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Japan’s special take on a packed lunch (bbc.com)
141 points by MiriamWeiner 8 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 96 comments





Ekiben are amazing. They are delicious, efficient, and compact. One big difference between these bento boxes and the typical grab n' go foods we see here in the US is that they provide such a diverse set of foods—meat, rice, veggies, fish, etc. Certainly, some contain an unhealthy amount of fried foods, but on average, you're getting a pretty balanced meal at a reasonable price. Compare this to a prototypical hot dog that you grab at an American train station.

I miss Japan for it's food. Always made sure to grab an Ekiben when my Shinkansen journey went over lunch. Never disappointed.

*its

It's a train culture. You get to use both hands to eat and there are no sharp turns.

Food on trains was a big thing in the US when passenger trains were a big thing. The Fred Harvey diners were famous in their day, enough so that the restaurants called "diners" today were attempts to emulate the mobile versions.

Also, at the other extreme, Japan offers Calorie Mate "balanced food blocks"[1] These contain all the nutrients required by humans in a convenient package. Popular with Japanese salarymen who eat lunch at their desks. It's the humanoid form of dry dog food. They have a liquid version, which is like Soylent without the hype.

[1] https://www.otsuka.co.jp/en/nutraceutical/products/caloriema...


I expected Calorie Mate to be unappetizing, but I bought a block anyways because I was curious. It looked and tasted like a couple of shortbread cookies. Reading the ingredient list after, I concluded it was basically a shortbread recipe with margarine substituted in place of butter.

I wouldn't want to subsist on shortbread alone, but it does seem like a decent snack for people who skipped a meal.


You ever see someone eat on the train in Japan (not Shinkansen) ?

I one time saw an older lady sneak a sip of water...


A few times on local trains, eating on express trains (most people seated) is normal. It's common to see salarymen drinking booze too

I actually never seen anyone eat an ekiben, in Shinkansen or not (I covered the route from Himeji to Aomori in several trips). Most people were just eating snacks.

I wonder what it would take to get similar offerings to compete with American fast food? Now I'm hungry and there's no Japanese food anywhere near me.

Have people demand fresh and quality food. Our standards for food quality are low compared to Japan or Europe. What people find as acceptable here would not fly in other places.

The US government also subsidizes corn, soybeans and wheat over fruits and vegetables, making it far cheaper to produce meats, carbs and sugars, and thus easily undercuts any other food types. It can be more expensive to buy a head of lettuce than it is to buy a hot dog.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agricultural_subsidy#/media/Fi...


I think it depends a lot on culture - US seems to have inherited a rather pragmatic, utility focused approach to food from Germans and Brits. Going from East Germany westwards towards France makes you realize such differences. Japanese are at the far end of that spectrum.

I guess the best you can do is steal the best ideas from everyone - Japanese at least have zero issues with doing just that, going right back to first western contact with the Portuguese that brought them Tenpura and a bunch of cakes.


I think it's because immigrants who came to the US could not find equivalent ingredients to their traditional recipes as easily. Also distribution of fresh food is hard as you go west. So people had to settle with low quality recipes and food. This resulted in there not being as much of a food culture in the general population. So now nobody (as in the average person doesn't) cares about how food tastes like in the US.

I would imagine if it meets the following criteria: is it in a form that I can eat while driving a car[1], can it be served in the same time as other fast food, and is it priced within the fast food spectrum.

I still think the greatest fast food I've ever had was a Greek place that did amazing kabobs.

1) regardless of your safety beliefs, this is done a lot


Bento really isn't designed to be eaten while driving (or even moving around). Eating while standing would be possible but probably less than ideal. Most bentos are designed to be eaten with chopsticks.

The primary on-the-go food would be onigiri, with "festival booth" foods second (mostly stuff on a stick e.g. karaage, dango, yakitori, takoyaki, ikayaki).


I think the intention with mentioning a car is the fact that the US is so commute-heavy that the majority of our fast food is intended for car consumption.

This post was also discussing lunch where, presumably, eating while driving is less of a big deal. (Though, yes, some Americans eat in the car a fair bit which makes sandwiches and the like more suitable.)

If you are going to replace American fast food, then eating while driving is pretty much a requirement.

