The gastronomic culture of a country, enclosed in a box. The Obento have always been considered one of the many symbols of Japan. With their simplicity and beauty, they are capable of making the mealtime pleasant, tasty and, if carefully prepared by those we love, they can become an unequaled sign of affection.
Since I arrived here in Japan, preparing the obento for Yo has become a ritual. In the evening, after dinner, after washing the dishes, I cook some of the ingredients that will enrich his lunch. I always search for different recipes every day, alternating fish, meat, tofu, and various vegetables and legumes, playing with colors and combinations.
What for someone is seen as a “nuisance” is a pleasant moment for me. I love Obento! The first time I ate one, it was Yo who made it for me. We were in Italy and, before going to work, in a hurry, almost ashamed, he gave me a Tupperware wrapped in a towel. Inside there were delicious Onigiri and sauteed vegetables.
I remember every bite of that lunch with a smile. He had prepared it especially for me, for my lunch break, and I couldn’t be more than happy. The feeling is almost the same as when our mother used to make us sandwiches for the school trip, do you remember? Opening the backpack and seeing what she had cooked for us was a simple moment of joy (especially if she secretly added a sweet or a good juice to make us a surprise).
Obento is therefore much more than a Lunch Box. It can be a sign of affection, a tasty break from the hectic life of every day as well as a healthy dish to nurrish our body instead of buying something already made from a conbini!
A Journey in the Past
Although today we can find Obento with the classic style か わ い い – kawaii (“cute” – “adorable”) style with smiley faces and shapes that resemble cartoons, this Japanese lunch sees its origins in the past, and in a more humble pourpose.
From a simple container in which farmers and hunters where keeping their lunch starting from the 5th century, it began to be use more often, becoming a necessary container for excursions outside the city (for example Picnic looking at cherry blossoms) or during theatrical performances (ex Kabuki). This first obento’s name was Makunouchi.
Subsequently, with the development of the railway network, and the growing desire to travel for work or vacation by Japanese families, merchants and restaurateurs in the various stations of the country took advantage of this change in lifestyle by starting selling Obento in the stations.
The success was incredible. With the name of え き べ ん ・ “Obento” + “station”, these simple “packed lunches” spread rapidly throughout all the stations of the town, and became the symbol of the various prefectural areas through the choice of proposed ingredients. The first Ekiben in history is said to have been sold in 1885 in the Utsunomiya station in Tochigi prefecture.
Even now, Japanese or tourists that are going to take the train for a long journey, can buy their Bento at the station!
Create the perfect Obento
There are some unwritten rules that allow us to make a delicious obento.
- Follow the seasons, so that the ingredients are at their best in terms of taste and appearance (the eye also wants its part)
- Use recipes suitable for this type of “service”
- In Japan, unless you decide to buy Obento with Western recipes, rice is an ingredient that cannot be missed. Enriched with vegetables, in its mochi variety or with some spice on the surface, remember to let it cool before placing it in your obento, so that it does not make condensation.
- Just like rice, the other ingredients should also be left to cool and, in the case of boiled vegetables, be careful to remove excess liquid (ex spinach).
- Generally, the ingredients should be seasoned and flavored before being placed in your obento (in the case of a salad, toss it in a bowl and then place it in your box).
- The order should be as follows: rice, salad, large ingredients, small ingredients (it all depends of course on what you have decided to cook).
- Try to include ingredients that work as antibacterials. Have you ever wondered why Umeboshi, that red round plum in the middle of the rice, is inserted in most of the obento ? It is an antibacterial that keeps rice intact without the risk of contamination. (If you don’t have umeboshi, you can use ginger! It’s a great substitute!)
Remember that Obento is also a symbol of fantasy! Use your rice as if it were the canvas of your lunch and insert the ingredients that make you feel good!
Do you need some ideas? Any inspiration? Nowdays on Instagram and Pinterest the Obento have become a real trend! You can find all sorts of them!
I was also taken by this trend (@everydayobento) and it is now part of my daily life!
Where in Tokyo?
If you are wondering where to buy some beautiful Obento as a Souvenir to take home, there is one place in particular that I can recommend: Kappabashi Street, also known as “Tokyo cuisine”!
You can find an infinite variety of Bento, of all shapes and all materials (and also different prices)! Buy a good Box, can be a perfect starting point to beging your “Obento Journey!”.