“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.
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