It is in the Japan of the Kamakura Era (1185-1333) that the Japanese canteen would find its origin. Initially declined in the form of simple furoshiki (wrapping fabrics), it continued its development during the Moyoma Era (1568-1600) thanks to lacquered wooden boxes. It's from the Edo Era (1603-1867) that bento, which is eaten between two maku (acts) of No, becomes more refined and looks a little more like our current bento.
Bento in everyday life
There are many types of bento. The traditional bento, first of all, which is eaten at school or at work; prepared by the mother or the wife. It can also be bought in konbini (mini-markets) or from street vendors who appear on street corners at lunchtime. For those in a hurry who have to spend their lunch time aboard the shinkansen, there is also the bento ekiben which, as its name suggests, is on sale in the stations of the Archipelago. As for the traditional bento, its content is varied and its price very affordable: it is possible to eat well for less than 400 yens (3 euros)! Bento is also present in more solemn moments, even on the Japanese New Year's table for example. Then called osechi, it comes in two or three levels and contains dishes - expensive, even very expensive - that can only be eaten at this high point of the Japanese calendar.
Under the lid
Traditional bento almost always contains rice, the usual tsukemono (small macerated dishes) to accompany it and a meat or fish dish. It can also contain more simply a series of sushi or ramen (Japanese noodles in soup). For the Japanese, the appearance of the contents of a bento is just as important as its taste: a good bento is first and foremost a beautiful bento! A Japanese person who is satisfied with his lunch is a Japanese person who, by savouring the harmony of colours and flavours, will have taken a lot of pleasure in his eyes and taste buds. The best known aesthetic detail is undoubtedly that of the ume boshi (macerated and bitter plum) in the centre of a rectangle of white rice supposed to represent the Japanese flag!
In Japan, the bento box is called obento. The prefix o has an honorific value : a touch of affection and is used with everyday words such as omizu (water), oniku (meat), osushi (raw fish and rice dishes) or okazu (garnishes and other small dishes).