Sunday, June 17, 2012

Ekiben for the Hungry Traveler

When traveling in Japan, you are not limited to grabbing some mediocre crap at Subway or the desperately hungry wares at McDonalds (seriously, everybody on the train has smelled your fries and are pointing their hunger-driven anger at you). Instead, there is an epic wonderland of takeout bento boxes at very specialized little stands available in almost every train station. Not to mention, if you can find a little conbini (convenience store), you are in for an extensive selection of noodles, onigiri, and those little sandwiches that have the crusts cut off that your mom used to make for you when you got an A in spelling.
While we traveled from one end of Japan to the other, we were treated to some fine ekiben, purchased in Osaka Station and Kyoto Station. But first, let me start simple.
Onigiri, available at conbini
Crispy nori!
Fabulous mentaiko filling
Onigiri: Rice balls are awesome. My mom used to make them for me as a kid, and the rest of the younglings would badger the hell out of me about my weird food that was wrapped in seaweed. Ewwww!!! Ethnic!!! Whatever. These things are delicious. When you purchase your onigiri at conbini like 7-11 or Lawsons, you're treated to wrapping ingenuity that I've yet to see in the States. The moist white rice with a little pocket of filling of whatever your heart might desire (tuna, chicken, mentaiko, etc) is sort of double wrapped in plastic. You can see the crispy nori, nicely wrapped around the whole of the rice, but are also very aware that it is separate from the rice, thereby preventing the whole lot from growing soggy. Following the instructions on the back of the onigiri, you remove one string of plastic first, then one side of the triangle is pulled away, then the other. The result is that the nori falls into place, precisely wrapping the delicious rice ball. One of my favorite rice balls is the mentaiko, or spicy cod roe variety. It's one of the first foods I always pick up when coming back to Japan to savor. Crispy nori, fragrant white rice, and then the salty, spicy roe. So delicious. This is a fantastic breakfast, lunch, or emergency snack for any time of day.
Brown sugar inari
More traditional inari
Our awesome inari lunch
Inari: Perhaps you're more in the mood for some sweet fried bean curd wrapped around a savory, delicately balanced rice filling? Many of these train stations are located in buildings that also house some fancy department stores. And in the basement levels of these department stores, you're going to find food stall after food stall after food stall, from yakitori to sushi to all your usual staples of fresh fish and meat and the like. While in Osaka, we actually stayed above a big department store and were able to take a look at their wares prior to boarding the train. They had one stand that specialized in inari, with a diligent young woman behind a glass window putting together the various fillings that featured dried gourd and stewed carrots and shiso leaves. The stand had little piles of each of their inari, as well as pictures of the fillings, so it's easy enough to point at what you like. The nice gentleman working the counter also will point out which inari is which as he is packaging them in your little bento, which is helpful since after they're packaged up, it's a little bit of a guessing game as to which is which. On this occasion, we choose six inari to share. The darker ones are a brown sugar flavored bean curd, stuffed with rice and a mixture of diced, sweetly stewed vegetables and a touch of vinegar. The lighter inari were more classic, two being stuffed just with classic vinegared rice and a touch of sesame seeds and stewed vegetables, and the last of them having a nice purple umeboshi filling.
Osaka burger bento
If you're more in the market for an actual meal, there are so many bentos to choose from at these little stands. Some may feature gyudon, or cooked meat with onions in a sweet sauce over rice. Other stands sell Osaka versions of a hamburger - actually thin sliced quality meat, cooked katsu style to provide crunch, smothered on top with a little sauce, and sandwiched between two hearty slices of white bread. The two bentos that the Bigger Half and I decided to purchase, however, were more traditionally Japanese.
Sushi bento with braised veggies
My bento came with three pretty large pieces of pressed sushi. There was a tuna, a salmon, and then another wrapped piece of white fish, which I think was sea bream. Another section of the box was a layer of rice, topped with shreds of sweet egg, and then various bits of cooked items, like unagi, shrimp, carrots, and even tomato. Smaller compartments contained different salad items. There was a little container of sauteed meat, like what you would receive in a bowl of gyudon, sweet, and savory. A second little compartment contained different braised items, kind of done in the oden style, the best piece being a large cap of a shiitake mushroom, though now that I think of it, the soup-saturated celery and carrots were also delicious. The third compartment contained a little stack of sweet pickled carrots and crunchy lotus root, while the final one was more of a dessert course with one of those juicy little sweet egg omelets. Not bad for a little over 1000 yen, or about twelve bucks.
Sushi ekiben
The Bigger Half's bento was similarly priced, and just as delicious. His featured several pieces of excellently prepared sushi, especially for being essentially take out sushi. I don't know about you, but I can't get take out sushi that looks this good at home. There was a big fat futomaki with marinated gourd and sweet egg, a huge piece of inari, or the tofu skin stuffed sushi, then there were three pieces of rectangular-cut fish covering rice, including salmon, unagi, and mackerel. To the left of his bento were more nice pieces of nigiri. These pieces included unagi, more mackerel, a little boat of ikura with lemon, a slice of white fish, ebi sushi, and additional barbecued eel. Pretty awesome.
Make sure that if you're traveling via train (which I highly recommend if you're going to tour this beautiful country) to take a stroll around the food stalls located usually below the train platforms. You can find some fabulous food here at a reasonable price, and since just about everybody indulges in ekiben on the trains, you're not going to get hungry hate glances from any fellow riders.

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