Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bento...How I Miss Thee

Yakiramen Bento
Tuesday November 13, 4:39 p.m.

I knew early on that there would always be a tradeoff when it came to the place I lived. When I lived in Ichikawa, Chiba-ken, I wouldn't be able to see my family or my Toronto friends all that often, I wouldn't be able to appreciate truly homey and comfortable coffee shops, and I wouldn't be able to see a lot of wonderful parks or the squirrels that would be scurrying about in them. Back in Toronto, I don't see my old students/friends anymore, I miss how truly convenient convenience stores are back in Japan, and the vending machines were ubiquitious.

The tradeoff also affects my food choices. When I was living in Japan, I missed Greek food, Tim Hortons and Swiss Chalet. Over here, I miss great tonkatsu, ramen and conveyor belt sushi. However, I really miss those supermarket/convenience store box lunches or bento. Bento was pretty much a daily ritual during the work week for me since I usually worked nights at my school or juku. They were as comfortable as comfort food can get....and about as nutritious. Still, it was great to have one.

That picture above is of an atyical bento. I don't think I had ever come across a yakiramen bento before. Of course, yakisoba bento is a regular thing, but this one I tried was the Hakata Tonkotsu (pork bone broth) Yakiramen....very enterprising person who came up with this idea. A lot of people adore the Tonkotsu Ramen from Fukuoka with its thick flavourful soup so why not bring that to a plastic box?

Hamburg Steak with Demiglasse Sauce
A lunch consisting of Hamburg Steak covered in Demiglasse Sauce is one of the touchstones in the bento genre. Somehow, over the past century, the Japanese were able to adopt the idea of Salisbury Steak (which we over here in Toronto would usually see in a Swanson TV Dinner) and make it into an even better foodie phenomenon. There are whole restaurants which devote themselves to making the stuff on sizzling hot iron plates. Whereas I could eat the yakiramen cold or hot, this bento had to be heated up. This was from a 7-11, by the way, and it follows the usual tropes for a bento. Along with the main course, there is the prerequisite sector of rice with the umeboshi plunked in the middle, while the slathered hamburg steak is on top of a small bed of pasta and one thin leaf of lettuce. I don't quite remember what that is on lower-left...could be some chicken....maybe.

Karaage Bento
The variety of bento is huge. But the bento that I will always gravitate toward is the one that contains the Japanese version of fried chicken...karaage. This one is from my old local supermarket, Y's Mart. As you can see the large nuggets of deep-fried thigh are there at the top right while the rice is at 7 o'clock. Other tropes are the pickled ginger at 11 o'clock and some potato salad at 5 o'clock. I haven't had any fried chicken since I got back here, outside of the odd visit to Kentucky Fried Chicken. But there is just something about karaage....whether it be the pre-marinade of garlic, soy sauce and ginger or the coating....it's just one of those things I was just about addicted to. As with all bento, the price and even the caloric intake are printed very clearly on the label. I guess that way, a customer can get two types of guilt at the same time. Pricewise, though, the average bento will range from 398-598 yen depending on the ingredients.

I will always appreciate getting my cheap and tasty Chinese food, Greek food and double-doubles now that I have been back in my hometown for almost a year, but once in a while, I will get that yearning for my karaage bento.