saw and experienced! Previous posts on the series can be read Here. 

Today I talk about Japanese and the art of packing the lunch Box.

What is so special about packing lunch you say. It’s simply dumping the food in different containers or wrapping it up in foil. Try telling this to a Japanese housewife and she will look at you as if you are a rodent that has entered her immaculate kitchen by mistake!

The Japanese, as they tend to do with everything that the rest of the world considers mundane, take even packing lunches very very seriously. Infact they have elevated packing the humble lunch box into an art form.

I have a sneaky feeling that most of the Japanese moms wake up early in the morning with just one mission in life – to make their kids’/Husband’s lunch box as artistic as possible.

There is a saying in Japan “We first eat with our eyes and then with our mouths”. They firmly believe that not only should the food be nutritious but also visually appealing. This also applies to packed lunches or "Bento" as they are called in Japanese.



 There are all sorts of  Bento boxes available. The most common ones are of course the simple plastic boxes, some are specifically targeted at kids with with catchy designs and shapes and then there are the very dignified,  aesthetically designed wooden boxes.

 With their fetish for rules and structures, the Japanese also have specifications laid down for making a Bento – the most popular is the 4:3:2:1 ratio (4 parts rice, 3 parts side dish, 2 parts vegetables, and 1 part pickled vegetables or a dessert). 


Special care is taken while placing the food in the box.Different colored and differently textured food is used together - this not only ensures that all the food groups are covered but also makes it very pleasing to the eye. 



Care is also taken to see that different foods don’t touch each other and flavors don’t mix - That would simply make the food unappetizing and unappealing. Plastic dividers are used to separate different types of food or slices of cucumber or lettuce or something similar is used to create sections in one big box. A Bento will also usually have chopsticks and a beautiful cloth napkin accompanying it. 


The most popular type of Bento are called  'Kyara-Ben' or Character Bento. These have food cut and decorated in the shape of a famous cartoon/TV character and are usually given to young school going kids. 
vegetables and meat is cut into pretty patterns and the rice molded into different shapes using special molds and cutters that come just for this purpose.

Most of the Japanese mothers don’t always make complicated kyara- Ben for their kids but they do try to make the food as appetizing and attractive to look at as possible so that the kids feel like eating the food.


www. e-obento.com
Kyara Ben has now evolved into an art form and there are annual kyaraben competitions and festivals all over Japan.



Then there is the very famous Ai – Bento. Ai means love in Japanese and these are the bentos lovingly prepared by new wives for their husbands. The love for the husband is declared in the form of heart shaped food or love notes written with sauce or even with seaweeds ! 



But bento is not only for people who have loving wives or mothers to prepare it for them. Bento is also sold on train stations and these are known as Eki Bento. (Eki – Station)


 Eki- Ben forms a very integral part of train travel in Japan.
 I have had so many of them while travelling through the country and have thoroughly enjoyed them. Eki- Bens are not simply some boxed food for a traveler to eat. 
The way the food is prepared, decorated and the type of box that is used usually gives you a very good insight into the regional cuisine and culture of the place. 

A shop at a station selling Bentos
Some stations are famous for the Bentos sold there than anything else. Most of the Japanese passing through the Tokyo Station make it a point to buy the marunouchi ekiben sold there. The bento is inspired by the snacks that were eaten during the intermission of kabuki performances in the area.

There are usually a lot of Bento shops near commercial districts. The busy office goer can simply pop out at lunch time to buy a bento and come back and eat at his desk. Or he can pick up a Bento on his way home and just heat up his dinner. My dinner in Japan usually comprised of Bento boxes that I bought near my office. 

Very few countries herald the change of seasons as vividly as Japan. And this gets reflected in their lunch boxes as well.

This is a special Bento for the cherry blossom season. 



And the Girls' Doll festival has its own special Bento as well. 


64 comments:

  1. I have heard about Bento (my sons love Japanese anime) but this is the first time I've seen pictures of it. What an artistic culture! Wonderful post Ruchira

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    1. Thanks Ritu ! It really is an artistic culture isn't it !

