Whether you’ve experienced the delight first-hand or jealously from across the park, there’s nothing quite like lifting the lid off a neatly packed bento box. What has become an everyday sight at children’s lunch tables, however, has taken centuries to mature—these beloved ‘square’ meals have had quite the circuitous route to fame. In honor of the launch of our very own Munchery bento boxes, let’s take a trip to ancient Japan to celebrate their journey from portable meal to playful masterpiece that has spanned many centuries and multiple continents.
As you can imagine, the workplace in fifth century Japan was nothing like it is in 2018—no bowls of fruit, no bags of quinoa chips, no refrigerators neatly stocked with La Croix. When people left their houses to head to the fields, they had couldn’t leave without bringing along all the nourishment they’d need to get them through the day. Early incarnations of mobile storage devices involved using whatever was lying around and readily available—often bags or small boxes. In fact, it is thought that the first bento box design originated from a farmer’s seed box, a small container with different cubbies and corners that they filled with different little snacks.
It wasn’t until the 12th century that bento boxes became a social phenomenon in Japan. The convenience of small, transportable meals found its way beyond farmers to travelers and lovers of outdoor activities, becoming a mainstay of tea parties and open-air theaters. Slowly but surely, the simple and unrefined necessity of the bento box transformed into the artful, organized displays of Japanese high society.
Bento Boxing: Packed Lunches and Socioeconomic Struggle
After World War One, however, bento boxes became controversial signs of the new economic disparity that appeared in Japan. Only wealthy families were able to send their children to school with shiny aluminum boxes packed to the brim with an array of snacks, while poorer students were forced to rely on school cafeterias to provide them with the proper nourishment. At the height of this societal divide, some schools even outlawed bento boxes entirely because of the ruckus they were causing.
The Modern Era
Everything changed when the microwave was introduced—the world experienced a revolution around simply prepared, packaged foods. Despite its controversial past, the bento (perhaps the world’s oldest prepared meal) did not miss out on this wave. Today, a bento box is no longer just a meal—they have become an art form. Each bento is judged on the aesthetic as much as taste or quality, and some parents spend upwards of 45 minutes curating meals for their children.
The word “bento”, although heavily disputed, seems to originate from a Chinese slang term meaning “convenient,” exposing two fundamental truths about bento boxes—they are incredibly handy and undeniably global. Whether you’re perusing the streets of Tokyo or our very own menu, don’t miss your chance to unpack your very own!