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!

Book signing at Kinokuniya NY

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. ^_^;

For more bento recipes, ideas and tips, subscribe to Just Bento via your newsreader or by email (more about subscriptions).

And visit our sister site, Just Hungry for great Japanese home recipes and more.

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Re: Great question: What's the difference between a lunch ...

That's wonderful commercial -wipes a nearly-tear- And the overslept one is cute XD

Re: Great question: What's the difference between a lunch ...

That was such a beautiful video, Maki. Thanks for sharing it!

Exact words

Maki...You have just said the same words that came to my ming when I thought about the difference between bento-lunch box-tupper (as we say it here in Spain) and *don't remember exact word (muchpakket?)*(norway). The detail and thought behind, and the feeling and effort you do bentos is the main difference. I used to survive just with plain tuppers (just one kind of meal, not organized...like a main dish) but now I like to think I do spanish style bentos....which are healthier and nicer and have more meaning for me or for the persons I do it for.
Anyway, I wish I were in Seattle!Seems like it went really well in NY

:)

Re: Exact words

Matpakke! (literally packed food, but is synonymous to packed lunch)

*Very* Norwegian tradition, all norwegian kids have it, usually a few slices of bread with cheese or ham or jelly. Ten years in you get very bored from bread, which was when I started bento. The idea of *not* bringing a lunch was farfetched for me, but I couldn't get myself to eat plain bread anymore ^^;

Re: Exact words

That was the word, thank you! Yeah, I know about matpakke, I was one year living in Norway as an exchange student ^^.However, I'm soooo mediterranean, I can't survive with just slices of bread with some top (specially when the bread is not the on I'm used to) so I understand your decision of changing to bentos ;)
More or less is the same with spanish tupper, if you eat a lot, you get tired of just having a plain dish (which are normally the same between weeks: macarroni, chicken, paella...).
Thank you for the word, I was all day thinking about that :P

Re: Great question: What's the difference between a lunch ...

Beautiful explanation Maki and I also started to tear at the end lol, such a wonderful commercial =)

Re: Great question: What's the difference between a lunch ...

There's a really nice quote in that "Watashi-tachi no O-Bento" book that you recommend (excellent book, BTW, thanks!) that goes something along the lines that a bento is eaten "at room temperature but has warmth".

My mom packed me a bento almost every day when I was in graduate school. (I moved back home at the time to cut costs.) They weren't anything fancy, but looking back, those meals are what often kept me going despite the stressful days on campus. I pack my own bento now, again nothing fancy, and sometimes I'll have a really crappy morning, but then I'll open my lunch and feel like a million bucks again. A Japanese-style packed lunch has that kind of power, at least for me.

Anyhow, some things your post and that video conjured up. Which reminds me, I should really give my mom a call…

By the way, are there any plans to come to Canada?

Re: Great question: What's the difference between a lunch ...

If you liked Watashi tachi no Obento, you may also like the followup to it, ku.nel no hon: Motto Watashitachi no Obento (a ku:nel book: More of Our Bentos) (ku:nel is the magazine where these 'regular people bentos' were originally serialized), as well as Obento no Jikan (Bento Time), which has more pictures of the obento-eaters and makers themselves from around Japan.

Re: Great question: What's the difference between a lunch ...

Oh wow, there's another volume? Both books sound promising :) Thank you!!

Re: Great question: What's the difference between a lunch ...

"’m referring to the the knowledge that I’ve accumulated, from my mom, my grandmothers, my aunts, my sister-with-two-kids, "

so is bento-making a females-only thing to do?

Re: Great question: What's the difference between a lunch ...

Oh no...men can and do make bentos, in increasing numbers recently. My dad was never the cook in our family though.... ^_^;

Re: Great question: What's the difference between a lunch ...

Thanks so much for sharing that video! It was so sweet! My knowledge of japanese is pretty spotty so I had to keep pausing the video to read the messages she was conveying with the bentos. *gushes* I teared at the end too! Favorite bit was when she made the heart shaped bento and her kid's response "Nani..." I giggled. :) Thanks again!

What's the difference between a lunch ...

I really enjoy your blog and soon hope to own a copy of your book. Amazing how, even though I do not understand the language, I still knew what was being said. =) thank you!

Re: Great question: What's the difference between a lunch ...

Thank you for sharing that video! It clearly explains why moms like myself are obsessed with making Bentos and to me, it is really the love that it contains and means, chanelling through the food to my kids. Other than a healthier option, my daughter always look forward to lunch and it really give me the best feeling to hear her say., "When I eat my Bento, I think of you Mom" :).

Congrats on the success of your Book.

Re: Great question: What's the difference between a lunch ...

Even though I couldn't understand what was being said, I too teared up at the video.

Re: Great question: What's the difference between a lunch ...

I teared up at the end and watched it again - I'll never look at Tokyo Gas the same way again ;_;

Re: Great question: What's the difference between a lunch ...

I'm coming to this thread a little late but differentiating between a lunch box and a bento came to mind when I first read through Just Bento. I managed to snag a copy (earlier than expected) after Christmas. I bring my lunch everyday and while I haven't gone to the full-extent of bento-making, I realised I already incorporated a lot of bento philosophy when preparing lunch. Just the care and consideration of what goes into the meal whether it's the night before (planned leftovers) or in the preparation the morning of made lunch less of an afterthought and more of a baby step towards bento.

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