Are Japanese Bento Boxes Really So Extravagant?

by Justin Sevakis,

Jake asks:

I have watched a lot of anime and I have noticed something interesting with the food most characters eat. It seems like a lot of time and attention is put into the average breakfast and bento box lunches, which appear to be really extravagant. I might understand having a several course meal breakfast on a weekend or special occasion but not everyday. Also it seems like it would get very expensive as well compared to the average western breakfast, which tend to be low cost and preparation meals like cereal, yogurt, fruit etc. Do they really prepare these time and labor intensive breakfast and lunch boxes every day?

Japan seems to have an attitude towards breakfast that it's the most important meal of the day, important fuel for being productive and getting you through towards lunch, and not a particularly good time to load up on sugar and empty calories. They're probably right about that. So while the meals are hardly the most elaborate thing they make, they are a bit more involved than what many people eat in other countries. Home cooks tend to get up extra early to make a good one for their family.

Breakfast in Japan is a bit less about the sweet and more about the savory. A traditional breakfast might include some grilled fish or eggs, rice, miso soup, and maybe some spinach salad. Some people also throw in a small serving of fruit, like a banana. If you are one of the decreasing number of people that enjoy natto and regard it as food, breakfast is when it's normally eaten.

A "Western style" Japanese breakfast might veer more towards eggs and pork products, iceberg lettuce and tomato salad and some toast. But surprisingly few people stray very far from this time-tested formula. Cereal isn't really a thing in Japan, and pastries are seldom eaten as a breakfast food. Even pancakes, which have become a very trendy food in Japan in recent years, are usually more of a snack or a dessert than a breakfast.

We've all seen the ridiculously gorgeous bento boxes, both in anime and occasionally on twitter, that are filled with nutritious(?) and delicious(!) things. They look absolutely gorgeous, and completely intimidating. But upon closer inspection, most of them aren't all THAT hard to make, they just have a lot of stuff. And in many cases, home cooks are re-using the previous night's leftovers in creative ways.

Many home cooks take great pride in crafting a well-made bento. That said, many bento box staples aren't quite as hard to make as they look. The little octopus mini-weiners just involves making a few creative slices before boiling. Bacon-wrapped asparagus is literally just a piece of asparagus with a slice of uncooked bacon wrapped around it, and then the whole thing is cooked in a pan. The rolled omelet is a little more challenging, but one omelet gets sliced up and can fill several bento boxes. Rice-filled inari isn't so hard either.

Also you must keep in mind that actual Japanese bento boxes are TINY. I mean, I eat a lot even by American standards, but whenever I go to a Japanese housewares store and see the actual little boxes used for bento, I marvel that one of those could actually fill a human being. To me, they look about the size of a cat food bowl. So while filling them can be quite a production, it's not like you're filling the equivalent of an entire American take-out container.

Also: if anyone wants to feed me a bento or a Japanese breakfast, I am down. Repeat: I AM DOWN.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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