Back in grade school, a lunch box was a prized and magical possession. Not only did it matter what action figure or beloved character graced the outside (Spiderman! Rainbow Brite! Transformers! Have I dated myself yet? :)) but the contents of the box were also of the utmost importance. Opening the lid could either reveal the coveted peanut butter and jelly sandwich or cheese and cracker Handi-Snacks, or the dreaded bag of carrot sticks and mom’s leftover meatloaf.
Bentos in Japan hold the same fascination for me, but I like to think my enthusiasm is more appropriately mature. It’s not so much a favorite food that I expect to find inside, but rather a bite-size offering of a dozen or two different flavors, a parade of tastes that make up a full meal.
Just as in the States, many Japanese kids go to school with a bento box lunch. And – like their American counterparts – it’s mostly about what’s on the cover. Inside, however, you’re more likely to find a very similar offering from one kid to another. Rice is the main bento box staple, whether in plain cooked form or rolled into onigiri (rice balls). You might occasionally find noodles, like cold soba (buckwheat) noodles or thin spaghetti. For protein, teriyaki chicken or tsukune (meatballs rolled in a sweet sauce) are popular options, as are mini hotdogs and pieces of egg omelet. Most Japanese parents put in at least two vegetable choices, ranging from edamame and corn to mini tomatoes and cutely cut cucumbers and carrots. You won’t find dessert though, not unless parents have popped in a juice or mini ice cream to the lunch bag.
Thankfully, in Japan, one doesn’t necessarily have to outgrow their love of bento boxes. Visit any grocery store deli section and you’ll see a wide selection of bento lunches, from fried chicken meals to pasta-based ones. In the ritzier department stores in large cities (like Isetan in Tokyo, for example), you can even find bento boxes prepared by the city’s renowned kaiseki restaurants. Bentos are also an incredibly popular purchase at train stations. Called ekiben, these lunchboxes are often made up of regional specialties, though you can even find sandwiches or dumplings. Makiko Itoh, blogger and one of my favorite cookbooks, did a great post on ekiben if you want to see some better pictures than the one below.
Aside from crafting my own daughter’s bentos (as she recently started nursery school here in Japan), I took my lunchbox interest one step further the other week in Tokyo and enrolled in a bento cooking course. Stay tuned for more on that in the next post!