13 May 2016 in Food Culture
Do you know the actual origin of the word “Bento”, the famous Japanese take-away?
Bento, or more accurately eki-bento means “take-away from the train station”. Are you aware that Ekiben – the contracted word most commonly used nowadays – is an integral part of the Japanese lifestyle? You will understand when you arrive in Japan, on exploring the kiosks in all the railway stations, which the Japanese throng around expectantly at lunch time in order to take their meal away with them.
Did you know that the first ekiben was sold in 1888 in the Utsunomiya train station in Tochigi – the station where you get off to stay at Hoshino Resorts KAI Kinugawa, KAI Nikko or KAI Kawaji – when the Japanese railways were established between Ueno and Utsunomiya. At the time, the railway company asked a local inn to provide passengers making the journey with something to eat. And this is how the first bento, originally made from onigiri or rice balls, came into being.
There are more than 2000 varieties of Ekiben which reflect not only the season, but also the local cuisine! Each take-away is based on the regional produce of where it is made. Eating an ekiben is more than just a pleasant way to enjoy the journey you know, it is also a savoury and sensory journey through Japan, a way of discovering the different culinary traditions of the regions you visit.
And the contents vary, as do the bentos. You can find standard rectangular ekibens through to hexagonal ones, like those in Aomori, with 14 compartments each containing a different flavour from the region. Tōge no Kamameshi, is sold in ceramic pots (so it can be reusable) – Mashikoyaki – in Yokokawa station in Gunma prefecture and filled with 11 ingredients. The Joshu D-51 bento is inspired by the eponymous steam train, which is rare but still in service, and serves Takasaki station to the north-west of Tokyo.
So, are you ready to step on-board and travel like the Japanese do?