It's not as ubiquitous as McDs, BK, etc., but pizza and Chinese are among the most common fast food alternatives to the primarily sandwich chains. (Fried chicken is the other.) And neither Chinese nor pizzas are very amenable to eating while driving.

I guess I'm conditioned to think of fast food in terms of drive-through. Even KFC has a lot of stuff on the menu that can be easily eaten in a car. Taco joints are the same way. Heck, the Greek place I mentioned was a drive-through.

When I think pizza, I tend to think of it as its own thing given the whole delivery culture.


...I really wouldn't want to try eating kabobs while driving.

If you hit a bump eating a sandwich, you mash a soft loaf of bread into your face.

Do the same thing eating a kabob, and you're sending a skewer through the roof of your mouth.


Do the same thing eating a kabob, and you're sending a skewer through the roof of your mouth.

Uhm... you can eat kabobs from the side.


I doubt I’ve gone through a drive through in decades so my perspective is probably different.


edible bento boxes?

And I'm saying bento really aren't suitable for that. Onigiri would be.

Yeah. I was responding to the I wonder what it would take to get similar offerings to compete with American fast food? part. Onigiri looks like it would work if it holds together in your hand (don't know, never had it). Bento wouldn't.

It has amazed me that there isn't a USA chain that has taken some food from Japan or China and it put it in a form that would be a good burger substitute. I would imagine some wrap? I could really go for a spring roll when I'm driving instead of a burger.


I remember years and years ago encountering a Japanese-themed burrito joint called Samurai Sam's.

They were pretty tasty, but the only one where I live went under ages ago.

(Googling shows that a chain by the name exists, but they don't have burritos. Either they pivoted or it's a new business who picked up the name.)


That would be awesome. I could really see getting a burrito with Japaneses or Chinese (well, the Americanized version) stuffing.

Sushirrito is a (delicious) thing

It's not as delicious looking as what's in the article, but gas stations like Cumberland Farms often have surprisingly decent grab-and-go prepackaged lunch items. Or if you can pop into a supermarket, there's often a salad bar, hot food, deli sandwich, sushi section that's nothing to sneeze at. Oftentimes that's faster, cheaper, and definitely better than your fast food McDonalds/DunkinDonuts/whatever chain.

Alas my go-to is still the classic New England general store steamer full of red hot dogs...


100% agree with both points here. I live near an organic grocery store (PCC) here in Seattle which has a very reasonably-priced salad/hot-food bar, all things considered- and they also have a rotating selection of little take-out bento boxes for about $5-8 which make for an excellent light-lunch or dinner. I've been trying to lose a bit of weight recently, and they've been great for helping me with portion control. Not to mention, the larger selection of fresh food makes it a lot easier to commit to eating a bit healthier. I wish this sort of thing was more common in other places as well.

On the flip side, I'm originally from the South, where there's a huge number of gas stations which also include a diner (or even just a hot bar) which is often some of the best Southern food you can find, including "real" restaurants. There's actually an entire regional chain of gas station/convenience store/fast-food friend chicken places called Dodge's which I really miss. That being said, I used to drive between Mobile and North Mississippi pretty often, and there was a little place halfway along the way called the Buckatunna Grocery which I swear has some of the best fried chicken I've ever had.


There's a few legitimate ramen shops along my way home. Okonomiyaki, tonkutsu ramen, karaage chicken, takoyaki balls, and even cold soba are things I can get here. Service is fast, foods good, cost is on the lower end, etc. I eat ramen like once a week, some of the shops in my town actually make their own ramen by hand too instead of buying premade.

Population density is what it takes. Hence your current predicament.

I'm not so sure that's the answer. I imagine I could start myself at a random block in Manhattan and I'd possibly need to go at least some moderate distance to find a Japanese restaurant. And I'm sure that would be the case even in relatively large dense heartland cities.

How far are you going to have to go in Tokyo if you're craving Mexican? And is there even a decent Mexican restaurant in Tokyo? (I'm guessing the answer might be yes but not many.)

On the other hand, I understand KFC is very popular in Japan which happens to be one of my favorite US fast foods if I really need to choose.

Some types of fast food appeal to me more than others. I'm actually not much of a cold bento box fan in general; I usually end up picking at them at conferences. But I like a lot of Japanese food generally.


