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Bento Box as Cultural Lunchbox

A lunchbox with cultural flair

If you’re a fan of Japanese food, your favorite restaurant has probably served you dinner in a pretty lacquered box with neat little compartments that keep your tempura from sliding into your salad. That is called a bento box—kind of a sophisticated distant cousin of the American TV dinner tray.

Many hip millennial moms are now packing their kid’s lunch in a MonBento MB Original V Black Bento Box, or a Traditional Rabbit Blossom or Rabbit Moon Bento Box, complete with chopsticks. The choices for bento lunchboxes are endless, from plastic to stainless steel, square, round, two-tired, or stackable.

Food in a bento box didn’t used to be so chic. The word itself, loosely translated, means “convenience.” Three or four centuries ago, travelers would buy “train station bentos” which contained a few rice balls and a pickled radish. Theatre-goers brought a makuno-uchi bento, a “between-acts bento” which was decidedly more elegant.

By the late 19th century, Japanese schoolchildren (and teachers) were carrying bentos to school for lunch. The presentation and quality of the food in the box was a real status symbol among children, and the Japanese government tried to abolish the practice so the poorer children wouldn’t be psychologically damaged. After World War II, Japanese schools began providing lunch for students and staff, and nobody needed to bring a bento to school anymore.

As any fan of Japanese food knows, that was not the end of the bento. In fact, they’re as ubiquitous as ever in Japan, and all over the world in Japanese restaurants. Bento boxes are still going to school too.

Some busy moms pack school lunches into Tupperware, but for many, the practice of making lunch has evolved into an art form. Beyond just making food look appealing, there is charaben.

The word charaben (or kyraben) is a shortened version of “character bento.” The food is cut, molded, and decorated to look like animals or popular characters from movies, TV shows, anime, and comic books. There’s a whole community of moms out there assembling elaborate dioramas out of foodstuffs.  There are cookbooks and websites where people can learn how to make little sheep out of hot dogs and cauliflower, or butterflies out of carrots and twist-cut banana slices. There are Christmas charaben and Halloween charaben, Hello Kitty charaben, and charaben that tell stories of their own.

Charaben creators from all over the world enter highly competitive contests which offer cash prizes of thousands of dollars or round-trip tickets between major cities like Paris and Tokyo. Online communities discuss where to buy and how to use sauce pens for writing with ketchup or soy sauce, as well as unique cookie cutters, rice molds, and decorative toothpicks. There are thousands of images of charaben on Pinterest.

A typical charaben is nothing like the tasteful bento box served at restaurants, filled with pastry-light tempura, fresh yellowtail, and seaweed salad. But it will have healthy ingredients and speak to your inner child. Try getting that from a tuna sandwich and a bag of Goldfish.

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