Japanese bento boxes may have recently become a popular form of ‘packed lunch’ all over the world, but they actually have a rich and culturally significant history in Japan going back hundreds of years. Said to have been invented by the Samurai, who developed foods that were easy to transport, their use can be traced as far back as the twelfth century. It was during Japan’s Kamakura period that dried meals or hoshi-ii were first introduced and packed lunches consisting mainly of dried rice were carried when out hunting or working in the fields. Bento at this time was little more than a small bag to store rice which could be rehydrated with hot or cold water, or eaten as is. Wooden lacquered bento boxes were not seen until much later, but they were mainly used for tea parties, cherry blossom viewings and other such gatherings.
It was not until the seventeenth century that the use of bento boxes became more refined and widespread. They started to be used for home entertaining and prepared for travelling. It would have been common to take a fancy tiered bento box with an assortment of food on a picnic or other excursions. Theatregoers would take Makunouchi (‘between-scene’) bento filled with ongigri rice balls sprinkled with sesame seeds to enjoy during intermissions. For other outings, they would also typically include seafood, pickles, rice and bamboo shoots. Bento boxes started to develop into an elaborate art form.
The arrival of the Japanese Railway system in the nineteenth century, saw bento boxes being sold at train stations. Called Ekiben (‘station bento’), they usually contained pickled daikon radish and rice balls wrapped in bamboo with pickled umeboshi. European style Ekiben started to become available at railway stations, with sandwiches instead of rice balls.