Japanese Bento

Take a look at the menu for a traditional Japanese lunch, known as bento. Bento usually features Japanses cuisines like shiitake dashi, braised gobo, and rice balls.

bento dinner

From top left, clockwise: farmhouse nishimi, carrot and daikon salad, braised gobo, monk's loaf, marinated spinach, grilled eggplant skewers with pickled ginger and wasabi, simmered shitake, vinegared rice balls (center), and yakisoba.

Photo courtesy Jeff Nekola/Linda Fey

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We all must eat. But, how we do so informs not only about culture and human history, but also the soil, geology, climate, landscape, and ecological communities within which we live. To understand why certain people eat the way they do, one must step back to consider this whole system as well as its many parts. The unique, beautiful, and delicious Japanese cuisine is one such example of a foodway tied intimately to its culture and the landscape in which it evolved.

The main part of the Japanese archipelago extends over 1,200 miles from the north tip of Hokkaido (roughly the same latitude as Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin) to the Tokara Islands off the south coast of Kyushu (roughly the same latitude as New Orleans, Louisiana). The land that makes up Japan has formed at the juncture of the Pacific, North American, Eurasian, and Philippine plates, and is a result are subject to not only frequent large earthquakes and volcanism, but associated tsunamis along the coast and landslides in the interior. Japan is also subject to tropical cyclones (typhoons) with their associated high winds, heavy rain, flash floods and even more landslides. 

The first people who settled in Japan were largely hunter-gatherers that lived much like the cultures of the Pacific Northwest in North America, and largely subsisted off the abundant fish, shellfish, and seaweed in the Pacific. Permanent agriculture gradually developed with Japanese, Korean, and northern Chinese agriculturalists domesticating a number of local plants including various millets, tubers and radishes, cabbage, adzuki beans, great burdock, soybeans, buckwheat, bunching onions, peaches and persimmons. The relatively mild climate, abundant moisture, and rich soils derived from volcanic eruptions allowed Japanese farmers to produce a diverse and abundant larder from which to feed their people.

If there is one single book you should read about Japanese agriculture, we recommend the One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka, which relates how traditional Japanese culture addresses the growing of food and tending of fields, and makes a strong case that we must do a better job of feeding ourselves.

The indigenous belief system of the Japanese is Shinto, which honors the spirit present in all things, whether living or not. It is common to see shrines honoring the local spirits of place, whether it be a riverside, forest grove, roadside, or even an alcove in a shopping mall. Because of the dynamic nature of Japan’s environment, any place could be completely wiped clean in a moment from any number of natural calamities. As a result, wabi-sabi — the acceptance and appreciation of transience — became a guiding principle of Shinto. In fact, one of the most sacred Shinto shrines, at Ise in Mie Prefecture, is completely dismantled and rebuilt every 20 years. The Japanese are thus able to take their unsettled environment in stride. 

Local Cuisine

It should not be surprising that one of the guiding principles of Japanese food is that it reflects the local environment and seasons. A millennium before “fresh and local” became the buzzwords in the United States, Japanese cooks insisted on using only the freshest and purest local ingredients, served only when in season at their very height of quality, and in simple ways that allow their true essences to be expressed.

If Indian cooking, using literally dozens of spices and herbs in just a single masala, is thought of as an epic poem (the Sanskrit epic Mahābhārata is over 1.8 million words long), Japanese cooking with only a few flavorings — primarily soy sauce, miso (fermented soy paste), sake, mirin (sweet sake), rice vinegar, dashi (flavored stock), and sesame — is akin to haiku:

Summer heat lingers,
Let’s set our hands to cooking
Melons and eggplants
— Basho, July 15-23, 1689

It is almost unheard of for a Japanese dish to contain more than a dozen ingredients. But, as you’ll see, even though the same flavorings are used again and again each dish tastes different and is evocative of its principle ingredients, whether they be spinach, daikon, gobo, green beans, or eggplant.

As spring days lengthen into summer, plum, apple, and cherry blossoms begin to burst and the landscape is filled with clouds of fragrant white flowers that soon fade and fall away. These blossoms must be appreciated in their brief moment of beauty, with the transience of this moment making it all the more beautiful. The Japanese have raised this appreciation to the status of a national festival called hanami. Although referring to the viewing and enjoyment of any kind of blossom, this word has become synonymous with the tradition of viewing and picnicking under the blooming cherry trees.

Bento

One of the most common ways to celebrate hanami is through a bentō meal taken into the countryside to be enjoyed with friends and family. Bentō is the lunch and takeaway meal of Japan, and traditionally will contain rice and a selection of fish or meat and pickled or cooked vegetables, representing an attractive diversity of cooking methods, textures, colors, and flavors, usually carried in a box-shaped container ranging from disposable plastic to handcrafted lacquer ware.

Bentō can be traced back to the 11th century when it consisted primarily of parboiled rice. By the late 1500s, light meals began to be served in wooden lacquered boxes. It was during the Edo Period from 1603-1868 that bentō spread and became refined. Travelers began making a lunch of rice balls or onigiri wrapped with bamboo leaves or carried in a bamboo box. The first bentō sold for train trips in 1885 consisted of two onigiri with slices of pickled radish. 

We’ve created a vegetarian bentō consisting of rice balls and a variety of savory, spicy or pickled vegetables that can be easily made in an American kitchen. We round out this meal with fried noodles and a hearty vegetable stew. Consider taking this meal out into the countryside and have a picnic in a place that captures the transient beauty of the first green grass, breaking tree buds, and spring flowers.


Try some classic bento recipes:

Japanese Dashi Recipe Using Shiitake Mushrooms
Vinegared Rice Balls Recipe
Pickled Ginger Recipe
Carrot and Daikon Salad Recipe
Marinated Spinach Recipe
Braised Gobo Recipe
Simmered Shiitake Recipe
Monk's Loaf Recipe
Grilled Eggplant Skewers with Peanut Nerimiso Recipe
Fried Noodles Recipe
Farmhouse Nishimi Recipe


Jeff Nekola has a PhD in Ecology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has a passion for biodiversity in its many forms, whether it be plants, butterflies, and land snails in the wild or crops grown in gardens, orchards and fields, or the use of those foods as expressed by the entire range of humanity's cuisines. You can learn more here.

Linda Fey's first and finest childhood memories are of helping her mother and grandmother in the garden and then bringing in freshly picked produce to the dinner table. As an adult, she has over 20 years of experience in market gardening and teaches middle-school English at the Albuquerque Institute for Math and Science Visit www.LindaFey.com to view her writing about food and life.