There is a lot of foreign food in Tokyo, and it tends to be very good. Italian food that's as good as anything I've had in New York, croissants as good as anything I've had in Paris, etc. I've never looked for Mexican specifically, but I had great Latin food at a completely random place I happened to duck into.

I don't think it's just a matter of density. Folks in Tokyo, like folks in New York but perhaps even more so, are willing to try a variety of foods and care about doing them authentically.


The problem with Manhattan in particular is that by and large the Japanese-American population is not on the east coast.

To have decent restaurants from a certain ethnicity, you do need some significant population of that ethnicity, and at least some of those people who are lower or lower-middle-class. Having moved to Seattle from New York, the Chinese food here is much worse; Seattle has a large population of Chinese people, but the vast majority of those are college-educated and working at tech companies, and are not a likely demographic for opening or running restaurants.


Except Thai food! The Thai government has a strong program of funding American fast-food startups by Thai citizens

Tokyo is a bit mixed with exotic foods: Thai, Chinese, French, Italian, German, Spanish, US American yay; pretty much anything else meh.

Edit: Oh and I forgot Korean, but only because it’s so ingrained I wouldn’t consider it exotic, so Chinese was maybe a bit odd on that list because the same holds.

How big of an umbrella is "Chinese food" in Japan? In China, you'd identify a restaurant by the province that its food is characteristic of -- Xinjiang food, Hunan food, Hong Kong food, etc. Those are all very different from each other. (There are more generic options too, of course.)

I really like some Xinjiang and Hunan dishes, but they're next to impossible to find in the US despite "Chinese" food ostensibly being common.


Not as granular for sure, but there‘s a somewhat nice selection of dumpling places, diners, Chinese style Ramen, Szechuan food either in authentic form (rare) or in Japan-adapted (mostly Mapo-Dofu, Chili Shrimp). Then you get the expensive „imperial“ Chinese places and Fire-Pots. Never been to China but I can’t imagine a better selection outside of its home.

Been to many restaurants in China over the years, I really find it hit or miss there honestly. The best Chinese food I've ever had has always been in the states, Hong Kong, and taiwan. Partially because the latter 2 have a larger and longer standing foreign influence, meaning you have a unique spin off of Chinese food.

>How far are you going to have to go in Tokyo if you're craving Mexican? And is there even a decent Mexican restaurant in Tokyo? (I'm guessing the answer might be yes but not many.)

You'd be surprised.

https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurants-g298184-c29-Tokyo_To...


Not that surprising although I'd reserve the "decent" adjective until I tried them given that I find few enough on the US East Coast better than passable.

Lots of them are good restaurants. Not exactly authentic but personally I prefer non-authentic Mexican food.

Tokyo has insane amount of good restaurants.


I've been to chiles, not surprised to see that on the top of the list.

As an office worker, I really wish I could get stuff like this here. There's very little that fits the intersections of "fast enough to get on a lunch break", "reasonably healthy"†, "more or less fresh", and "has a mix of flavors and textures".

† Especially this one - there's lots of food carts but those are a long way away from 'healthy'.


My observation: In Japan, there is no bad food being served. I am sure it's possible to find, but despite years living and traveling there, it simply hasn't happened to me.

My hypothesis: Massive population density, combined with almost nobody home-cooking and then bringing in a boxed lunch, leads to a HUGE market for lunchtime food options (restaurants, bento). However, due to population density, rent is high, and so bad restaurants get pushed out quick, because if a place is bad, there are ten other options in the same building that are delicious.

So, I often wonder if US cities achieved the same population density, if we'd get the same level of amazing restaurants crammed into 10 story tall buildings, block after block after block.

As for why Japanese food is healthier, I'm just guessing culture.

It is truly remarkable though that I have literally never had a bad food (taste) experience, ever, in Japan, despite having eaten thousands of meals and snacks there.


I am not sure where did you live during your years in Japan, but let me assure you it is very easy to find bad tasting food in Japan. I consistently find food at tourist trap destination overpriced and tasted pretty bad.

And most married persons do bring boxed lunch. Along with a lot of female, married or not.

And Japanese food is no where near healthy with all the deep-fried menu as a staple. But I guess if you compared it to US fast food..


Honestly compared to bad food in US or Europe for that matter Japanese bad food is not bad. You have to go to really shitty all you can drink bars to get really shit food.

