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Where can I buy bentos?

Updated August 2010

Bentos, bento accessecories and Japanese ingredients seems to be harder to track down here in the UK compared to other countries. This was a major barrier to my initial efforts in bento making – not being able to track down kawaii stuff to play around with. HOWEVER, a bento is not about cute boxes (well, not for me at least) – it is about portion control, visually arresting food with interesting flavour combinations.

I say that, but 8 months in, I am the proud owner of more than 10 boxes, and drawers of accessories. The pull of these bits of plastic & metal is hard to resist, and I’ve come to realise that if you look really hard, there is a huge amount of bento friendly shops in the UK, online and off. I’ve included mostly UK-based stores with the exception of J-list, which seems to stock nearly everything a Japanphile would need. So, no more excuses for not packing a bento to work or school; there are many hidden places in the UK with bento-friendly materials!

Boxes

I started off with lock-and-lock boxes, which seem to be a favourite in the bento making community due to the high quality tight seal and wide choice of sizes. There are even some lock-and-lock boxes which is porportioned like a bento (2 removeable compartments, 550ml capacity), which I must admit is one of my favourite as it is very versatile – not to mention microwaveable and dishwasher safe.

These are available to purchase from Lakeland stores (online delivery across the UK) , Range stores, TK Maxx and also Amazon. There are a large variety of copycat brands out there as well – you could get a suitable lock-and-lock styled box for £1. Really, any plastic containers will do. I had reused disposable takeaway containers, IKEA tupperware-styled containers and even a ziplock bag.

Kawaii containers or purpose-made bento containers are, even though not compulsory, is fabulous to use. And it is those containers that are hard to track down in the UK. However, because I have been searching high and low, I do actually have some tricks up my sleeves

Muji : They sometimes stock double-tier bento boxes in plain muted colors (black and white). In March 2010, they stocked plain black or white one compartment bento. It is purpose-build, but not very kawaii or interesting. Muji also carry an assortment of kinchakus in japanese print (i.e. daruma dolls, indigo print) to carry your lunch in.

update: In August 2010, they have a small but interesting selection consisting of bento baskets made out of bamboo and insulated bento boxes . There are also some stainless steel metal tiffins,  not unlike the one I have here. I also spotted matching insulated lunch bags shaped for bento boxes and lunch mats which could be turned into kinchakus. Quite a good selection at the moment, but just beware that it changes product range fairly frequently, so if you want it, buy it now!

Muji is filled with a plethora of everchanging interesting bits and bobs as well. When I was there yesterday (August 2010) they were selling tamagoyaki pans! OMG. If you are even remotely familiar with bentos, you would know that tamagoyakis (Japanese rolled egg omelet) are pretty much a good staple for filling bentos – but their pans are notoriously difficult to find outside of Japan. The quality is excellent; thick, heavy and sturdy. Unfortunately I already have two cheap tamagoyaki pans, and therefore was unable to justify my need for this hefty piece of kit. Grr. I would recommend you get it though if you see it – I’ve not seen it in Muji before and doubt they’ll continue carrying it!

Amazon: My favourite source of bento boxes in the UK. With free shipping, I absolutely love the affordable, functional yet fairly kawaii bento boxes that they carry, as well as those not-so-kawaii-but-functional ones . See more in my amazon shop here for my selection – it’s my dream list which I’m slowly purchasing off from!

Paperchase: This was a suprising find. Paperchase (as of Spring 2010) stock one two-tier bento box in the Happy Noodle design!! Kawaii as heck, I believe this is the first British high street store to design and sell their own bento boxes. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come. You can even purchase matching portable chopsticksand cutleries, matching bowl with cover, purses, stickers, lunch bags and lunch tin! The possibilities are endless! I spotted some of the Happy Noodle stationery range (greeting cards, notebooks ect) and they all seem to feature photographs of charabens (hope the bentoists had been paid for use of the photos!) …so hopefully bento making takes off in the UK sooner rather than later. Available in most good Paperchase stores, this is also available from Amazon to purchase online.

