Bento (弁当 bentō?) is a single-portion takeout or home-packed meal common in Japanese cuisine. A traditional bento holds rice, fish or meat, with pickled or cooked vegetables, usually in a box-shaped container. Containers range from disposable mass produced to hand crafted lacquerware. Bento boxes are readily available in many places throughout Japan, including convenience stores, bento shops (弁当屋 bentō-ya?), railway stations, and department stores. However, Japanese homemakers often spend time and energy on a carefully prepared lunch box for their spouse, child, or themselves.
Bentos can be elaborately arranged in a style called "kyaraben" ("character bento"). Kyaraben are typically decorated to look like popular characters from Japanese cartoons (anime), comic books (manga), or video games. Another popular bento style is "oekakiben" or "picture bento". This is decorated to look like people, animals, buildings and monuments, or items such as flowers and plants. Contests are often held where bento arrangers compete for the most aesthetically pleasing arrangements.
There are similar forms of boxed lunches in the Philippines (Baon), Korea (Dosirak), Taiwan (Biandang), and India (Tiffin). Also, Hawaiian culture has adopted localized versions of bento featuring local tastes after over a century of Japanese influence in the islands.
"Bento" originates from the Southern Song Dynasty slang term 便當 (pinyin: bi?ndāng), meaning "convenient" or "convenience." When imported to Japan, it was written with the ateji 便道, 辨道, and 辨當. In shinjitai, 辨當 is written as 弁当.
In the 20th century, the term was imported to modern Mandarin, rendered as 便當 (Pinyin bi?n-dang), where it retains its older meaning of "convenient" and also refers to bento in mainland China and generic boxed lunches in Taiwan.
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