Box Lunch in the World: Similarities and Differences Between Indian Dabba and Japanese Bento

Box lunch, in which rice, chicken, a half-size boiled egg, and some vegetables are seen.

“Dabba,” the popular Bollywood movie

Do you know where the biggest film production country is? Contrary to the expectations of many people, it’s Bollywood in India, not Hollywood in the US. According to the stats by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, the annual production number was 1986 in India in 2016. For your reference, that of Hollywood in the same year was only 660, though I think it’s still a huge number. If you haven’t watched any Bollywood movies yet, I urge you to try some.

To tell the truth, as I’ve been writing in such a knowing manner, I’m not so familiar with Bollywood movies, though. In the past, like until 10 years ago, we had few chances to try Bollywood movies in Japan. It was only in Indian curry restaurants that we had such an opportunity. Now, thanks to streaming services (Amazon prime video, Netflix, etc.), I can freely enjoy Bollywood movies, and today I’d like to introduce my favorite one “Dabba.”

“Dabba”, the Indian lunch box

Dabba means a lunch box in Hindi, by the way. In Mumbai, there’s a box lunch delivery service, and people engaged in the service are called “Dabbawalas.” The service is so manual but super-organized at the same time. As you know, Mumbai is a megacity with millions of office workers. After they leave home, dabbawalas pick up a lunch box at each home by bicycle. The lunch boxes are put together, brought to an office district by train, and passed to other dabbawalas for final delivery to each desk. In the movie, I didn’t see any exchange of slips or whatever we imagine is usually required. Dabbawalas seem to memorize each of lunch boxes by appearance. Can you believe it? I don’t understand at all how such a thing is possible. I saw human greatness in the lunch delivery system in India.

I was also surprised at the contents of box lunch in the movie. It’s more decent than I imagined, the same as Japanese box lunch. Box or bag lunch I’ve ever seen in many Hollywood movies is something humbler like sandwiches, chips, and an apple as a set. No offence, but every time I see such lunch, I’m glad to have been born in Japan. The contents of Japanese box lunch “bento” are always of great variety. Like a miniature garden (a kind of art genre where a Japanese traditional garden is replicated in a small box), set menu meals are neatly arranged in a lunch box. You should go to a food section of a supermarket or a department store in Japan. There’s a wide variety of bento, and you’ll never get tired of looking at them.

It's a kichen. Small silver containers (lunch boxes) are placed in front.

Difference between Indian Dabba and Japanese bento box

On the other hand, the biggest difference I found between Indian and Japanese box lunch is in packaging. Dabba consists of multiple small containers, and different meals are put separately, while all the meals are put together in bento. However, the meals are not supposed to be mixed up but are arranged carefully considering taste combinations, visual qualities, etc. In addition, there is also a difference in lunch boxes. Most of the Indian lunch boxes seen in the movie are tiffin made of silver-color stainless steel. In Japan, such a lunch box is rarely seen. Now the main material is plastic (microwave-safe polypropylene, to be more precise), though wooden lunch boxes were most common in the past.

The Japanese traditional wooden lunch boxes still survive in some areas. The traditional structure is a wooden frame without any steel nails (but only nails made of bamboo). The shape is not square but oval with a side wall made of bent wood. You should dip it in water for a second before use and also should dry it completely after use. It takes a little more time and effort for use like this, but I believe it’s worth. The material wood (Japanese cypress and cedar) maintains appropriate moisture levels and adds a good aroma. By the way, the traditional wood working technology has been handed over to our furniture making. We make some parts of our chairs by wood bending. When you come to Japan next time, you should get a traditional lunch box and drop by our factory with Japanese bento.

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Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.