By Steven Crook and Katy Hui-Wen Hung
“My father was born in 1926 in Tamsui. My mother was born in 1930 in Tokyo, where my grandfather (who was from Banqiao; my maternal grandmother was from Tainan) worked as a financial advisor until 1946. During the war, both of my parents ate hiromaru lunchboxes, with the contents arranged to reinforce patriotism. The non-rice part of the bento was placed beneath the rice, in the middle of which sat a red umeboshi, a plum-like pickled fruit. That way, when the box was opened, the first thing a person saw was the hiromaru, a red circle on a white background, just like Japan’s flag.”
— Katy Hui-wen Hung
Boxes in which a meal could be carried to school or delivered to an office emerged as a Taiwanese culinary institution during the 1895-1945 period of Japanese rule. Immediately after the colonial era, according to Taiwan-born anthropologist David Y. H. Wu, the lunchboxes that Mandarin speakers call biàndāng (便當) became “a clear ethnic marker.”
“When I was in elementary school and traveled by train from Taichung to Taipei (in the late 1940s and early 1950s), the most anticipated and rewarding part of the trip was to get to eat a Japanese bento at Hsinchu or Zhunan station, most famous at that time for their delicious bento,” writes Wu in a chapter for Re-orienting Cuisine: East Asian Foodways in the Twenty-First Century. Passing cash through train windows, each hungry passenger received a box “made of paper-thin wood slices…containing half of a hard-boiled shoyu (Japanese-style) egg, shredded red-colored cuttlefish or braised hard tofu cake, and takuan, served on a thin layer of rice.”
These delicate bento were very different from the metal tiffin-type boxes favored by the mainland Chinese then fleeing to Taiwan. Wu recalls that, astonishingly, “several mainlander friends of my generation who lived in northern Taiwan had never heard of such Japanese-style bento, although they too had traveled on trains.”
One place in Taiwan still associated with railway biàndāng is Fenqihu (奮起湖), 1,405 meters above sea level in Chiayi County. This little town is a key stop on the narrow-gauge railway linking Chiayi City with Alishan, and more than half a century ago, trains that set out from Chiayi in the morning would reach Fenqihu around lunchtime.
Families who once made a living selling meal boxes to famished railway passengers now sell them to tourists who arrive by car or tour bus. In terms of the food, Fenqihu biàndāng are barely distinguishable from lowland bento. Typically, each one contains a pork chop that has been marinated, then coated with cornstarch and fried in a skillet; two kinds of vegetable; some pickles; and white rice (never wholegrain).
Eating-in at a Fenqihu lunchbox restaurant is something of a retro experience, however, because each portion arrives in a circular steel box. These fànhé (飯盒, “rice boxes”) edged out the Japanese-style disposable (and biodegradable) boxes in the 1950s and 1960s in a process Wu calls “the Sinicization of railway bento.”
Like their elders who had grown up during the colonial era, Taiwanese of Wu’s generation invariably ate their bento room-temperature. But after 1949, he recalls, schools dominated by mainland Chinese “were obliged to collect student biàndāng in the morning, send them to the school kitchen, and steam them in huge steamers so that the students could enjoy a hot meal at lunchtime.”
Many Taiwanese students found the odor produced by steaming so many different foods together to be rather off-putting; the Holo adjective frequently used to describe the odor is phun (餿, “rancid”). After schools began providing lunch for students in the early 1980s, the use of steamers to reheat meals brought from home soon declined.
No one knows how many meal-boxes are sold each year in Taiwan, but the total may have fallen over the past 15 years. Many consumers assume that bento businesses use the cheapest ingredients available, a lot of oil, and possibly too much salt. Each time there is a food-safety scare, a few more citizens decide that they will prepare their own lunch from now on.
But if demand for bento is softening, Kaohsiung lunchbox seller A-han has yet to notice. On a normal weekday, A-Han, his wife, and their helpers fill close to a thousand cardboard boxes with rice, vegetables, and proteins. A-han, who asked that his surname not be published, has been selling bento for nearly 20 years. Because the family’s business is located in an old part of central Kaohsiung, the majority of their customers refer to bento by the Taiwanese inflection, piāntong, rather than the Mandarin biàndang.
A-Han usually starts work before seven o’clock in the morning. By nine o’clock, when his wife arrives, he and a 68-year-old part-timer have taken delivery of eggs, fish, and other items, and all four stoves are in action. His kitchen is too small, he complains, and he could do with another big refrigerator, but renting larger premises would cost too much. Folding tables set out on the sidewalk provide additional working surfaces, but by eleven o’clock most of these are covered by stacks of filled bento. If a patron wants to eat in – which A-Han does not encourage – he or she has to find a space between bagged-up orders awaiting collection.
“Offices and shops want a total of 742 piāntong today, and we’ll probably sell about 150 more to walk-in customers,” A-Han says, reviewing the notebook in which he keeps track of orders. At ten past eleven, his nephew starts to make deliveries by motorcycle, and the telephone is taken off the hook. “We’ll be too busy to answer it, anyway. We might lose some orders, but I can accept that,” he explains.
Asked why he has been able to keep several major corporate customers happy for years on end, A-Han says: “Price, freshness, and hygiene are of equal importance. Some of the vegetables are cut up the previous day, but everything is cooked on the day it’s sold.”