Probably. Never been to Europe so I don't know. But compared to normal Japanese food (or Asian food in general), bad food is not that hard to find.

> almost nobody home-cooking and then bringing in a boxed lunch

What? As an exchange student (high school) my (japanese/host) mum totally spoiled me with lavish bento box lunches every day - as I assume she used to do for my older host siblings. I seem to recall she used to prepare a lunch for my host dad too.

(that said, thankfully, Japan's been progressing to a more equal society, so hopefully the man work/woman work at home divide is disappearing - which likely means ain't no-one got spare time to prepare box lunches - hence more of a market opening up).

A bento box is very much a "make at home, bring to work thing" that just happens to be available to buy. Like a burger fried in the back yard vs various inferior commercial offerings ranging from burger king to passable restaurant grade burgers..


/shrug

Nearly all of my Japanese coworkers, in several industries, went out for lunch. I guess it's not the case in school? That makes sense.


> "reasonably healthy"†, "more or less fresh", and "has a mix of flavors and textures".

TBF these three permeate the entirety of japanese cooking. Even japanese deep-frying is not bad (tempura uses a very light batter incompletely covering the foodstuff and short frying times, and the ingredients are mostly veggies and seafood although they also have western-style fried foods using thick breadcrumbs-based batter and long frying times).


I used to work in an office and was kind of astounded there was not a line out the door for this place across the street from the office. http://www.iheartbentocupertino.com/menu They only had about 8 seats in the place and did a very brisk take-out business.

Getting an ekiben and a beer for a shinkansen ride is one of my favorite experiences in Japan.

Second this.

Beyond the ekiben, even the grab-n-go food of the convenience stores (7-11, family mart etc) is even a step above most in the States.


I’d be perfectly happy surviving on nothing but Lawson’s karaage for an entire trip.

What happens to the box when you're done? Even if it doesn't have music circuitry or a heater in it, the bamboo, wood, ceramic or plastic would be pretty lavish materials for something you're just going to toss. Do they get reused or recycled? The "Daruma" box is described as having a slot so it can be turned into a coin bank (nice try), but there's no other mention of the box's lifecycle after the meal.

Recycled. Japan has a very strong culture of "carry your trash around with you until you find the right bin", and a lot of self-sorting. See e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recycling_in_Japan

The companies making these products have to pay the recycling authority for waste management in proportion to the amount of trash they generate.


Jeez I wish we had this in the US. The sheer amount of waste produced by this kinda stuff here is mind boggling.

Japan is far from perfect when it comes to excessive packaging and recycling. According to this article it actually recycles less than the US:

> In the bigger picture, however, Japan is a recycling laggard. According to 2014 data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the municipal recycling rate for Japan was only 21 percent, below top-ranked Germany at 48 percent, Sweden at 33 percent and the United States at 26 percent.

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2017/06/10/environment/pla...


To offset it though, everything here(jpn) is packaged. Banana? Yup, wrap it in plastic.

Rubbish days were interested the first few years though, (5 days a week, something different every day where I live. Luckily there are multiple books describing what and how, in English haha).


Japan is generally retty good at reuse&recycle, e.g. plastic bento boxes get recycled and lackered wooden ones from restaurants get reused, but I‘m honestly not sure about department store ones (never had them).

I've wondered whether ekiben would fare well as a food truck in a major North American city (prepared in a commercial kitchen and just distributed by truck / hot-dog stand / whatnot).

That's an interesting idea. The turnaround could be a little faster than food trucks that are preparing food on the spot. Just have a list of what's available on a big menu, order and they hand it to you right away.

Some food trucks around here (Minneapolis) have kind of elaborate hand-cooked processes. You can see confusion where there's a line to order, and a bunch of people standing around for minutes waiting for their order.


not quite the same thing but there was a startup trying to serve bento boxes. IIRC after they started the realized there were spending more per box than they were making

https://www.gimletmedia.com/startup/kitchen-confidential-sea...


Classic startup strategy.

It will not do well. And not because the food doesn't taste good.

It's because of 'customization' every American customer seems to want in a resturant here.

Almost no one seems to order food in US as it's offered by the restaurant. Everyone wants something replaced with something else, with something added a little more while something is subtracted a little less.


