It was just a week ago when I last had my meal at McDonald’s, eating my food without even thinking about the way it was sloppily presented at me, with my ice cream sundae dripping off the sides of the cup. Without much care about the way my food looks, I was just like everyone else in my table, very hurriedly taking my sandwich, and once in awhile criticizing the way the food tastes (“ang alat ng fries ngayon a”). This is such a stark contrast to the way food is appreciated outside urban areas, and most specially in traditional Asian cultures such as Japan.
The Japanese in fact have developed a high degree of sophistication in the appreciation of food, drinks, and other seemingly negligible areas in food preparation such as packaging. Consider for instance their bento meal, which among the Japanese means packed lunch in wooden containers with dividers. It is obvious to anyone who has tried these boxes that food is understood not only as something to take to satisfy the palate or the stomach, but also as something to please the eye. Thus the bento not only varies in type but also in the way it is designed.
One can see vegetables in shapes of flowers, rice made like a tiny person, complete with eyes and lips, and something as simple as a hard-boiled egg shaped creatively in different shapes and patterns. Modern bento boxes may even be a more of a thrill to the younger ones, as the food is often shaped into different characters (kyaraben) familiar to them such as Hello Kitty. In fact, to many an outsider to this culture, the boxes appear to be even more important than the food they contain. But what indeed is the traditional meaning of bento?
Bento, in Japanese tradition, is a packed lunch usually taken to work and school by both adults and children. The box consists of nutritious meals and is usually divided into two: one part for rice and the other for accompanying dishes such as vegetables, chicken, meat, or eggs. A traditional well-balanced bento meal consists of a 1:1 ratio between rice and side dishes, with the side dishes having a 1:2 ratio of fish/meat to vegetables (“Bento” ). Bento boxes usually have internal dividers, so that different kinds of food stays in their own compartments. The whole meal is wrapped together with
chopsticks in a cloth or a special bag, and the goal in making the bento box is to make the whole package as attractive as possible. One must consider the color combinations of food, its presentations and the garnishes included. The outside appearance is important as well: the box, chopsticks, wrapper, and items such as paper napkins, knife, fork, spoon, and even the drinking flask should all be taken into consideration. The word bento is said to have originated from a 16th century military commander called Odo Nobunaga (1584-1632). He gave out simple meals to each individual who inhabited his castle.
The word was created to describe the small convenient meal. He, however, did not begin the trend, rather, he just made it as a more solid feature in Japanese culture (“Bento”). Bento has long been a part of Japanese culture, going as far back as the 5th century when people who worked all day as hunters, farmers, and fisherers needed something nutritious that they could prepare easily to take with them as they traveled. In the Momoyama period, known for its creativity and artistic design, the use of the bento during the chado, or the tea ceremony, was encouraged (Lucks).
Later, during the Tokugawa era (1603-1868), people took the bento meal to venues such as the theatre and outdoor trips. The Makunouchi bento, which consisted of small rice balls sprinkled with sesame seeds and assorted side dishes, first came into being during this era, serving more for leisure than for practicality. During this period, the intermission in the plays was referred to as “makanouchi” and people ate from their bento boxes then. From this time on, bento was served on special occasions at home and in Buddhist ceremonies, evolving later on into a unique, sophisticated art form (“Bento”).
Practicality and entertainment in food was fused together in the Meiji period (1868-1912), during which time modernization appeared in Japan. The Japanese railway system flourished during this period and commuting became a factor in employment in many people’s lives. The first ekiben (station) bento first appeared around 1885 consisting of rice balls with apricot inside. This ekiben bento is still being sold today (“Bento”). In modern Japanese culture, bento boxes are still prepared to take to work, picnics, school, and even private parties. In addition, bento boxes are also served as a form of take-out meals in Japanese restaurants.
Japanese mothers usually prepare their children’s bento boxes for school at the same time that they prepare dinner the night before. Originally, bento was wrapped, not boxed, in natural materials such as oak, magnolia and bamboo leaves. Later, it became more practical to use wooden boxes as containers (“Bento”). During the Edo or Tokugawa period, the aesthetic value of presentation of food became important, the boxes used in packing the bento reflecting this social trend. Wealthy merchants would stack their boxes with varieties of their favorite food to enhance activities such as flower viewing theater trips (Lucks).
As a mark of Japanese culture that separates it from Western culture, the bento features the ideal of aesthetics. Food presentation is an important part of the meal. The visuals of the food are chosen carefully, often by using bright colors, and arranging the food in an attractive manner. The bento is not just merely a boxed meal, its appearance should be delicious-looking that a person can eat it too with his eyes. In Japan, the aesthetics of food is almost as important as the taste or nutritional value that the food offers.