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  2. Now, I finally know I was a Japani in my last birth. You see, my boys' tiffin boxes carry bread-jam-butter, sides neatly trimmed off, and sandwich cut into 4 neat cubes, often stacked on over the other. It is Sudoku. :D
    I really enjoyed this one, Ruch. I also loved that you explained everything so interestingly. I would never have the heart to eat such beautiful stuff though. Or the talent to produce it. :P

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    1. Its time you made an ai-bento for A :-)
      Thanks so much. Glad you enjoyed the post !

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  3. Oh my God! I'm anyways a fan of Japanese Cuisine and now after seeing this I'm going out for some sushi since I can't pack or place such good looking food on the table... The Japanese truly have an interesting culture...

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    1. Very interesting culture. And I love Sushi too !

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  4. Awesome! I like Japanese eat for detail in everything that they do. Keep writing about Japani log. I assure you I will read them :)

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  5. My God! Looking at all those pictures makes me hungry as well as it is making me feel so shameful. The max I end up doing is cutting the sandwiches or paranthas into triangles, rectangles or squares. No wonder our kids are so fussy about tiffins. I mean Bentos. I hope my daughters don't get to see this beautiful post. ;-)

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    1. Its amazing how much effort they put into Bento Making. Don't worry, at least you cook and pack Bentos. I refuse to even do that for myself !

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  6. My God! Looking at all those pictures makes me hungry as well as it is making me feel so shameful. The max I end up doing is cutting the sandwiches or paranthas into triangles, rectangles or squares. No wonder our kids are so fussy about tiffins. I mean Bentos. I hope my daughters don't get to see this beautiful post. ;-)

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  7. I remember watching a travel show on Japan on TLC sometime back. It covered bento too. My sister and I liked this word so much, we started calling our lunch, 'bento'. Mommy ofcourse too plays along! :)

    Quite an interesting read, Ruch.

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    1. So what did you have for Bento today - Rajma Chawal or cholle :-)

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  8. They are so so lovely. I would never eat one and keep staring at it :) I loved how you have explained this whole tradition of beauty in tiffins.

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    1. Thank you ! Glad you liked the post. I keep staring at the good ones too. Imagine it takes so much time to prepare a Bento and all the food is gone in the matter of a few minutes !

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  9. Simply WOW. Pretty amazing the way they pack everything "bento" style. And your step by step guidance. Wow again !

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  10. Oh gosh! These Japanee are nuts. When I am rushed for time in the morning packing 4 dabbas, I am grateful that they are getting food to eat, niceties be damned :). Loved your description as always.

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    1. They are nuts ! All I keep thinking about is so much effort and the food will just be gobbled down in the matter of minutes !

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  11. heloooooooooo :) but all this wont work in punjab for sure :) where we want a LOT of everything .. he he he

    right on serious note I enjoyed reading but i am sure i will need to order a lot of portions to fulfill me ..

    Bikram

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    1. The only thing that will work for Punjab is huge steel dabbas :-P

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    2. and a big JUG of Lassi tooooooooooo :)


      how are you .. remember me ...

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  12. I have seen some of these. I had Japanese managers in the Dubai metro project and one of them used to order their food from a japanese kitchen named Bentoya Kitchen.
    One day I happened to see one of the other managers lunch box which he had brought from home.. It was colourful...
    I didnt know that this was a tradition there..Thanks for the info..

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    1. There are a lot of Bentoyas outsider Japan as well and they usually cater to the Japanese living there ! Thanks for reading :-)

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  13. Japanese are the most creative when it comes to adding aesthetics to the most ordinary acts of daily living. This is a very interesting read, and I enjoyed your wonderful explanations all along. As much as I am all for creativity and doing things beautifully, some part in me still feels they may be going a bit too far with this dabba-packing stuff :) But that's just me!

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    1. They are incredibly aesthetic people ! And I do agree with you. I wouldn't waste so much time in packing a lunch that will get eaten in 5 minutes flat :-)

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    2. And welcome here Beloo :-)

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  14. So this is called Bento... I am currently in a phase where I do all these colorful decorations and character cutting stuffs using bread/vegetables/fruits for my kids lunch boxes. It is a sort of trend here but only after reading your post, I really came to know about its origins. Nice info!

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    1. Wow .. you do such stuff everyday ! I am gald you liked the post and welcome here !

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  15. Can borrow a thing or two from the Japanese here and make the lunches appealing for the kids :). Truly enjoy this series from you. Can't wait to visit Japan sometime.

