Bento is essential piece of daily life on Okinawa

By Yuka Arata

People line up t buy their daily bento lunch outside a Naha office building.

People line up t buy their daily bento lunch outside a Naha office building.

Bento, or a box lunch, is absolutely an imperative item in the life of every Japanese person, and lately, it’s also becoming famous throughout the world because UNESCO added the Japanese “Washoku” meal on its list of intangible cultural heritages in 2013.

Bento usually has a very healthy balance of ingredients, and that is why a Japanese-style bento lunch is becoming popular worldwide.

Bento boxes on the shelf of a local supermarket.

Bento boxes on the shelf of a local supermarket.

A bento usually consists of a variety of colorful side dishes and the Japanese staple rice in a box. The side dishes included in the bento vary according to the region, and it’s said that an experienced traveler can tell the location by eating a local box of bento bought at a train station.

As bento are different in each part of Japan, Okinawan bento is very different from a Japanese one. Perhaps the most typical Japanese bento is what is called the “Makunouchi Bento,” which consists of rice, a couple of carefully selected side dishes, like fried fish, simmered dishes and pickled vegetables. The Okinawan variety is more oily thanks to the diet that includes plenty of pork.

There are many bento shops in Okinawa, and they all are serving bento that are very unlike Makunouchi, but dynamic and hearty in size. Most of Okinawan bento have fried ingredients on rice, and most side dishes are also fried.

¥100 soba is a popular side dish with a bento or a quick 'snack.'

¥100 soba is a popular side dish with a bento or a quick ‘snack.’

The reason why – besides Okinawan people liking to eat fried food – is Okinawan climate. Okinawa is a subtropical and humid island, and many ingredients are easily perishable. Wet foods must be avoided in summer time as much as possible, and those that are used, must be divided from the rest. The best way to avoid food going bad is frying, and that is why the main dishes in Okinawan bento are mostly fried foods, even fish.

Another trademark of Okinawan bento is its very reasonable price. The average range is ¥300~¥450, and some places serve bento for only ¥100! Of course, that price does not buy such a big volume, but there is always rice, some main dish and a couple of side dishes included. So, it’s a fine bento, and its good to eat when one rather wants a small snack instead of a full meal.

On the other hand, there is a huge volume bento called ‘kiroben’ meaning one-kilo bento.

Another famous item is a 100-yen Okinawa soba. Some of bento shop serve a small cup of soba for just ¥100, and they are very popular among construction workers as an add-on or among young students.

Bento is very popular in Okinawa, and we seriously believe anyone can find his or her favorite among them.