Update: Paperchase also carry few one-tier bento box – I spotted a blue three compartment Robots Design design bento box , a pink Cameo design box and more – well suited for bentos. The DayTrippers box with one removable divider is one of my favourite as it comes with matching cutleries in a removeable layer. Apart from that, they do amazingly adorable nesting container sets, which you can remove and use separately – try stacking two of them (held together) to fashion out a two-tier bento, or use one of the larger box for a small snack bento. This is pretty good as 1)it nests, saving storage space 2)super kawaii! 3)you can pick and choose which one you want to use depending on your appetite!

Artbox: This online shop was introduced by a twitter friend when I updated this article. They also have physical stores in London if you’re in the capital. The shops are tiny packages filled with cuteness – just realised that I’ve actually been in them before I started bento-ing! And let me tell you – if I don’t already own a stupid amount of bento boxes, I would be more than tempted to purchase a few. You can get Sanrio boxes here for a reasonable price, Hello Kitty fever abounds here. Under their kitchenware section, they also do cutleries and stuff. I love the HK toast cutter, which can also be used with sandwiches or on onigiris to cut out the iconic HK head!

It is based right here in the UK, so you don’t have to wait for weeks for your items to arrive….which is the WORST part about purchasing online. What’s more, purchases above £20 are shipped for free the next day, AND they take paypal. Score.

Urban Outfitters: I was in half minds whether to include this or not, seeing that they do not purpose-carry bento boxes. However, I purchased my hamburger bento box here in Winter 2009, and had previously seen other cute one-tier sandwich boxes that could be transformed magically into bento boxes. Have a look online to check out their current range, as they carry a number of kawaii items throughout the year.

Disney Store: The first time I ventured into a Disney Store in many many moons was to verify the rumours that bento boxes are available there. And it’s true (as of August 2010) ! One-tier bento boxes with separators are available in different cartoon incarnation- I’ve seen Mickey, Cars and Minnie make an appearance. I also spotted an overly-glittery pink round box with the whole array of Disney Princesses on them. My only issue is that they are not as large as I would like – my untrained eye gauged the volume of these boxes as 350 max – making it perfect for a snack bento or for children.

JapanCenterUPDATE: As of August 2010, their online bento box range have grown. They have a partnership with Daiso, which means most of their items are fairly familiar to bento makers, without the bargain Daiso prices. Don’t take my word for it, their range changes fairly regularly and I had heard of times past where there were more than a few bento boxes on offer, although I wouldn’t think they’ll offer more than 10 designs. Still, even without the bargain Daiso prices, £3 for a bento box is pretty much a bargain in the UK. Their accessories selection is slightly larger, and you can always find picks, onigiri moulds, soy sauce bottles, barans and food cups. One tip, filled soy sauce bottles are £0.10  at the counter, whilst empties are sold for £3 for a large pack. It is pretty much cheaper to purchase the individual filled bottles, although they are not cute, serves the purpose!

They also deliver all over Europe, probably the only EU based Japanese specialist store to do that (I might be wrong?) . I’ve purchased from them before, and they are fairly speedy in answering your queries; so if you have a particular item you’re looking for, don’t be shy to say hello before you click check out!

Online: J-List is a favourite of bento makers around the world, providing speedy service, excellent selection, reasonable shipping and good customer service. I am a J-list affiliate – although I had yet to earn a penny!

Your friendly asian grocery: Some asian grocery stores stock kawaii bento boxes amongst a mostly small selection of dinner/table wear. Some also stock lock-and-lock boxes (it’s a korean brand), whilst most stock a selection of pretty chopsticks to eat your bento with. Unfortunately, none of the asian grocery stores in Leeds stock bento boxes – blah.

£ Stores: Shhh….don’t tell anyone. As of August 2010, there is a large amount of bento-friendly items at my local £ shop. There is a three-sectioned lunch box (complete with cutleries) available for the measly price of £1, cookie cutters, silicon cups, small pots….I can’t guarantee the quality, but if you’re new to bento making, this might be an ideal starting point before splashing out on more expensive and kawaii items.

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Bento accessories

There are never enough accessories to aid in bento making! From onigiri presses to churn out amazing looking rice balls to nori punches to punch out face features, molds for eggs to be transformed into Hello Kitty and plastic contraptions to turn sausages into octopuses…the list of nice-to-haves is a mile long in itself.