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    1. I am glad you are enjoying it Sachi !

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  16. In my next birth I want to born as a Japanese husband.

    What a delicious post, Ruchira!

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  17. How creative. I ai this post! Love the minute detailing.

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    1. Thank you Alka . your Ai always means a lot !

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  18. What a beautiful post! How painstaking can the Japanese get???

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    1. Agreed Dipali. How painstaking can they get !

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  19. I <3 the Kyara Behen idea. Sadly, my lunchbox through my school years looked completely characterless.
    This could have been a dry, technical post but you made it entertaining with your descriptions and pictures.

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    1. Yes kyara Behen seems like a nice person to know :-) Thank you so much Rickie .. I am glad you enjoyed reading it !

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  20. What a wonderful post Ruchira. Loved reading it :)

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  21. And I thought I was the only one who takes so much effort to make the boring nutritious food look appetizing so that hubby doesn't trade it for some junk food from his office canteen! Thanks for the insight...and I am glad my hubby doesn't know of this concept yet...else few hours would have been added to my cooking time! I

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    1. Hats off to you ! I wouldn't have the inclination to do anything other than dump the fodo in dabbas !

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  23. Wow ruch... that is really interesting... literally, good enough to eat! The Japanese really do take their stuff seriously :D well described too!

    I should show my cook these pics!

    Do stop by my latest post too… :)

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    1. Thanks you so much Ash. Good to see you here !

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  24. OH MY GOD!! This is seriously very creative and I cant get over the fact that the Japanese women do this daily! I remember packing lunch box for my son for 5 days in a week at 6 am in the morning and would desperately wait for the weekend. I am sure the kids out there would not be fussy eaters as the food looks so very tempting!! :)

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    1. I dont think I would want to eat his food. Its to pretty to eat !

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  25. WOW! I have to learn this online. What an artistic way to pack lunch boxes.

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  26. This post has been selected for the Spicy Saturday Picks this week. Thank You for an amazing post! Cheers! Keep Blogging :)

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    1. Thank you Team BlogAdda. Am delighted !

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  27. I saw the BlogAdda email and hopped over, Ruchira. I've read about Bento lunch boxes before and was fascinated. Lovely to see your photos. A friend of mine spent several months in Japan and that's how I got some first-hand insight into their culture. Lovely post! :) And I like to eat with my eyes before I eat with my mouth. My family's always teasing me about my tendency to decorate and color coordinate plates.

    :-)

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    1. Thank you so much Vidya. So good to see you here !

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  28. 'Bento making' is surely an art! Wow this is another side of the Japanese culture that you have so beautifully portrayed! Very interesting! :)

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    1. Thanks Aditi. Glad you enjoyed the post !

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  29. I always feel like attempting making my own decorative Bento box but I know that by the time I reach the office, all the food would have got mixed and mashed up in my bag!!!

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  30. Wow Ruchira, just loved this post and that's very interesting way to increase one's appetite in a country whose citizens are so awfully busy, isn't it?
    Imagine waking up early to prepare bento which looks this beautiful and inviting and then go to work and then remain sane. Amazing! I wonder if the order of the bento remains till lunch's time?
    Do men cook there at all? :-D If not then I agree with Purba, in my next birth I want to born as a Japanese husband as well.

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  31. I NEVER NEVER KNEW ABOUT THIS ONE! :O
    They actually invest that much time for packing a lunchbox? :O

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  32. I would not be able to eat- I would only stare at the bento and take pictures until I feel full.

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  33. Truly amazing ! Had never heard of it before. Thanks for narrating it so nicely ! Boy, am I glad that I am in Indian :)

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  34. Hi I have been lurking in your blogspace since I read this post a few months ago. My husband and I are huge fans of Japanese cuisine and we have been finding ourselves at various Japanese cuisine-serving restaurants each time we eat out. Last night we were at a very authentic-looking place called Daikichi and we were admiring the prettily decorated rice bowls ordered by us. I bragged about my knowledge of 'bento boxes' acquired from this post and the next moment, my husband was hinting at similar treatment for his lunchbox!!
    Oh and I am loving your Japan-special posts. It thrills me to know about a culture I have been intrigued with for a long time.

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    1. Welcome here Debosmita and Ia m so glad you like the posts.I love eating out of the pretty bowls too !

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