by Lori Tsugawa Whaley
One of my fondest childhood memories includes bentos at family outings when we hunted and picked mushrooms in the Mt. St. Helens vicinity. Being from a farming family, we skillfully hunted and picked matsutake (Japanese pine mushrooms) and gathered them by basketfuls. I especially remember enjoying the special bentos my mother prepared – the highlight of the trip. They usually contained chicken, vegetables, onigiris (rice balls) and other special food.
Japanese bento is a single meal, packed in a box. In Japan, bentos are readily available in convenience stores, bento shops, supermarkets, department stores, restaurants, and even railway stations. Traditionally, a bento contains rice, fish or meat, and pickled
or cooked vegetables, aesthetically arranged in a single-serving container.
Bentos have been traced back to the fifth century in Japan. When work or activities like hunting, fishing, farming, or even war, caused people to leave their homes, it was and ingenious solution – portable lunch ‘on the go’! Over the centuries, bentos evolved to meet the needs of the population. Japanese American sugar plantation workers in Hawaii were the first to bring the bento to the United
States in the mid-late 1800s. Today, it is a part of Hawaiian culture.
Bentos are an integral part of Japanese cuisine and culture, and can be made at home, or purchased from a variety of places. Japanese employees and students alike enjoy nutritious lunches packed in boxes, and sometimes wrapped in a furoshiki, a decorative cloth to carry the bento. In some Japanese companies, bentos are provided by the employers so their employees can enjoy a common meal together. In Japanese restaurants, bentos are a popular option on menus with special items offered for the diner. Bentos are enjoyed on picnics, train rides, private homes, parties, and/or occasions when serving a large number of people.
Containers for bentos range from the mass-produced disposable types to elegant lacquerware. The bento box is usually divided to keep the food separated; reminiscent of Japanese farmers’ seed boxes. In modern times, small paper ‘cups’ are utilized to divide food, and a vast array of accoutrements are available in many stores, as well as online.
Popularity of bentos increased with the introduction of microwaves and convenience stories in Japan. Today, the age-old tradition of the bento is being enjoyed, adapting it to modern times. Popular with the young population are themes including anime, manga, or video games. Younger children enjoy ‘picture bentos’ to look like animals, flowers, or people. Variety and creativity are in abundance.
Mother was a role model and an inspiration in my life. In spite of raising six children and actively taking part in running the family farm, she was an entrepreneur with a never-say-die attitude. She instilled in me a love of life and food. She and always said that I would never forget her cooking. and she was right – I haven’t! In my book, The Courage of a Samurai, I discuss the Japanese character trait known as ‘ganbaru’: never give up, try your hardest, do your best, and go for broke! That was my mother. When I think of bento…I think of my mother.
Lori Tsugawa Whaley is a third generation Japanese American and a descendant of the Samurai Warrior. As an inspirational speaker, she is on a mission to teach individuals who want to make a difference in the world the Ancient Principles of the Samurai so that they can live their lives with courage, honor and integrity.