Book Review: “Ekiben: The Art of the Japanese Box Lunch,” 1989

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“Ekiben: The Art of the Japanese Box Lunch,” Chronicle Books, 1989.

I’m convinced that used bookstores offer much more than any big box book retailer (what’s left of them, anyway). The problem with Barnes & Noble, or Borders when it existed, is that these stores don’t offer any old out-of-print books in their inventory. The large book retailers deal exclusively with new books, or new versions of old books, whatever the case may be. But as time goes by, there are so many interesting books that go out of print, our only chance of discovering them (if we missed them the first time around) is when they cycle back through a used bookstore.

I suppose that I’m the ideal used bookstore patron. First of all, I’m an old English major (not the normal prerequisite for becoming a chef, I admit). Second of all, I was born with the collector’s gene. I used to collect bottle caps and baseball cards when I was little; I still own about 1,000 vintage funk and soul records (acquired mostly during my 20s), though my pace of vinyl consumption has tapered off; I still collect vintage pulp paperbacks, lots of California wine, and of course, vintage cookbooks.

When I wander into a used bookstore, I never know what I’m going to buy, but I do know that I’m going to be able to justify buying something. For $9, I couldn’t pass up “Ekiben: The Art of the Japanese Box Lunch,” which I found at Green Apple in San Francisco a couple weeks ago. Published by Chronicle Books in 1989 (25 years ago now), “Ekiben” is a thin paperback, but with ample dimensions. The book is comprised mostly of photos, which document several dozen of the ekiben found in Japan.

According to the book, the word “ekiben” is derived from “eki” (train station) and “bento” (the familiar Japanese boxed lunch). Thus, these are the boxed lunches offered at train stations in Japan. But here’s the thing, most Japanese train stations offer their own, unique boxed lunch for travelers or commuters. These lunches usually encapsulate some sort of theme that is relevant to the area, and each ekiben is different from station to station.

For mass-produced meals, these ekiben all seemed insanely clever. I wonder how much their aesthetic has changed over the years, or if they still look the same today. Here are a couple scans from the book. Enjoy!

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Tooge No Kama-Meshi @ Shinetsu Honsen Yokokawa Station. Served in pottery, this ekiben is arguably the best in Japan (at least back in 1989). Rice is served with chicken, shiitakes, burdock and apricot.

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Nagoya Zanmai @ Tokaido Shinkanshen Nagoya Station. Some ekiben have two or three compartments. Click photo to read the full caption.

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Masu No Sushi @ Hokuriku Honsen Toyama Station. This photo is the interior of the box on the book cover. Masu is a type of river trout, which is served over rice.

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Saba Bou Sushi @ Kansai Honsen Tennoji Station. Yes, that’s a piece of fish, straight up. Click the photo to read the caption.

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Kuri Okowa @ Sanyo Shinkansen Okayama Station. Kuri is Japanese for chestnut, which are prevalent in Okayama. Okowa is sticky rice.

1 comment to Book Review: “Ekiben: The Art of the Japanese Box Lunch,” 1989

  • Barbara

    Love the little ‘boxes’! For me, they would be worth the price of the lunch. Very interesting.

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