Onigiri (rice ball) press : These little plastic things turn ordinary rice into cute shapes and sizes! You can make onigiris with or without fillings, and with or without a press. I had posted previously on how you use an onigiri press. It is available to purchase from J-list or in JapanCentre (online & in-store – although there seem to be a larger selection in-store). Alternatively, you can shape rice balls using cling wrap and your palms, it might not turn out looking like a bunny, but it IS an onigiri!

Another option is to use ice cream sandwich moulds- they are made exactly in the same way as onigiri presses, but you can actually get them from amazon! I love this set here .

Cutters: Cutters turn ordinary vegetables and fruits into beautifully shaped edible snacks! Perfect for those who are veggie-adverse, I use it even though I love my veggies. I turn to my local craft shop and/or specialist baking stores for mini cookie cutters – I also love ransacking the polymer clay section of my local craft shops for metal clay cutters- the selection seems to be bigger as cookie cutters tend to be larger than a regular carrot. They are, of course, also available to purchase online via Amazon UK (mostly free UK shipping as well) and J-List. Personally I tend to like purchasing from Amazon as the prices are very fair compared to those in a specialist baking shop, not to mention easier. I’ve had my local specialist baking shop giving me an odd look when explaining what I want to do with mini steel cutters…

I also love the alphabets and numbers cutters – it turns someone’s bento into a personalised suprise. Even when making bentos for myself, opening it up during lunchtime spelling out my name makes me smile :). I got mine from my local craft shop in the polymer clay section. J-List also carry a good stock of sausage cutters should you fancy turning your sausages into octopuses, tulips….the variety is mind-boggling!

Many bento makers use specialised plastic veggie cutters to help them along – they are available at J-list. Just remember that they are made out of plastic, so you won’t be able to push them through a thick piece of carrot!

Craft/nori punches: Craft punches are widely available in craft shops in the UK – there are concerns about using paper punches on food, but I regularly use it on nori…so punch away at your own risk! Amazon also carry a good online range of paper punches, but if you want proper nori punch (including adorable face features punches) Jlist is your best bet.

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Do let me know what other items would you like to see here; I am hoping to update this with a list of where to find hard-to-source inggredients as well . In the meantime, please browse my my handpicked items from Amazon UK here for bento making gear that I regularly use on my blog! I love this selection as it allows me to buy on a whim and have it arrive within a day or two compared to other online retailers of bento making stuff which may take longer.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. March 25, 2010 9:06 pm

    You have a lot of choice. In the Netherland we don’t have any local stores, except for the non cute and too big lock-and-lock boxes. I think they hold too much for lunch causing you to eat more then you need.

    But the bottomline is: UK people are lucky 🙂 I have to get everything online by default.

  2. Xelia permalink
    August 23, 2010 1:28 pm

    Oh Mils! I will be traveling to London in 2 weeks and with this post of yours I can see the moolahs flowing out from my pockets!!!! Thanks so much! Love you!!!

    • August 24, 2010 8:42 am

      You’re welcome – Paperchase would be your best bet as they have branches everywhere in London, and it’s probably the only shop that sells bento boxes that is unlike the ones sold by the usual suspects and makers!

  3. kawaiii permalink
    September 4, 2010 5:00 pm

    hi,

    TA for all these information but here in my little town I can’t found anything
    Have to buy all from JList and it’s quite expensive but I love Bentoboxes

    • September 4, 2010 10:06 pm

      Hi

      Other than using Jlist, you can also find items to purchase from Amazon UK, which makes it cheap.

      Check out a list of bento-related items that I had picked.
      http://astore.amazon.co.uk/exordinordina-21

      And like I said, there are many online retailers in the UK that cater for the UK Bento maker – Artbox & Japan Centre comes to mind, as mentioned in my article above.

  4. January 11, 2013 9:03 pm

    This really is the 3rd post, of your blog I really browsed.
    And yet I actually enjoy this specific 1, “Where can I buy bentos?
    not a brown bag” the most. Regards -Darrel

  5. May 27, 2013 8:31 am

    I do not know whether it’s just me or if perhaps everyone else experiencing problems with your blog. It appears as though some of the text in your posts are running off the screen. Can someone else please provide feedback and let me know if this is happening to them as well? This could be a issue with my browser because I’ve had this happen before.
    Many thanks

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