We’ve saved the best for our final post in our Japanese Bento series… kyaraben!
Character bento, or kyaraben, are famous for their style, originality, fun and creativity. Initially created to entice children to eat their lunch, kyaraben focus on the concept of “kawaii”, or cuteness, to present a well-balanced meal in a convenient, portable bento box.
Kyaraben come in an endless variety, all depending on the creativity and wherewithal of the maker. The simplest kyaraben showcase cars, trains, airplanes, stars, hearts and flowers. As the kyaraben artist makes more sophisticated bento, they add cute animal shapes to the bento, including grinning panda bear patties, smiling penguin rice balls, octopus-shaped sausages with flapping arms, porky pigs and small rabbit-eared eggs.
The most popular types of kyaraben, in Japan and internationally, are ones that showcase characters from Japanese anime and manga as well as from Western animated TV shows and movies. Imagine eating a nutritious lunch with Hello Kitty or Gudetama! And how about Doraemon and Pikachu, stacked with fried chicken and sausages! And let’s not forget Totoro and Anpanman on a bed of fried rice surrounded by colorful carrots and edamame! And for kids who love American cartoons, Disney’s Tsum Tsum characters and Winnie the Pooh are big favorites!
Kyaraben artists use both everyday kitchen tools along with special tools made for creating character bento. Plastic wrap is generally used to shape rice balls, but special shapes can also be made using rice molds. Vegetables can be julienned with a sharp knife and also cut into flowers, stars and clouds using miniature veggie cutters. And meats, poultry and seafood are served in bite-sized pieces. Rice and other items are decorated with cutouts of nori seaweed or with designed using powdered seaweed sprinkled through stencils. So elaborate are kyaraben designs that numerous books have been published and popular blogs such as Little Miss Bento are visited by foodies from all over the world!
One of the most recognizable types of bento are ekiben… and this month, we’re excited to explore these boxed meals that are famously found at railway stations!
Ekiben are special types of bento, or boxed meals, and the name is a compilation of “eki” which means station and “ben” short for bento. They were originally only available at railway stations, to travelers looking for fresh food, and were designed to enhance the adventure of travel. Imagine being able to eat a wholesome, carefully prepared meal while watching the scenery go by!
The advent of ekiben coincides with the advent of the Japanese railway. In 1872, the first train began service in Japan, from Yokohama to Shimbashi in Tokyo. As the rail system grew, travelers’ needs grew, too, and ekiben made their debut in the late 1870’s to the early 1880’s. This first ekiben was essentially a rice ball. Realizing how large of a market there might be for fresh, boxed meals for travelers at railway stations, more and more vendors began selling ekiben, showcasing their wares by holding them in carriers around their necks and selling them to passengers through the open windows of trains. By 1910, ekiben had increased in popularity to such an extent that vendors began creating regional recipes and packaging to reflect the specialties available at their local train stations. One of the most famous specialized ekiben was introduced in 1941 by a local ekiben shop in Hakodate, Hokkaido, during a time when rice was not plentifully available because of World War II. They stuffed a small amount of rice into squid and simmered it in a savory sauce. This rice-stuffed squid is still popular today!
Ekiben design and ingredients were also influenced by popular culture. In the 1970’s, when popular television shows became a mainstream form of entertainment, vendors began selling ekiben that mimicked those found in TV. Travelers always recognized them! But soon after, many Japanese stopped traveling as much by train, as owning vehicles and traveling by plane became easier. Ekiben sales decreased by approximately 50% between 1987 and 2008! To counter this downward trend, ekiben vendors got even more creative and innovative, such that today travelers can find elaborate ekiben at stations.
The Shinkansen E7 Series Bento is a great ekiben to purchase when traveling by bullet train, especially for kids! The container looks like a shinkansen train and it can be used to hold small keepsakes after the food is gone. The Gyu-tan Bento, from the Sendai area, uses a self-heating container that heats the food inside when activated. The Feel Good Meal sold at Matsue Station comes with sake. Rustic ekiben evoke nostalgia, like the Toge No Kamameshi rice bowls. Sometimes the boxes seem ordinary, but the wrappers are works of art, commemorating modern and historical events, samurai, manga and famous people.
Ekiben are made by independent artisans and also in larger factories. Regardless of where the ekiben originate, freshness and quality are of utmost importance. Even department stores have gotten onto the ekiben train! They host multiweek festivals, showcasing ekiben from various regions of Japan and giving buyers a chance to experience the flavor of travel, without leaving home.
When you’re feeling the bug to travel but can’t manage a trip to Japan, try making some popular items found in ekiben. As always, white rice is a key ingredient in bento, and items like mini-hamburgers and aemono are great additions to a balanced bento. Try out these recipes and let us know what your favorite bento items are!
In case you can’t tell, we love bento! We’re continuing our Japanese Bento series this month with an entertaining look at where to find ready-made bento in Japan!
Bento are quite often made at home to take to school, the office or outdoor events, but delicious bento can easily be purchased at shops, railway stations, convenience stores and department stores across Japan, too.
