A bento (beh-n-toh) is a special type of lunch that is packed in a box. Bento is made for eating on the go whether at work, school or travel. Soraben is the type of boxed lunch for airplane travel while ekiben is the portable meals for train travel. Chara-ben is a child-sized bento lunch. Some of these offerings can be quite expensive with elaborate ingredients or cute and novel with foods shaped into cartoon-like characters.
Some Japanese restaurants serve bento but itís portability is what separates bento from just another lunch dish. Usually but not always, bento is an individual portion. Bento boxes can be beautiful lacquered boxes (called ďjubakoĒ), plastic lidded containers or disposable take-out type containers. I have several jubako that have three layers with separated compartments. These are used for special occasions like New Yearís Day, a family picnic or motherís visits. She loves to be served a nice bento lunch.
A simple and typical bento includes rice, protein such as meat, fish or tofu, and cooked or pickled vegetables. Steamed rice with a small red umeboshi (pickled plum) in the center resembles the Japanese flag with a red circle against a white background. Onigiri (musubi), or seaweed-wrapped rice balls, are favorite bento additions, too.
With the exception of onigiri, bento lunches arenít always limited to finger foods, unlike the typical American brown bag lunch. Chopsticks are tucked under the tie or rubber band that keeps the box closed. A formal jubako is tied in a furoshiki, a large square of fabric used to wrap gifts and goods. It makes a beautiful presentation. The furoshiki acts as a nice large cover for oneís lap.
When selecting foods to include in a bento, choose them for the ability to be kept at room temperature. Traditional bento lunches were not chilled or refrigerated. And when preparing the bento, allow the cooked foods to reach room temperature before adding to the bento bako so the steam will not affect the other foods or build up condensation inside the box which can lead to early spoilage.
Here are some typical bento lunch combinations for you to try:
Bento #1: Steamed white rice with an umeboshi in the center. Chicken katsu cutlet (sliced for easier picking up with chopsticks). Cucumber namasu. A small portion of oden (simmered, seasoned vegetables).
Bento #2: Steamed white rice. Teriyaki salmon filet. Cooked broccoli florets. Blanched bean sprouts with ponzu sauce.
Bento #3: Onigiri. Kamaboko slices. Fried teriyaki chicken drumettes. Carrot sticks.
Bento #4: Somen salad. Edamame (cooked soybeans in pods).
Bento #5: Curry rice with tonkatsu slices. Red pickled radish.
Bento #6: Steamed white rice or fried rice. Gyoza with a small, lidded container of gyoza dipping sauce. Steamed vegetables. Tsukemono.
Bento #7: Makizushi cut rolls. Tsukemono.
Iíd like to say anything goes, but you must keep in mind two important factors: 1. Foods must be able to be maintained and eaten at room temperature and 2. Foods must be portable.
Personally, I adore picnics and because the American version (heavy ice chests, charcoal grills, paper plates, large bowls and bags of food) is a turn-off to my husband who says a picnic means he has to play pack mule at the park, I turn to Japanese bento lunches. He loves the Japanese foods included, but mostly he appreciates the way we can carry our entire meal in one tidy package. He can focus on the scenery instead of the hauling of crates and ice chests. And, without any trash to throw away, itís a very eco-friendly way to picnic, too.