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Summertime Bento Box Ideas for the Perfect Picnic

Bento in Japanese originally means food prepared at home and packed to take to school or work, typically comprised of a mix of rice, vegetables and proteins neatly arranged in a box. As that implies, the common term “bento box” is slightly redundant since “bento” already implies the meal is packed in a box, regardless it is still a commonly used phrase, especially outside of Japan. 

The term bento box refers to a portable meal served in a little box with divided spaces for different items. Similar to Lunchables but made at home or by a chef with real, fresh better-quality ingredients. The individual sections make it easy to include different vegetables, meat, rice, and other mini-dishes or ingredients that make it balanced and healthy. 

In summary, a bento box offers a portable, healthy, and delicious meal. It’s the perfect lunch for a Pacific Northwest summer picnic. 

Types of bento  

These common bento boxes vary in both quality and what you’re likely to find inside. 

For example, there are bentos characterized by where they’re sold: 

  • Ekiben: Bentos sold at train stations, a ubiquitous part of Japanese train travel 
  • Hokaben: Hot bentos from restaurants that specialize in takeout  
  • Konbini: Mini-mart bentos that are convenient and microwaveable 

By how they look: 

  • Kyaraben: Bentos with dishes made to look like popular characters, plants, people and animals 
  • Oekakiben: Bentos whose dishes are designed to show a landmark, landscape, people, or general scene 
  • Hinomaru: This patriotic bento means “circle of the sun,”. This bento features rice with an umeboshi pickled savory plum in the middle, resembling the Japanese flag 

And by their physical characteristics: 

  • Makunouchui: “Split-screen” bentos with rice on one side and side dishes on the other 
  • Jubako: Often used for celebrations, these tiered bentos stack neatly for multiple people.   

Koraku: The Sharable Picnic Bento 

Koraku bentos are larger than an individual bento box and are meant to be shared among a group. For that reason, they are perfect for picnics because their divided sections allow for easy customization and separation of picnic offerings, unlike a Western picnic basket. 

 

Along with picnics, they’re popular for all sorts of group outings, including sakura viewing and sporting events. 

Ideas and inspiration for your summertime bento picnic 

For obvious reasons, koraku and Pacific Northwest summers feel like the perfect match.  

As mentioned earlier, bentos typically include rice, meat and some pickled, fermented, or fresh veggies and sometimes fresh fruit. Koraku bentos often feature seasonal ingredients to highlight the time of year to enhance the experience of eating outdoors  

For vegetables and/or legumes, edamame, kimchi and kinpira gobo (stir-fried burdock root and carrots) are lovely additions. Other good options are sesame spinach, roasted satsuma imo (Japanese sweet potato) or any greens that compliment your other sides. 

While everything in a bento box is regarded more as a side, there are dishes in a bento that are viewed as an entrée because they are more substantial, usually proteins or curries. Dishes such as chicken teriyaki, karaage (bite sized fried chicken), tonkatsu, tempura, miso salmon, and eel are popular in Japanese bentos. 

Another popular option is makizushi, or sushi rolls. Many people can get intimidated by making their own sushi, but maki is an accessible homemade snack! Check out our previous blog post to learn how to make it at home.  

Onigiri is not only a great snack for a bento picnic, but a great snack for all the time. Onigiri are rice balls wrapped around a filling, typically seafood, often wrapped with a bit of nori (roasted seaweed). They are great snacks because they are super easy to make, filling, and tasty. 

Overall, there are a lot of wonderful little dishes that can go together to make a fantastic shareable bento, all just in time for summer.