The bento goes global

Recently the number of Japanese who take lunch (called a bento) to work has been increasing.  Men and women both young and old are making and taking their lunches to work not only to save money, but also to be a little healthier.  Right now there’s a “bento boom” going on in Japan.  Morning television programs and cooking shows all seem to feature segments on how to make dishes to fill up the little compartments of your bento.  In general, the Japanese “bento” refers to a box that holds your entire meal of rice and several side dishes.  However, with the bento boom, the bento is no longer limited to a square or rectangular box.  There is now a wide variation of sizes, styles and shapes including everything from insulated canisters to boxes made from traditional materials like bamboo to bowls.  Japanese enjoy trying to make each bento unique and apparently there are more and more people who spend time thinking about and preparing their bento in advance.

A Japanese newspaper recently ran an article on the increasing interest in bentos in the US.  Bentos began to catch on in the West around 2001 with “laptop lunches,” containers about the size of a large laptop computer with several smaller containers inside.  The idea was to make people think about nutritional balance using a Japanese style bento box.  In cities like New York and London Japanese restaurants had become incredibly popular and often served a lunch that they called “OBENTO,” leading some to think that a bento was OBENTO.  Today this OBENTO (which is usually a particular type of box lunch called Makunouchi bento) is popular in Asian supermarkets, Japanese restaurants and even on Japan routes of American airliners.

This time around the bento seems to be popular because it’s an easy way to pack a lunch that’s both healthy and eco-friendly.  In the US where many people drive to work, many also take their lunches to work, but not necessarily just to save money.  With a bento box you have less garbage to throw away than with a brown bag filled with Saran wrap or Ziploc bags.  Plus, you can eat leftovers from the previous night even if it is something that won’t easily fit into a plastic bag.

Another reason for the increased popularity of bentos is that parents can adjust their children’s eating habits by using the containers as a way to control portions and prevent kids from becoming overweight.

Today the word “bento” is becoming common language even outside Japan and cooking specialists and recipe sites are sharing “bento knowledge” with each other.  An interesting example of a Japanese custom that’s gone global.

An detailed explanation of bentos (with pics):


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