Bento are the famous boxed lunch consumed millions of times daily across Japan, and they’ve become a sensation all over the world. As a rule, bento lunches in Japan feature a large quantity of rice along with meat, fish, vegetables or other foods that are collectively called okazu, the “main course” that goes with the rice. Although there are endless varieties of bento you can create, there are several well-defined categories that I’ll tell you about. The most basic type of bento there is is probably noriben, white rice with nori seaweed over the rice, which you can easily make at home. Another is toriben, essentially chicken with teriyaki sauce over rice, although one of the great mysteries of Japan is that no one seems to use the word teriyaki to describe the famous flavor. I love jubako, the “stackable” bento that comes on two or three levels, and you never know what the next section will contain until you open it — it’s quite fun. When my mother-in-law was growing up in the 50s, her family didn’t have much money, so she had to eat hinomaru bento, or “Circle of the Sun” boxed lunch, which is a big section of white rice with a small, round ume-boshi (pickled Japanese plum) in the center, like the Japanese flag. In general, the kind of bento lunch most men would love to eat is called aisai bento, literally “loving wife lunch,” the word for the delicious lunch a man’s wife will make for him. If a married man is eating bento and a Japanese person passes by, there’s a 74% chance they’ll smirk and make a snarky comment about how jealous they are that you’re eating aisai bento and they’re not.
There are many kinds of bento, what’s your favorite?