During the late 19th century when Japan was going through the height of industrialization, travel by rail became commonplace and enterprising vendors began selling prepackaged bento at train stations. These bento were called ekiben, with “eki” standing for station and “ben” for bento. These types of bento made prepackaged, wholesome food available for workers and travelers outside of their homes, and the trend spread to vendors and shops throughout cities. Prepackaged bento became more and more popular, especially after World War II, and began to be sold in supermarkets. In the 1980’s, convenience stores started to sell bento boxes, and with soaring demand, dedicated bento shops opened, offering some of the most tasty and innovative combinations. These shops are sometimes open 24 hours a day!
An ekiben with a vast array of bento combinations in Shin-Osaka Station (photo by bryan…)
So where should you go for bento?
Konbini, or convenience stores, are ubiquitous and serve various combinations of premade bento, including hamburger patties, steak, karaage fried chicken and salmon, at an inexpensive price. In cold weather, tonjiru or miso soup with pork, and other soups are popular additions to a bento set. The nice part of getting bento from konbini is that customers can take the meal home or to the office and warm it up in a microwave.
Customers buy bento at a Hokka Hokka Tei location (photo by 山海风)
Bento shops serve freshly made bento along with prepackaged ones. Some of the most popular shops in Japan are Hotto Motto, Hokka Hokka Tei, Origin Bento and Honke Kamadoya. These dedicated bento shops often allow customers to create their own combinations by selecting mains, sides and salads from the restaurant menu. Nori seaweed sets with grilled salmon, savory breaded tonkatsu pork and fried karaage chicken are often the most popular items. Served with pickles, salad, vegetable sides and rice, these bento from dedicated shops are the best takeout–and can be purchased at around ¥500 (or $5 USD)—in Japan!
Supermarkets are onboard with bento as well. At the end of the aisles, in sozai (prepared side dish) corners, supermarkets in Japan also carry several bento that you can take home to eat. These bento often become easy dinners for many working people in cities.
Vendors selling an array of food in a depachika (photo by ayustety)
When looking for a fancier bento meal, depachika are the best places to go. Depachika are the basement levels of department stores, where groceries, delis, gourmet food stalls, sweet shops, chocolatiers, alcohol and bento vendors are located. The bento found in depachika range from the kinds found at konbini and bento shops to fancier ones with premium items such as Kobe beef or matsutake mushrooms. Depachika vendors are also constantly adding new and flavorful items to create innovative bento. While many customers pick up bento to go, some diners prefer to select their bento and enjoy the public eating areas, like small gardens or the store rooftops, for their meal. Some even call depachika a bento wonderland!
Bento are very popular in Japan and they can be found at train stations or airports. Stay tuned for our post next month where we talk about ekiben and the types of the wonderful items in them!
Spring is here, and with the blooming of cherry, or sakura, trees all over Japan, we’re excited to share in the season by exploring hanami bento!
(…and stay tuned at the end to find out how to win a Mr. Bento® Stainless Lunch Jar!)THIS GIVEAWAY HAS ENDED.
Spring in Japan brings a flurry of freshness… Japanese apricot, or ume, and cherry trees start flowering, signaling the change in season. Festivals begin, celebrating the renewal of life from a cold winter. And the new academic and business year begins. Fresh, seasonal foods are also prepared, and can be seen beautifully displayed in hanami bento.
Hanami bento are named after the ohanami tradition of meeting up with friends, family and coworkers to view the blooming cherry blossoms and spend time outdoors in areas lush with the delicate pink blooms. The tradition of viewing the flowers is said to have begun sometime between the end of the Nara Period (710-794 AD) and the beginning of the Heian Period (794-1185 AD). The Emperor Saga welcomed springtime and the beginning of rice planting season in Kyoto by hosting parties under the sakura trees. Over time, the tradition spread from the aristocracy to the general populace, with people enjoying outdoor picnics and merriment from morning into the night.
Ueno Park visitors enjoy the blossoming of the cherry trees
Today, enjoying the cherry blossom season is still a favorite custom in Japan, and many Japanese continue the tradition of ohanami parties in parks and private gardens throughout the country. In fact, local news broadcasts provide detailed accounts of where the flowers are blooming, and sakuramatsuri, or cherry blossom festivals, begin in cities like Hirosaki, Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo, just to name a few.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of cherry blossom viewing parties are the meals! Hanami bento are a type of koraku or large picnic bento specifically crafted with the sakura in mind, famously enjoyed during picnics. These larger bento boxes are made for sharing! They’re filled with colorful, seasonal foods, including hearty items like rolled egg omelet, fish and shrimp, and mini-burgers and chicken karaage. Vegetables like carrots, asparagus and green beans are crisply cooked, cut and arranged so they look like the cherry blossoms. Seasoned rice, like sweet rice cooked with adzuki beans, are included and formed into flower shapes to add beauty to the mix. And of course, the bento wouldn’t be complete without some form of wagashi or sweets like tricolor dango called hanami dango.
A variety of sweet and savory foods fill this hanami bento (photo by Blue Lotus)
Hanami bento can be made at home and taken to cherry blossom viewing parties, and they can also be purchased from specialty shops and depachika, or the food halls in the basements of department stores. Depachika versions include traditional items, Western foods, and new, innovative combinations, as well!