Compared to larger bento operations, A-Han does not offer many options. “We cook the same 17 dishes almost every day,” he says. Eight of them are vegetables, three of which (tomato, sweetcorn, and onion) are cooked with egg. Pork is offered in the form of smartphone-sized cutlets, slabs of braised pork belly, and slivers of meat stir-fried with garlic and green bell pepper.
Those who prefer poultry can choose kung pao chicken, chicken cutlets, or deep-fried chicken drumsticks. One type of fish, a tofu-based dish, and dòugān (dried tofu) in an onion sauce complete the inventory.
Long ago, A-Han concluded that providing additional options is more trouble than it’s worth. Likewise – and unusually for a bento business – he does not offer any soup. He never cooks duck, goose, or beef, pointing out that “if people want those, they’ll go to a specialized restaurant.”
A-Han declines to discuss margins or even how much he spends on boxes (the ones he uses are subdivided into four compartments, the largest being for rice). He does, however, admit to adjusting the mix of vegetables when wholesale prices fluctuate. If prices surge – as they did this past September – he dares not pass on all of the increased costs to his customers.
His attitude is that of a stoic. “When vegetables are expensive, they’re expensive for everyone. My competitors suffer as much as I do, and I actually get a few more walk-in customers, because some people think buying a lunchbox is cheaper than cooking at home. This work is hard, of course, but so long as you keep up your quality, it’s a stable business.”
Throwaways and treasures
Very few bento vendors now use the ultralight wooden boxes that were a feature of Wu’s childhood. For many years, more upmarket food businesses delivered meals to regular customers in sturdy reusable containers, also made of wood. Li-Du Japanese Restaurant (麗都日本料理) on Taipei’s Yanping South Road – founded in 1943 and still going today – did this until around 1980, when they embraced disposable meal boxes.
The styrofoam containers that were common in the 1990s are thankfully a thing of the past. And since the early years of this century, Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Administration has been encouraging a shift away from single-use tableware and food containers. Even so, dealing with the millions of greasy meal-boxes that are discarded each day is a major challenge for the authorities.
Like many other bento vendors, A-Han uses boxes made of a special cardboard coated on one side with a plastic film. The boxes neither soak up liquids from the food nor leak. The cardboard and the film can be separated in a special facility where the former is turned into pulp for reuse (some is sold as eco-friendly toilet paper) and the latter becomes pellets. Recovery is complicated by the oil and water that adheres to used boxes, and by the plastic straws, disposable bamboo chopsticks, and rubber bands often mixed in with boxes sent for recycling.
According to a September 24, 2018 Central News Agency report, only one company in Taiwan, Miaoli-based Lien Tai Paper Corp., currently has the ability to complete this process, but other enterprises are equipping themselves with the necessary technology. Noting that a very large proportion of used meal-boxes end up being incinerated or scattered in the countryside, the report called the situation a “big gap in Taiwan’s circular economy.”
Companies that make this kind of food container are charged a recycling fee of NT$7.25 per kilogram, which is shared between Lien Tai and those who collect and transport soiled bento boxes.
The elegance and variety of reusable bento boxes has long intrigued Dean-E Mei, a professor at Taipei National University of the Arts and one of Taiwan’s best-known avant-garde artists. Describing himself as “perhaps Taiwan’s first meal-box fan,” he has “unintentionally” built up a collection of more than 15 vintage bento boxes. Most were purchased through online auctions. They were not expensive (NT$300 to $2,000 each) but several are objects of considerable charm.
Many of Mei’s bento boxes are made of aluminum, a material which has fallen out of favor for cookware and tableware, despite being light, inexpensive, and rust-resistant. Aluminum is now thought to neutralize vitamins and minerals present in food. While no strong evidence has been found that aluminum causes dementia, the mere suggestion of a link has been enough for many consumers to ditch aluminum utensils in favor of stainless steel.
One of Mei’s boxes bears the English word “Cyanamid” (the name of a compound used in farming and animal husbandry) as well as the Chinese name for the Cyanamid Taiwan Corp. (臺灣氰胺公司), a cyanamide-making company jointly established in 1960 by the American Cyanamid Co. (since broken up and purchased by various conglomerates) and Taiwan Sugar Corp. Between the two rows of text, there are three Chinese characters (歐羅肥, Ōu luó féi, known in the English-speaking world as “Aurofac”). Taiwanese of a certain age will recognize this term as the name of a livestock feed supplement that the company manufactured. Giving away “Cyanamid” bento boxes was one way to promote Ōu luó féi. Jackets, bags, and boxes of matches were also distributed.
Until recently, a bento box without rice was unimaginable, but A-Han says that in recent years he has been getting more and more customers who specify “no rice” or “half the usual amount.” This trend is not surprising. Annual per capita rice consumption in Taiwan is now a mere 48 kilograms, less than half of what it was a generation ago.
No one goes to a lunchbox vendor expecting innovative cuisine, but some establishments do venture beyond the usual recipes and include distinctive local elements. Perhaps the most unusual offering the writers of this article have seen is snail meat stir-fried with garlic and soy sauce. That was in Jiaxian (甲仙), a little town that abuts the mountains in greater Kaohsiung, so the snails were almost certainly foraged rather than farmed. Gastropods of this kind (Achatina fulica Bowdich, aka Giant African snails) have been part of the rural diet since they were introduced to Taiwan from Singapore by the Japanese in 1932 – almost as long as the bento box has been a feature of life in the island’s towns and cities.