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.


| Summer 2014



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

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.





elderberry, echinacea, bee hive

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