Also known as lunch-box cakes, these smaller, quirky baked treats have grown in popularity in some Indian cities during the pandemic
Bento cakes or lunch-box cakes are pretty, minimalist, two-by-four-inch cakes that weigh about 300-350 grams. First seen in Korea, these cakes have now made their way to India, during the pandemic. “Celebrations are smaller due to restrictions. There is no use for a big cake, people are not celebrating in big gatherings. Usually, it is just the family and a couple of others, which makes lunch box cakes or Bento cakes ideal,” says home baker Megha Shah over phone from Bengaluru.
Baker Bhavana Baby Maliakkal, of the Sugar Sifter in Kochi, had been wanting to bake these for a while now. She did not because she could not find boxes to package them. During lockdown, however, the surge of home deliveries made ‘clam shell’ boxes (like those used for burgers) popular, and more easily available. These, coupled with her inability to ship regular-size cakes during lockdown, finally got her baking Bento cakes.
Bento [meaning lunch box] originated during the Kamukara period in 12th Century Japan, when cooked and dried rice were carried together to work. Wooden, lacquered lunch boxes began to be made especially for this by the 16th Century. Eventually, schoolchildren used them too and in the early 20th Century there was a move to ban these in schools, as it was seen as a reflection of one’s family wealth over others. The practice stopped when food began being provided in schools.
However, in the 1980s, it made a comeback in supermarkets. Bentos continue to be used in Japan; home-packed bento lunchboxes are only nutritionally rich but also aesthetic. From Japan, the concept spread to neighbouring countries such as Taiwan, China and South Korea.
Lunchbox cakes first made an appearance in South Korea, as ‘cake on the go’ or ‘no-share cake’.
Bhavana disagrees with the ‘no share’ part: “I feel two people or more can eat one, though it is said that it is for one person. Depends on how much you love cake!”
The rising popularity of K-Pop and K-Drama, especially during the pandemic, is also a factor behind this trend, says home baker Riya Aggarwal of Its Whipped (Bengaluru). Her clientele typically, is teens and twenty somethings. On average she gets around eight to 10 orders daily.
“These cakes are pretty and colourful, usually pastels, with cute motifs,” says Riya. They come in flavours such as vanilla, Biscoff, Nutella and plain chocolate. Some bakers add fillings such as salted caramel or hazelnut. Icing is either buttercream or whipped cream. Most bakers prefer buttercream because it does not have to be refrigerated as much as whipped cream icing.
The effort that goes into making them, baking time, icing, is the same as a regular-sized cake, adds Riya. For customers, however, these cakes open up more possibilities. Megha of Sweet.Escakee who has been getting steady orders for her egg-less cakes ever since she started these a month ago, explains: “Rather than getting a conventional, single-flavour cake of 500 grams or a kilogram, these cakes give people the option of having two kinds, for instance.” They also cost half the price, though some bentos weigh up to 450 grams and prices start at ₹450.
Their appeal doesn’t just end there. As Bhavana puts it, “The thing about bento cakes is that you can gift them for any occasion, without the formality of a larger cake. Say you want to congratulate someone, or wish someone luck, these are, literally, the right size. They are popular party favours too; I recently made these as favours for a baptism.”