What Is a Bento Box?

A bento box is a Japanese single-portion boxed meal consisting of several different food types. Bento boxes have multiple compartments, allowing the preparer to separate the various foods into neat and aesthetically-pleasing portions. Bento boxes initially gained popularity due to their convenience and ease of preparation, and today they are a well-known food trend due to their variety of flavors, unique designs, and portability. Below, we’ll cover everything you need to know about bento boxes, including how to make one and how you can utilize popular bento box ideas in your establishment.

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What's in a Bento Box?

A traditional looking Japanese bento box

Although there are different types and styles of bento boxes, most contain a starch, a protein, and an assortment of fruits and vegetables. One of the reasons bento boxes are so popular is due to the balanced nutritional profile they offer. With bento, the customer has access to several food groups, creating a well-balanced meal. Due to the portability of bento boxes, customers can take their healthy lunch or dinner options on the go.

How to Make a Bento Box

Some of the main attractions of bento boxes are their simplicity and ease of assembly. Although you can get creative with your bento box designs, standard bento boxes have three main components of a starch, a protein, and vegetables. You can mix and match different options within each food group, creating wildly different flavor combinations with the same base idea. Here are some of the most common food items to consider when making a bento box:

  • Starch - The most common starch found in bento boxes is rice, but there are other options to consider. Asian noodles are a common alternative, or you can get creative and include onigiri, Japanese rice balls made from cooked sushi rice.
  • Protein - The proteins in your bento box are where you can get the most creative due to the variety of foods you can include. Some potential proteins you can add to your bento box include chicken, beef, pork, seafood, and eggs.
  • Fruits and Vegetables - Sliced fruits and vegetables are often included in bento boxes as a side to the main course. Some examples of bento box vegetables include broccoli, carrots, peas, and edamame while you’ll find fruits such as grapes, apple slices, and cherry tomatoes.

Bento Box Origin

Hands placing chicken on top of lettuce into a bento box

Bento boxes have been a part of Japanese culture for a long time, dating back almost a thousand years. The idea gained newfound prominence in the early 1900s as parents started using them as lunch options for schoolchildren. Around the same time, train stations became more common in Japan, turning bento into a popular travel food. The emergence of convenience stores and similar quick-service locations in the 1980s was also key to the recent growth in the popularity of bento boxes, launching them into the global trend they are today.

Bento Box Ideas

Bento boxes are a unique way to package and present on-the-go lunch options, allowing you to get creative with your ideas. Over time, many different variations of bento boxes have been created. Some types of bento boxes may have unique ingredients, while others may be styled into specific designs. Here are some of the most common bento box ideas that you can utilize in your establishment:

1. Ekiben

Ekiben-style bento box on a folding tray table on a train

Ekiben or “train station bento” is one of the most common forms of bento found around the world. This type of bento tends to be more extravagant than other types, often using high-end ingredients like salmon or crab. Although ekiben is “travel food”, traveling is often seen as a luxury in Japan, and ekiben is designed to be a luxurious food that showcases regional flavor and ingredients. For upscale restaurants, Ekiben bento is a fantastic way to explore Japanese cuisine while providing a great take-home option for customers.

2. Konbini

Konbini is the abbreviated form of konbiniesu sutoru, the Japanese word for convenience store. In Japan, bento boxes are common in konbinis, with konbini bento being a common affordable lunch for many working-class individuals. Konbini bento is a basic bento box with the standard makeup of rice, fish, and vegetables. Although this type of bento may not be as intricate as other types, it’s simple to make and provides customers with a fantastic affordable lunch option.

3. Koraku

The literal translation of Koraku is “picnic lunchbox”, an apt name for a type of bento designed to be shared outdoors among multiple people. Traditionally, these bento boxes are enjoyed in March and April and are closely related to the Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival. Koraku bento is much larger than other bento boxes, as they are meant to serve multiple people. These are great to offer during the spring and summer months, providing customers with their very own picnic in a box.

A Halloween themed decorated bento box featuring veggies cut to look like ghosts and pumpkins

4. Kyaraben

Kyaraben, also known as character bento, is a type of bento that consists of food cut and decorated to resemble characters from popular media. Kyaraben started as a way for parents to entice their children to try a variety of foods, presenting healthy meals in the form of cute character designs. Due to the global rise in the popularity of Japanese media such as manga and anime, kyaraben has become a popular form of bento around the world. Kyaraben is now much more than an attractive way to present healthy foods to children, as many adults love both the aesthetics and taste of kyaraben boxes.

5. Hinomaru

Translating to “circle of the sun”, Hinomaru bento is designed to look like the Japanese flag. Hinomaru bento consists of steamed rice and a pickled plum called umeboshi in the center, a display of red and white colors just like the Japanese flag. This type of bento is one of the easiest to create, making it an easy addition to your establishment's offerings.

6. Aisai

Aisai bento translates to “Bento made by loving wife”, and is typically made by a partner for their significant other or children. This type of bento is also made and given by young romantics to show their affection. Aisai bento boxes consist of a well-balanced flavor profile and contain strong motifs of love and romance. As a result, this type of bento is perfect as an addition to your Valentine's Day menu.

Bento boxes have been a staple in Japanese culture for years, but since it has become a global trend in recent times, it presents the perfect opportunity for restaurants and businesses. Creating a bento box is a straightforward process, but allows plenty of room for creativity and expression. A well-designed bento box filled with quality foods and ingredients can serve as the perfect take-out or delivery option for customers. The various types and styles of bento also allow you to experiment and create different bento boxes, expanding your delivery and take-out menu and keeping customers coming back to try new bento boxes.

Posted in: Foodservice Trends|Menu Tips|By Kevin Singhel
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