The care and watering of wooden and lacquerware bento boxes

Since I’ve recommended two wooden boxes as the Bento Box of the Week so far, a few people have asked how practical wooden bento boxes are.

Wood was the traditional material used for bento boxes and tabletop presentation containers (also called bento, or if a multilayer one juubako). It was either coated with lacquer, or left uncoated. Also recently wooden tableware has has a small resurgence in popularity in Japan, especially for kids’ tableware, since it won’t break if dropped and is considered kinder to the environment. Wood does need a bit of care to keep in shape, and you should never put it in the dishwasher. But I think wood is such a nicer material than plastic, and it’s a pleasure to use it on occasion. (Even teakwood salad bowls may make a comeback…who knows. I remember tossing out a bunch of them from my father’s old house in the late ’80s when he moved, thinking they were ugly…how I regret that now!)

Also, a reader emailed me wondering why the lacqured box featured here was so much more expensive than ones she’d seen on eBay. The main reason that the featured box is rather expensive is that it’s hand carved and lacquered. They even state that they will re-lacquer their wares upon request. But I looked around on eBay, and it looks like most of the bento boxes described as “lacquer” are actually lacquer-look plastic. You have to read the descriptions carefully in that case. I’ve also seen items listed as wood and lacqured for around US $25, such as this one. It looks very similar to this box which is sold through Amazon Japan for 1,600 yen. That one gets terrible one-star reviews though (see also here) saying that no matter what is done, it smells strongly of lacquer, so that it’s unusable for food.

There are perfectly usable machine-carved lacquerware items out there, but I would generally be skeptical of a box that was sold in Japan for under 2,000 yen or on the auction sites for under $30. Lacquer itself is not a cheap thing, and it takes skill to know how to apply it properly. I guess you get what you pay for as with most things.

One problem that I used to have when I lived in a New York City apartment was that some of my lacquerware would start peeling and chipping. This is due to a lack of humidity - the typical overheated apartment is about as dry as a desert. This problem is best solved by increasing the overall humidity in the area with humidifiers - your sinuses and houseplants will be much happier too. Better quality lacquerware is much less likely to peel, and the most vulnerable items are things like miso soup bowls with a curved surface.

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heya

Hey!

Great site!

I recently bought a wooden lacquered box. It is really beautiful….so much so that I have been afraid to use it. I like kimchi and I put it in my plastic box and now it reeks of kimchi. Anyway, I should just wash it with hot water and soap and let is dry completely?

Also, I currently live in Japan and have tremendous difficultly navigating the supermarkets. It is great that you put everything in English, though you only occasionally put what stuff is called in Japanese, too. If possible, could you put the Japanese name of the ingredient (in parentheses or something)?

Thank you for an interesting and informative site!

lacquerware

Hi Rachel. Actually I find that lacquerware absorbs much less odor and color from the food than plastic does. Washing with regular dishwashing detergent then wiping dry should be fine. And in Japan, since it’s naturally humid, you don’t have to worry about peeling issues.

Do you mean the kanji/hiragana name? I’ll try to do that (or maybe put it in a separate list somewhere).

Thanks! :) I really like

Thanks! :)

I really like your site. I am usually intimidated by making stuff for myself (and believe it or not, I like in Japan with no rice cooker!) and your site encourages me to try.

Usually, I just buy ready-made stuff at the market, but it isn’t all as tasty as I would like.

Anyway, hiragana or romanji would be great! I don’t need the kanji, as I usually just ask the nice ladies at the market to find stuff for me when I am lost. :)

humidity

thats one good thing about living in Houston

the humidity is always extremely high and is conducive to a perfect environment for lacquerware.

Who wants cheap plastic in their home when you can have these beautiful ornaments in your home.

great advice and info!

Regards,

Andrew

Re: The care and watering of wooden and lacquerware bento ...

I just want to knowo f the safety of wooden lunch boxes. I avoid things like plastic as I know chemicals can leach into the food when heated and being part Asian (I am a mixed Eurasian descent) I prefer hot, spicy food as opposed to sandwiches. However as I do not have much choice when it comes to convenient portable lunches, I would prefer to use something like stainless steel or wooden bento boxes, for things like homemade sushi (My aunt makes them, not me, thankfully) kimchi, etc.

I also have kids and weaning them off plastic stuff. They use stainless steel waterbottles and I would like them to use bento boxes too, for their own sandwiches, fruit, type stuff.

I am just wondering if the chemicals in wood, used n the processing would be safe? I know the quesion is probably dumb, but I just like to know if my money is going towards something that is manufactured with both the environment and our health in mind.

I also suffer from migraines, too so have to try to limit things that I put in my body, too as I don't what causes them. I know they are more frequent when I have had too much of one type of food or one type of simple sugar, etc.

So anyway while my question may seem dumb, I just want to know.

Re: The care and watering of wooden and lacquerware bento ...

There are three types of wooden bento boxes. I would not be concerned about the safety of untreated wood or real lacquerware boxes - humans have been using both for hundreds of years. Think of wooden cutting boards, which some people think (erroneously as it turns out) have natural anti-microbial properties. The third type is coated with a food safe polyurethane, which makes them a lot more practical to use. However polyurethane is a chemical, so you may or may not be happy with that. I myself do not mind them since they are guaranteed to be food safe.

One thing I would be wary of is a cheap wooden bento box. Properly made wooden bento boxes are expensive - costing at least around 5000 yen or so. If you see a US $15-20 or so wooden bento box or less, be careful.

For kids, stainless steel is probably more practical and durable.

Re: The care and watering of wooden and lacquerware bento ...

Hi Maki,

Thanks for your site! I've just visited Japan and bought some bento boxes, including a lovely lacquered wooden one. I like to make my bentos up the night before, so was just wondering - is it ok to put my new wooden bento box in the refrigerator overnight? I have googled the life out of this and haven't been able to find an answer, so I'd love some advice!

Thanks!

Re: The care and watering of wooden and lacquerware bento ...

Putting a lacquered box in the refrigerator overnight is fine. Don't keep the box in there for an extended period, since refrigerators tend to have very dry environments (especially the no-frost type).

Re: The care and watering of wooden and lacquerware bento ...

Great - thanks for getting back to me :)

Re: The care and watering of wooden and lacquerware bento ...

Hi! I know this is a really old post, but I'm pretty curious as to how durable these are. My boxes tend to be used a lot, and in the school setting that they're in, usually get knocked around a lot too. Do these hold up well compared to plastic bento?

Re: The care and watering of wooden and lacquerware bento ...

Well made wooden boxes are very sturdy, and provided you take good care of them they'll last a long time. You may want to protect them when in transit with a little bag or a furoshiki (cloth wrapper) around them to prevent dents and scratches.

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