Saturday, 12 January 2008

Different types of bento boxes

So, you have figured out more or less what the size of your bento container should be. But with so many different types of containers available, which ones should you choose? I like Japanese culture and pretty things so I personally do like the Japanese-style bento boxes. However, even I admit that they are not always the most practical or easy to get hold off (without paying too much on eBay or for shipping).

In this post, I will run through the selection of containers that I use for bento to give you some idea of what is available and the pros and cons of different types of boxes. You should consider whether you want to heat up your lunch if you have access to a microwave at work. You may also want to put your containers into the dishwasher. Do check that the containers are microwaveable and dishwasher safe. Bear in mind that most of those cute Japanese bento boxes that you see are not suitable for use in microwave (since traditional Japanese bento are meant to be eaten at room temperature). They also tend not to be dishwasher safe as dishwashers are not common in Japan. Even when they are stated dishwasher safe, the water temperatures of Japanese dishwashers are not as hot as in American dishwashers so please check with the seller or store.

Jyubako boxBlack jyubako box

A jyubako is a large family-sized container suitable for a picnic or multiple portions bento. During the last days of the year, Japanese wives and mothers would prepare elegant new year food packed in jyubako. I bought this simple one from the new Daiso store at the Japan Centre in London (they have an online shop too). It is not for use in the microwave or dishwasher. The three tiers are 18cm by 18cm each and the capacity is 1000ml per tier. One could use just a single tier for a personal bento but that is still very big if you need only 700ml like me, unless you are packing a bulky salad or sandwich.

Japanese Lacquer Boxes

Plastic lacquer-effect boxesRed lacquerware box

These are just about my favourite bento boxes. They are made of sturdy plastic with traditional lacquer effect. I bought these off eBay. The lower tier holds 350ml, which I usually use for rice or noodles, and the upper tier holds 280ml with an inner lid. There is a small removeable inner compartment on the upper tier that is quite useful for holding items that might leak liquid or sauce into other side dishes (such as spinach and salad). At 630ml, this seems to hold the right amount of food for me if I pack it well. Japanese bento boxes tend to come with an elastic belt that holds the container securely closed to avoid leakage and spills. They might be plain black or with patterns on them like this mushroom one that I bought. They can be made quite easily by simply sewing the ends of an elastic band together.

'Lube Sheep' Bento Boxes

IMG_4197.jpgBlue dragonfly container

These bento boxes are made by a company called (I kid you not) 'Lube Sheep'. I bought these red rabbit and blue dragonfly bento boxes from The Japan Centre as well. They are not dishwasher safe but can be used in the microwave without the inner lids. Their capacity is 330ml for the upper tier and 250ml for the lower tier. At 580ml, I find them a little too small for me unless I am wanting only a light lunch or just a snack.

Blue dragonfly container'Lube Sheep' containers

These bento boxes are tall and slim which fit well into bags. The inner lids are good for containing food (although not completely watertight) and an elastic belt would go round the container to hold it closed securely. Inside the top inner lid, there is a compartment for storing short chopsticks (15cm length). As you can see from my 'light lunch' photo link above, it is also a useful space for storing condiments, tea bags, biscuits, sticks of celery/peppers etc. (I have seen many people use that space for the popular biscuits.) The smaller bottom tier also fits into the bigger upper tier for easy storage.

Single-tier Totoro Container
Totoro container

This, I must admit, was a frivolous purchase. I adore Totoro and, for a fan, this bento box was too lovely to pass over. Bought from Jbox, it is a single tier container with a movable dividier (to separate rice and side dishes). It is rather small at 450ml capacity. The lid has an airtight seal and side handles that clicks shut. It is not suitable for use in the microwave or dishwasher. So far, I have only used it for one-dish meals like stir fried noodles.

Laptop Lunches
Laptop Lunch container

Laptop Lunches are American-style bento boxes that began in the US and now has country websites in the UK, Canada and Europe. As the 'American-style' would suggest, the containers are safe to use in the microwave and dishwasher and are larger than regular Japanese bento boxes. It could be used with all, some or none of the smaller compartments/containers, which offers good flexibility depending on what you pack for lunch. The two larger containers are 300ml each while the two smaller containers are 180ml each, which makes for a total capacity of around 960ml. The smallest container is suitable for holding dips, although it is not completely watertight and things like soy sauce or oil-based salad dressing could leak slightly. Due to the large size, I tend to use these containers for bulky items such as salads and sandwiches. I do find the smaller containers very useful as inner compartments in some of my other bento boxes!.

Lock n Lock containers
Lock n Lock container

Although these look the most 'normal' and 'unglamourous', I have actually found myself going back to them time and again when I pack lunches. I think it is because they are so well-made, sturdy, airtight and of a good size. Its capacity is 800ml which is perfect for the husband. The size makes it very flexible in fitting more dense food like rice-based lunches as well as sandwiches and wraps. There are many sizes and models of Lock n Lock and this model comes with removeable inner containers, which are very useful as a guide for food portions (like the 3:1:2 principle that I spoke of in the previous post).

So, do not feel like you have to buy a 'Japanese' bento box in order to pack bento meals. I have also used my other regular tupperware containers sometimes. Bento is essentially lunch in a box and whatever container suits your needs will work. It is not that container in itself, but what goes into the container and how the food is packed that makes it a good meal.


Mahek said...

For such great information and photos
i have the black and colour oblong bento boxes and also the lock and lock ones

Nilmandra said...

You're very welcome, mahek. I'm glad you found that interesting.

commoi said...

Great post!

I agree with you that one doesn't need to make a big fuss out of getting a "real Japanese" or fancy box to start bento-ing. At the end of the day, it's really the food and the arrangement that counts!

For me, the most important quality in a bento box (besides the basics like quality/durability etc.) is its dimensions. If a box is too deep, for example, I find it difficult to fill it up or organize the food in a desirable manner. I don't want the food to start piling on top of each other! XD

Nilmandra said...

Indeed, commoi. The trouble is, even though I know that and use my Lock n Lock a lot due to practicality and its own merits, I still 'lust' after the beautiful Japanese ones that I see in other people's lunches... ;)

I have the opposite issue with dimension when I want to pack buns or bulky sandwiches; most of my containers are too shallow! That's where my tupperware comes in handy.

Anonymous said...


I live in Vancouver and love Bento boxes. Do you have any good (and hopefully cheaper) places to buy Bento boxes and bento accessories?

thanks! :)

Nilmandra said...

Anonymous: If you are in Vancouver, you are in luck! Daiso, a Japanese household dollar shop, is fantastic for cheap bento boxes and accessories. The store in Aberdeen Center (Richmond) is the largest Daiso store in North America.

Another option downtown is Yokoyaya 123 located in Tinseltown (International Village Mall), in between downtown and Chinatown. It is essentially a smaller Daiso even if the name is different. They have the same goods, some of which still carries the Daiso brand.

The larger and better quality (and more expensive) bento boxes can be bought on eBay. Search 'bento boxes' and there are many eBay sellers based in Japan who would ship internationally. But Daiso is certainly the best place to start with cheap boxes, and also fantastic for bento accessories.

Post a Comment