February 21, 2006
Just as 7-11s in the states have hot boxes with hot dogs and sausages, the 7-11s here have hot boxes filled with steamed buns (but the Japanese versions are MUCH cleaner, and the counter people serve you rather than the general public reacing into the boxes.) These are light, fluffy, hand-sized buns of creamy white steamed bread dough (they look sort of like a mound of whipped cream), each filled with something different. Sometimes, the bun is "branded" with kanji. I don't know if the kanji is a brand name, or if it indicates the kind of filling inside the bun. Since I don't speak or read Japanese, I've had to guess at what each one contains. I've had one with beef, and one with a mixture of roasted pork and some sort of pickled vegetable. They're good, and filling, sort of like a sandwich.
Lunches in Japan tend to be packed in special, compartmented boxes called bento. A good Japanese wife and mother makes these beautiful boxes for her husband and children to take to work and school, usually packed in lovely lacquered containers. Some restaurants specialize in bento, and most mini-marts have plastic-wrapped versions for sale, freshly prepared that morning. I've attached a photo of the one I bought a couple of weeks ago, complete with plastic dividing tray and balsa-wood sides. I know, it looks very strange to American eyes, but it was quite good. The rice was sticky and had indentations to separate it into bite-sized lumps. The dark stuff in the lower right corner was a slightly sweet and salty seaweed salad. The upper left corner was a marinated salad of pieces of chicken, carrot, green beans and shiitake mushrooms. The only thing I didn't care for was in this salad, at the very upper left...it was a square of some sort of grey gelatin with little black flecks. I assume it was some sort of seaweed gelatin, but will have to ask my Japanese friend. The taste was bland, but I didn't like the texture. There was also a teeny container of potato salad (left side, center), a piece of smoked fish, a piece of tamago (omelette), two different pieces of breaded chicken (one with something like mayo on it), a piece of Chinese sausage similar to salami, a piece of breaded shrimp, a piece of burdock root tempura, and a very small, hard, salty and sour pickled plum as a garnish on the rice. Look at it this way...with something so varied, you're bound to find something you like in it!
There are other pre-packaged meals to be had at the mini-marts. The round bowl in the picture was a noodle soup. One takes out the upper tray, with the pink and white fish cake (simliar to our fake crab but more fluorescent), the scallions, the kelp and the strips of fried burdock root. (I thought at first the strips were some sort of fish!) and puts the lower bowl in the microwave to warm the noodles. Beneath the noodles is a gelatinized puddle of broth that, when warmed, becomes a delicious savory soup base for the noodles. Then one puts the toppings into the soup, and slurps away! It was a good lunch, filling, but not too salty, and obviously freshly made that morning. I ended up with leftovers for dinner, as it was pretty large, and I'd gotten an o-nigiri to go with it...lots of food!
The triangular thing is an o-nigiri, or a rice ball (yeah, I know, it's triangular, not ball-shaped!) O-nigiri are a favorite Japanese snack, sort of a comfort food. An o-nigiri is a chunk of warm and sticky rice wrapped in crispy nori (the seaweed used in most sushi rolls), usually with one of several different fillings tucked in the center. Again, I get to be surprised, since I don't read Japanese! The fillings range from sweetened or spicy/vinegary cooked greens, sort of like collards, to a mayonnaise-y smoked salmon salad, to a dark and savory seaweed pickle. There are about fifteen different colors on the round seal at the front of the package, and I am trying to remember which color is which. I haven't tried all of them yet, but an o-nigiri is one of my favorite lunches, so I'm bound to try them all eventually! I'm a big fan of the vegetable-filled ones, and the shrimp salad ones (I can now recognize the kanji for shrimp, called ebi, and the various shades of green seals seem to be the different kinds of sweet or hot or sour cooked greens).
The packaging is fascinating, as there is a sheet of plastic between the nori and the rice, to keep the nori from getting soggy. When you unwrap the package, you pull a strip of plastic from the tip of one point of the triangle, all the way down and around. Then you pull off the two newly-separated pieces by the other two corner points, and that action pulls off both the outer covering and slides out the inner separating piece, leaving the neatly-wrapped rice ball sitting in your hand. I'm in love with the umeboshi one right now...the filling is a very sour, vinegary, salty, soft, pink pickled plum (watch out for the pit!)
I know, this post may seem a little trivial...but the little differences are more startling and interesting to me than some of the bigger differences! More soon....