A bento box is a packed lunch box, and an important part of Japanese lifestyles. In a bento box, a variety of different dishes are compactly fitted into a lunch box and brought to school and work.
In recent years, “kyaraben” (abbreviated term for “character bento”), have gained popularity. “Kyaraben” are bento box lunches that are made to resemble characters from anime, manga, games and more. Some kyaraben portray characters so accurately, that they look like works of art.
This article will introduce you to the world of kyaraben, by telling you what they are, how to make them, and showing you some photos for your own bento box inspiration!
What is a bento box?
A bento box lunch
Put most simply, a bento box is a Japanese style of packed lunch box. They are brought to school, work, picnics, and outings, and are a culturally ubiquitous companion to the Japanese lifestyle. The culture of bento boxes is a deep and diverse one that pursues all aspects of cooking, and an individual bento box may focus on quick sustenance, nutritional balance, or even visual beauty.
There are many different types of bento box containers. A traditional type of bento box is the magewappa, a flat piece of bamboo bent into an oval-shaped bowl. In recent years, microwave-friendly bento boxes have become popular, too.
Magewappa bento box
Many public elementary and junior high schools in Japan have "kyushoku", meaning lunches provided by the schools. This makes the bento box a more common sight in preschool and high school.
These bento boxes are usually made by parents for their children, and are made with great care for colorfulness and nutritional balance.
The side dishes in a bento lunch can vary greatly, and supermarkets even sell frozen foods made specifically for bento boxes.
Onigiri (rice ball) in a bento box lunch
Some people bring their own bento lunches in university or at work, since it is a healthy, cost-efficient option.
For special events such hanami (cherry blossom seeing) or sporting events, large bento box meals called koraku bento are made. These bento boxes are made for multiple people, and are much larger than normal ones.
Bento lunches are also sold at convenience stores and supermarkets, and this is a great option for those who do not have time in the morning to cook.
Bento box meal sold at convenience stores
Ekiben are another popular type of bento meal. The term “ekiben” is the word “eki” (station) and “bento” put together, and as the name suggests, they can be purchased at train stations to be eaten on the train. They often use local ingredients from the region of the station, and some famous ekiben include ikameshi from Hokkaido, and Echizen crab bento from Fukui.
The Rise of Kyaraben
In recent years, kyaraben has been on the rise. Kyaraben comes from “character bento”, and is a cute, colorful kind of bento box lunch that is designed to replicate a character from anime, manga and more.
Kyaraben can be seen as a new form of Japanese culture that is a mixture of traditional and contemporary arts and cuisine. The next section will be your guide to the tools and processes of making a cute bento box. There are some photos for your future bento box inspiration!
Make your own kyaraben!
For those interested in making your very own kyaraben, here are some tips and tricks to help you do so.
Handy kyaraben tools
Kyaraben tools (photo credit: @mee625_ss3844)
One of the things that are almost necessary for kyaraben making is a nice pair of scissors. For kyaraben making, smaller scissors are recommended.
It is also nice to have some tweezers to maneuver and pick up small parts.
Seaweed hole punchers are also a kyaraben must have. These special hole punchers allow you to create seaweed pieces of all shapes, such as hearts and stars. You can purchase these at 100-yen shops, craft stores and more.
Facial parts made from seaweed pieces
It is also nice to have colorful picks and silicone cups to decorate your kyaraben.
Colorful picks and silicone cups (photo credit: @mee625_ss3844)
Picks and cups of various colors, sizes and styles are sold. They will help liven up your kyaraben lunch!
Making cute onigiri
Making cute onigiri (rice balls) is a great way for beginners to get into kyaraben making. By cutting out cheese and seaweed into small facial features, you can make cute onigiri.
When cutting seaweed, use the seaweed hole punchers. You could also use scissors, but the hole punchers require a lot less effort.
If you want to change up the color of the rice, you can mix in different ingredients.
Use grinded sesame for black, yukari furikake seasoning for purple, ketchup for orange, curry powder for yellow, fish flakes for pink and more.
Cute side dishes
After making your cute character rice balls, it’s time to decorate with cute side dishes. Remember, these side dishes should be cute AND healthy!
A popular side dish choice is the “octopus sausage”. They are sausages cut into the shape of an octopus.
Just cut the ends of the sausage and add heat. You can fry or boil the sausages.
Another option is a heart shaped omelet.
These heart-shaped omelets are easy to make as well. Make a regular Japanese-style omelet, and cut the slices diagonally. Flip one of the pieces over and put the two pieces together to create the heart-shape.
In this kyaraben box, the carrots are cut with cookie cutters. It’s cute and healthy, perfect for a child’s bento box.
Cutely shaped carrots
These cute spiral shapes can be created in an instant. Just take a slice of ham and cheese, roll them together and then cut them into pieces.
Ham and cheese roll (photo credit: @ru32323)
Put a few in your kyaraben, and they almost even look like candy!
Try kyaraben making yourself!
Kyaraben helps make cooking lunch and eating lunch more fun. Make your favorite characters come to life via kyaraben!