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.)