The bentō box is the Japanese equivalent of the lunchbox, though it tends to be much more aesthetically pleasing, and varies significantly in what it contains. The earliest boxes were made as far back as the 12th century, usually of lacquered wood. For home preparation, lacquered wood is still a common choice for bentō boxes. Semi-disposable ones made of Styrofoam can be purchased at restaurants and convenience stores, and some people prefer stainless steel types for long-term use.
Each bentō box has numerous sections into which various cooked or fresh foods can be placed, and the box itself may be carried in a bag or wrapped in special cloth called furoshiki, which is tied on the top so that it can be more easily carried. Typical offerings in a bento box can include different types of rice, a few pieces of sushi, pickled vegetables and fresh fruit. Homemakers often pride themselves on filling boxes for their children, or for their families on a picnic that are not just delicious but also aesthetically beautiful.
Yet there was a time period in Japan, particularly after WWII, that bringing a bentō box to school was discouraged. Since children brought what their parents could afford, disparity in what each box contained created class separations between richer and poorer students. In many parts of Japan, schools began to serve lunches to all students so as to avoid “marking” students as poor.
With the advent of the microwave, the popularity of bentō boxes was again assured, especially disposable ones, which could help heat food. Restrictions regarding bringing a bentō box to school have also loosened, and they’re commonly seen at many public and private schools. They are also popular in Taiwan, where they may be called Bendong.
The simple lacquered wood box usually has grooves onto which the lid slides. You simply slide the lid off to have access to your food. Disposable types may merely have a plastic wrap covering, which is removed before or after heating depending upon instructions. Some items called bentos are not boxes with individual compartments, but are instead large bowls with mixed ingredients, such as a clay pot meal.
The name bentō may refer to any meals packed in boxes. A student might take a bentō box to school, but he or she eats bentō for lunch. The term defines almost any foods packed in boxes or disposable containers, and the variety of these foods is extraordinary.