If you’re lucky enough to live in an area of the United States where cherry trees bloom, plan your own ohanami party and bring a bento! We love including mini-hamburgers with two sauces, a Japanese one made with soy sauce and mirin and a Western one with Worcestershire sauce and ketchup. We also love adding crisp veggies like aemono, made with fresh spring green beans. And the ever popular hanamidango, with white, pink and green sweets.
We hope you enjoy your bento and let us know where you saw the blooming cherry trees!
30 Days For 30 Years Giveaway! Today and today only, we are giving away a Mr. Bento® Stainless Lunch Jar in Lemon Yellow*! Comment below and tell us what your favorite item in a bento box or lunch is, for your chance to win! #ZojirushiHappy30thGivaway
*must comment before 11:59PDT on 04/04/2017THIS GIVEAWAY HAS ENDED.
In case you can’t tell, we love bento! We’re continuing our Japanese Bento series this month by delving into the history of bento, with a few famous combinations that are sure to inspire you!
Bento are wildly popular in Japan and have recently been enjoying a large following in the United States. Bento are packed lunch boxes—filled with a balanced, nutritious and colorful meal—that can be taken to school, work and outdoor leisure activities. Bento are thought to have originated in Kyoto sometime between the 6th and 8th century as simple packed meals that travelers would take with them on their journeys. Early forms of bento were composed of cooked rice that was dried, making it easy to transport and to reconstitute with water when ready to be eaten. Later, onigiri took the place of the dried rice and became a part of the bento and over time, more items and ingredients were added.
Bento soon became a convenient part of daily Japanese life following its inception. Mothers would send simple bento boxes to school with their children for their midday meal. Often these simple meals would include rice with soy sauce-soaked nori seaweed (noriben) or plain white rice with umeboshi, or salted plum, in the center (hinomarubento). And workers would take bento from home to work for their lunches.
An example of shidashi bento
In the early 1600s at the beginning of the Edo Period, bento culture become more sophisticated and ubiquitous. In Kyoto, restaurateurs created shidashi bento which they delivered to diners during lunch, parties and funerals. These bento were created following the principles of washoku. According to these principles, bento were made with fresh, seasonal ingredients, including rice, a main dish of fish, meat or eggs, and numerous side dishes of vegetables, seaweeds and mushrooms, such that the nutritional balance of complex carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals and fiber provided a complete meal. Often these dishes were seasoned with salt, mirin and sugar to preserve the foods, and herbs, ginger, wasabi, and bamboo leaves were added to the boxes to further help to prevent the food from spoiling. The composition of the boxes included the Five Tastes, namely salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami, and the Five Colors, including red, white, green, yellow and black. Finally, bento were crafted with an artful eye for arranging the food in an appetizing and decorative three-dimensional presentation.
Simple bento were served in bamboo or cedar boxes. Lavish, highly decorated and specialized bento boxes also became popular during the Edo period and were used for more elaborate honzen ryori, or full course, meals. These bento were originally created for leisure activities, like cherry blossom viewing picnics and going to Noh and Kabuki performances at the theater. A special type of bento, called makunouchibento, or “between acts bento”, was served during intermission at the theater. These bento were hugely popular, as they provided a complete meal of rice with many side dishes including fish, tofu, vegetables and pickles, and enhanced the theater-going experience. Makunouchibento is still a popular type of bento in Japan, and many consider it the progenitor of modern bento. Modern bento based on the makunouchi style usually contain white rice, formed into barrel-shapes and sprinkled with black sesame seeds, dried seaweed or tsukudani, a type of small fish boiled in sweetened soy sauce. The rice is accompanied by a variety of side dishes, often based on the “Three Sacred Imperial Treasures” combination which includes broiled fish, a Japanese-style omelet and kamaboko, or fish sausage. These items are accompanied by pickled, simmered or seasoned vegetables, fried foods such as tempura, and other seasonal items.
Kaiseki ryori, or haute cuisine based on the formal Japanese tea ceremony, also influenced bento culture. Many high-end Japanese restaurants now serve a bento that includes the courses that would be served in a traditional kaiseki meal, including an appetizer, sushi, soup, simmered vegetables, grilled meats and fish, and rice. These meals are often served in beautiful dishes or bowls. At some kaiseki restaurants, one can enjoy shokadobento, a version of a kaiseki-style bento originally developed by Teiichi Yuki in 1937. Mr. Yuki is said to have visited the Shokado Tea House in Kyoto Prefecture, where he saw the calligraphy box of Shokado Shojo, who was a famous priest, artist and tea master during the early Edo period. Mr. Yuki was so inspired by Shokado Shojo’s art and the beauty of his tool box that he developed a similar black lacquered box partitioned into four squares to use for shokadobento. Shokado bento were easy to serve during large events, and became popular variations of tea ceremony meals. Since its origin, shokado bento has become more graceful and refined over the years.
Whether eaten for convenience or to honor the rich Japanese washoku heritage, when all is said and done, bento is fun to eat!
We hope you enjoy your bento and let us know about your favorite recipes below!