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Japanese Bento History: Bento-My Memoir of My Dad & Grandma, and Traditions

Updated: Mar 15

“Bento” (Lunch box) has a very unique culture, and there are many ways to enjoy it in Japan. We make “Bento," not only for daily school/work lunch, but for Cherry Blossom Festival in the spring, beaches and/or firework festivals in the summer, mushroom hunting in the fall (very rare and special mushroom called Matsutake mushrooms are one of the most popular mushrooms for mushroom hunting in Japan), and then, we celebrate “Osechi Ryori” in a special box called “Jyu-bako” at New Year.

Osechi Ryori in Jyu-Bako

When we say, “Lunch box” in the States, many of us think, “Peanut Butter & Jelly” and/or crackers, deli meat and cheese, but Japanese lunch box “Bento” is much different from those. I learned that “Bento culture” started back in Kamakura Period ( ! ) (1185-1333) and got more popular in Momoyama period, between 1568-1600. In those eras, there was no microwave to heat things up, so Japanese people needed to learn how they could eat “Bento” at room temperature and still have taste it good. Once “Bento culture” was established, it kept evolving and now Japanese people know how to make food in Bento box to be safe at room temperature, and they are carefully chosen so nothing gets soggy or spoils quickly. Since my parents were both working, my grandma used to make everyday meals, include my lunch box. She always put something sweet for me, and one of my favorite was Kintoki-mame (red kidney beans with sweet syrup). She would cook something salty, either broiled fish or teriyaki chicken, or Tonkatsu (fried pork). She would add pickled cucumbers and carrots (Tsukemono), and spinach salad (Ohitashi) that was steeped in a Dashi based sauce. For the main starch, she would wake up early in the morning, cook rice and make Onigiri (rice ball) and put fermented plum (Umeboshi) inside of it. Many of the foods she cooked in “Bento” were a variety of sweet, sour, and/or salty flavors, and there is a reason behind it. Salt (soy sauce in teriyaki chicken), vinegar (pickled veggies), fermentation (umeboshi), sugar syrup (sweet kidney beans), Nori (seaweeds) on rice ball has natural preservative, and it was also used as a “wrap” so the rice won’t stick to our fingers. Oh, and sometimes she would make a “face” with nori on Onigiri. I guess she was way ahead of the time before “Chara - ben” became popular in Japan. (Chara-ben is shorten for “Character Bento” that food decorated to look like people/characters from popular animation such as Winnie the Pooh)

My mom was a city girl, and my dad was a country boy. My mom loved going to expensive malls and window shop on hot summer days where the air conditioner was kicking out cold air, meanwhile my dad loved hiking and camping outdoors. I only remember a few times my mom joined us for those outdoor activities, and I didn’t really like to go to the mall with her because the concept of “window shopping” was hard for a young kid to understand. So, I would rather go on a hike with my dad whenever I had a choice between shopping or hiking.

Curry at Camping
We still make curry when we camp!

When we would camp out, we always made “beef curry” and “rice” on the first night. The rice was made in a pot, not in the rice cooker, and it was always burned on the bottom of the pot. My dad wasn’t a great cook, but I loved having dinner with him while we looked up at the sky and counted stars. When we ventured out, my grandma always made extra “Bento” for us. Her typical menu, and my all time favorite, “Kara-age”. It’s Japanese popcorn fried chicken, marinated with soy sauce, mirin, and sake. My dad and I used to go to a park called “Minoh Park” in Osaka, Japan, not so far away from the city where we used to live. We would go up to see the waterfall, sit down and indulge in my grandma’s “Bento”.

Old photo of me and dad
Me & My Dad, just hanging

As Father’s Day is approaching, I miss my dad’s smiley face, time we spent together, and my grandma’s “Bento”. So Chef Aric and I decided to re-make my childhood memory “Kara age Bento” as our monthly special for June with 2 Onigiri (rice ball) 10 pieces Kara-age (popcorn fried chicken), side dish with homemade Japanese potato salad (potatoes, eggs, ham, onion, mayo) and pickled cucumbers. We hope you give it a try!

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