Working in Manhattan, I am lucky to have access to a Sunrise Mart that sell bentos and other Japanese comfort foods. It's my go to lunch spot when I'm in a rush and want something cheap and healthy.

There's also a growing UK/Japanese chain called Wasabi Sushi & Bento that has locations in both Penn Station and WTC Oculus.


Coincidentally, there's a New York Mart in Sunrise (FL), and they're Asian too! [0]

[0] https://www.yelp.com/biz/new-york-mart-sunrise-3


Not being a particular fan I've not tried better, but I don't think Wasabi is considered particularly good or authentic Japanese food. Sort of like to Japan as Chopstix is to China, but perhaps not quite as bad.

I just discovered Sunrise Mart on a trip to NY last week! It is a shame that we do not have an equivalent in Seattle (Uwajimaya is not the same and does not have bento AFAIK).

An American friend of mine once explained that a lunchbox is considered a sign of poverty in the US. Well there is nothing wrong with cheap and healthy.

Not if it's a Vera Bradley lunch box.

And yet... when I went to Japan, McDonald's had block busting lines.

It's a novelty there. But I think the point is that in Japan, healthy and local but fast food is something you can get at a train station, while that's rare in the U.S. I'm in and out of Union Station (DC) and Penn Station (NYC) all the time. What can you get to go in those places? Besides McDonalds, Pizza, Chipotle, etc., you've got deli sandwiches. Which are just awful in comparison to the options you have in Japan. (And even the deli sandwiches are better in Japan--the random place at the airport is comparable to what you can get at the specialty Italian market near my house.)

McDonalds has been in Japan since 1971, and occupies precisely the same culinary niche as it does in the US: cheap, fast and crappy. (Although, this being Japan, they're not quite as crappy as in most countries.) In my uni days students used to go there and buy bags full of their 59 yen burgers, because the calories-for-buck ratio was better than instant ramen.

McDonald's sales shrank (for the first time ever?) a few years back so they have been trying hard to not suck.

Hey there's a Tim Horton's! Kidding.. I got a decent chicken parm the last time I was there but most of the food inside Penn Station is pretty heavy and/or mediocre. Wasabi (the sushi place) was pricey and didn't look particularly appealing to me.

If you want better food you may as well hoof it to Koreatown especially if you think you may have to use the toilet. The toilets at Penn Station are truly the things of nightmares. I didn't go to Koreatown because I had a bunch of luggage, but that's another problem you wouldn't have in Japan.

Meanwhile the food options at SFO are generally pretty decent (if pricey) and the sushi place seems to be a surprisingly good value. If the Salesforce Transbay Terminal ever reopens it'll be interesting to see if the city puts any effort at attracting decent food there.


There are at least a dozen food stalls on the lower level of Union Station. Most of the food is garbage, but the sushi place is decent.

I’m a huge fan of the Bojangles there but it proves my point.

Penn Station definitely has a bento place though (wasabi).

Ehhhhh.

We have a Cava now in Union! Delish.

I believe McD is considered a step up from diners in Japan. It's perceived/positioned completely differently than in the US, possibly closer to Starbucks or some such?

That was until their meat scandal a couple of years ago. That required some very deep apologies and revenues still went way down and are only slowly recovering now. Boutique burger trend doesn‘t help either.

There was the chicken scandal. Around the same time they had the "your food in 60 seconds or its free" disaster. Lately they have been advertising their improved ingredients

"your food in 60 seconds or its free" disaster.

Now I'm curious, what was the disaster?


Basically it's impossible to make a McDonald's order correctly in 60 seconds:

https://matome.naver.jp/odai/2135743773494825901

Japanese expect their food to look pretty much exactly like the picture or wax model that is displayed in front of the shop.

https://i.imgur.com/ftY6DZi.jpg


Portion sizes are also much smaller.

Yea, they're the right size like many Japanese foods instead of the "make me obese" size that's served at too many places in the USA

from 5pm you can get double meat on any burger for ¥100 ($1): http://www.mcdonalds.co.jp/campaign/yorumac/

And yet... Japanese aren't obese and have a huge food culture (not just imported ones).

Obesity on the rise as Japanese eat more Western-style food https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2012/03/11/national/scienc...

We know this.

Over priced garbage (fast food) -> high salt/sugar/wtf ever intake -> Health issues -> Overpriced garbage ('super' foods, supplements)




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