The perfect travel food arose in Japan around a thousand years ago. It is called bento, and there is still nothing better for getting a complete, cheap, and nutritious meal on the road.
Bento boxes, called biandang in Chinese, are East Asia’s answer to an American school child’s brown bag lunch packed by mom. They are a cheap and readily available complete meal, packed in a singular container that can be transported easily and eaten when traveling or on break from work or school.
A typical bento box will be made from bamboo, but today they are often made from the entire array of food packaging materials.
Though the inside is where the essence is. Packed within the rectangular confines of the container will be a bed of rice blanketed with a slab of meat (pork, beef, or fish being the most common), vegetables, and perhaps a slab of tofu or two. In one package you get protein, carbs, and vitamins — an entire balanced meal.
Bento originally comes from Japan, where the custom is still very popular, and was spread to Taiwan, Korea, the Philippines, mainland China — even Hawaii has a take on it. They are sold in convenience stores, bento shops, department stores, airports, and railway stations throughout East Asia. It is the staple food of rail travel in Japan, and you really wouldn’t think of getting on a long distance train there without one.
From the start, bento was a traveler’s meal. In Edo Period Japan travelers and tourists would go around with their lunch “bento boxed” to their waists. I have not come upon a more appropriate travel food in these 15 years of wandering around this planet. Bento is a cheap, delicious, nutritious, and portable meal — do we need anything more?
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