Great question: What's the difference between a lunch box and a bento?
On Saturday, I had my first book signing event at Kinokuniya in New York. (See what's coming up this week, especially if you're in Seattle!) I was quite nervous since I've never done a book signing before, but I think it went pretty well. ^_^; I'll have more photos up somewhere as soon as I've processed them, but here's just one. I'm the black blob in the right bottom corner!
After I stumbled my way through a short introduction of the "what is bento" subject, with a bit of show-and-tell of various bento boxes, we had a Q & A session. One of the questions asked was, what's the difference between a regular lunch box a bento box? I had to think a bit about my answer. Essentially there is no difference between a box you pack for lunch, and a bento box, since basically a bento (for lunch) is Japanese for a lunch box!
I guess the main reason why I, and many other people, talk in terms of bento rather than lunch box is that the term 'bento' carries with it a whole lot of tradition and useful ideas from which to draw from. Things such as:
- having a variety of textures, flavors, food groups and colors inside a small container
- packing things tightly for compactness and to ensure that things don't move around
- how to pack a box so that it looks appetizing when it's opened
- what types of food to pack, what shouldn't be packed, how far in advance to make things
- what tastes good several hours after packing, and (mostly) at room temperature
- and last but not least, how to keep up with making bentos day after day, for yourself, your kids, your spouse or anyone else.
A sandwich is fine for lunch, and in Japan a sandwich bento is still a bento. I love sandwiches, but a sandwich every day gets monotonous. I love salad for lunch too, but a bunch of salad just dumped into a container, bumped around for a while in a backpack, can look a bit iffy. So, I turn to the Book of Bento. I don't mean The Just Bento Cookbook necessarily; I'm referring to the the knowledge that I've accumulated, from my mom, my grandmothers, my aunts, my sister-with-two-kids, other bento cookbooks and blogs and web sites, and more.
It may sound corny, but to me a bento box is about giving a bit of love to someone too. That someone can be you, though having someone else make you a bento is that much more special. (I still love it when my mom makes a bento for me, when I'm back in Japan.)
Here's a Japanese video - actually a commercial for Tokyo Gas (a utility company) - which explains the role of homemade bentos in Japanese life so well, as well as showing some pretty typical homemade bentos. (I love the "Sorry! I overslept! one at 0:26.) The mother narrating the story is reminiscing about how she kept on making bentos for her mostly unresponsive, moody teenage son through 3 years of high school. She thought of them rather like one-way letters or emails to her son; she never got a verbal reply, until the very end, but the box that came back empty every day was reply enough for her. And in the last empty bento box, her son encloses a note, saying "Thanks....sorry I could never say that before". (I always tear up at that part....)
(I love these sentimental food-and-family-love commercials from Tokyo Gas. This fried rice post over on Just Hungry has another one.)
In sum, I guess it's all about treating your lunch with a bit of tender love, and injecting it with some fun and variety. (And you know, you can call it a lunch box instead of a bento too! It's all about the substance really.)
Anyway, thank you to the lady who asked that question (sorry I didn't get your name), for making me think! I wish I could have been this articulate on the spot. ^_^;
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