Magewappa Facts & Tips – Traditional Japanese Wooden Bento Boxes
If you’ve ever been interested in Japanese traditional crafts, or enjoy Japanese food, perhaps you’ve seen “magewappa” bento boxes. These are traditional wooden bento boxes that have been used in Japan for approximately 400 years, with their method of manufacture remaining the same for many generations, up to the present day.
Magewappa bentos have rounded sides made from bending a thin shaved piece of cypress wood, Japanese cedar, or hiba into a circular or oval shape. The literal meaning of the word is “bent woodware”, from the Tohoku dialect of Japanese, where these bento first originated, and where they are still made today. The most famous center for magewappa traditional craft production remains Odate City in Akita Prefecture, Tohoku, but these bento are also handmade by craftspeople all over Japan, from plain or lacquered wood.
Cedar is the most popular wood for magewappa bentos, because the perfectly straight grain of this wood makes working with it easier, and because of the light fragrance of cedar is said to go well with traditional Japanese dishes.
All of these wooden bentos have excellent heat and moisture preserving properties that keep food fresh and delicious in a way that can’t be compared to modern plastic lunch boxes.
Magewappa bentos are not cheap compared to the now more common plastic bentos, so even Japanese people sometimes worry about being able to use these traditional wooden lunch boxes for a long time, and how difficult it is to maintain them.
Here we present the advice of a magewappa bento manufacturer on how best to use and maintain these simple yet beautiful examples of traditional Japanese culture.
First off, if we take care of them well, magewappa bentos can last for a long time, over 10 years. They are not meant to be for short use or decoration, but as practical everyday items that you can use again and again for years.
Generally speaking, lacquered wooden bento tend to be easier to care for than those made from unlacquered wood. This is because the lacquer functions as a barrier to wood stains. Unlacquered bento are just fine even for first time users though, and you can find them used by all sorts of people all over Japan.
Counterclockwise from the front right, Wappa (Teradomari Yamada in Niigata Prefecture) (Shiraki in the ellipse), Ena-Kuroku in Nakatsugawa in Gifu Prefecture (upper layer in the double layer of Shiraki), Miyazaki Menpa in Morozuka Village in Miyazaki Prefecture (Double-layer Shiraki) Lower row), Igawa Menpa from Shizuoka Prefecture (6 brown sets), Narajuku Nagano Prefecture (brown lacquer ellipse), Hakata Kamagaku from Made, Fukuoka Prefecture (square)
Let’s start with some usage tips:
Lightly wet the bento before packing
The rule is to wipe the inside of the bento with a clean wet cloth before using, and make sure to remove any excess water after wetting. If you pack your lunch on a dry bento, the rice and seasonings and oil are more likely to make their way deeper into the wood grains and cause stains.
Absorb excess oil with kitchen paper before packing
Oil is the main cause of magewappa wood stains, so it’s a good idea to quickly absorb any excess oil in fried foods right before packing. This is also a simple trick to reduce calorie and fat consumption.
Wash after eating
If you are somewhere where you can wash the bento right after eating, like at home or at an office with a kitchen, that would be the best way to prevent food from staining the wood. Just wash with simple kitchen detergent and rinse off immediately with hot water. Let the bento air dry in a rack like you would with regular dishes.
If you can’t wash the bento right away, throw or pack away the leftovers and leave the bento empty until you can wash. If there’s any seasoning (like soy sauce) or oil on the wood, gently wipe away as best as possible with a tissue and wash the bento after returning home.
Do a deep clean
Once in a while (but definitely not every day), when you notice stains in your bento, soak the bento in hot water for 10 minutes, then hand wash with a sponge, and let it dry well. If you soak for longer than 10 minutes, the wood can get distorted, so avoid leaving the bento in hot water for too long.
For tough stains that do not come out with simple hot water, try soaking in vinegar water for a short time. Generally, almost all stains can be removed without too much trouble, and after a week of regular use, any fears about durability that you may have should go away, and you can enjoy your traditional bento and start to appreciate its possibilities!
Don’t just store away your magewappa bento for occasional use
The more you use your magewappa, the more familiar you will be with it, and the easier and more routine simple cleaning will be. Once you put the bento in your cupboard, there’s less chance that you will actually use it! Try it out as a set for afternoon tea, for example.
How to pack side dishes
In magewappa bentos without interior dividers, it can be difficult to pack side dishes separately from rice and from each other because the bentos are quite deep. One trick is to use a solid food like roast meat, grilled fish, or root vegetable as a divider instead.
Another trick with magewappa bentos is to pack in 3-dimensions. Because these bentos are deep, this is an opportunity to create a layered Japanese, Asian, or even Western lunch in a way that is impossible with shallow plastic bento boxes. You may even find that these traditional bentos will change your conception of what Japanese food can be, because of the packing possibilities, and because of the opportunity to create absolutely beautiful food presentations.
Thank you for reading this far, and we hope that this article has been helpful for understanding the background, usage, and maintenance of magewappa bento boxes!