Growing up outside of Tokyo, Chef Kenji Miyaishi’s mother used to send him off with bento boxes of onigiri rice balls, karaage fried chicken, tamago-yaki egg omelets and vegetables from her garden.
Now, as he’s pivoted his upscale restaurant in Napa, California, to prepare and deliver bento boxes amid the pandemic, he says he aims to serve with the same values of precision, culture and care his mother did.
Bento boxes can be traced back to the Kamakura period in 12th century Japan, and this year — with restaurants relying on takeout and delivery — they’ve become a relevant and culturally authentic way for kaiseki chefs across the country to stay in business.
And some chefs say, at a time of uncertainty, the boxes have also come to symbolize nurturing and comfort.
“Bento is usually made by a mother for her children or husband because mothers want their family to eat healthy and balanced food,” chef Hiroki Odo of 14-seat kaiseki speakeasy Odo in New York said.
They are two of many Japanese restaurants that traditionally served fine dining kaiseki tasting menus at intimate chefs counters and have switched to offering packaged bento boxes.
Kaiseki is considered the most noble and difficult cuisine to learn in Japanese culinary culture, as it includes mastering not only sushi but a variety of techniques including grilling, steaming, deep-frying, simmering and broiling. The intricate and delicate nature of kaiseki cuisine means that dishes are meant to be eaten immediately for ideal temperature and texture. With the pivot to bento boxes, chefs are redesigning their food to be suited to travel and hold longer. The number of bento boxes is often limited, but at a more affordable price point than dining in at these restaurants.