Sunday, August 2, 2020

In Japan, the Food Can Cook Itself

-- Susan, every other Sunday

Japan is a land of culinary wonders.

From spiral French-fried potatoes on a stick:

to candied grapes:

to chocolates shaped like the planets of our solar system:

Japan has a snack for every appetite and every occasion.

I've blogged here before about my favorite food in Japan--the traditional Buddhist temple cuisine known as shojin ryori--but today I'd like to take a lateral step in the culinary world and tell you about a more unusual kind of Japanese fare: an o-bento (literally "honorable boxed lunch") that cooks itself.

Bento are a common, portable meal option sold in every convenience store across Japan, as well as many grocery stores and restaurants.

They come in almost as many variations as there are kinds of food, and many towns, cities, and regions in Japan have "regional specialty bento" available for purchase in train stations and other local shops.

One of my favorite places to eat obento is on the shinkansen (Japan's high speed "bullet train"). Eating is not permitted on most local trains, but on the high-speed super express, it's A-ok. There's even a special shop with branches in most shinkansen stations that sells a wide variety of bento meals, including regional specialties.

Three years ago, while searching the shop for the perfect meal to enjoy on an evening train to Kyoto, I noticed a sign that said "Special Bento! Steak - Self-Heating!"

As an avowed fan of gadgets (and of steak) I had to check it out.

I purchased the bento, which the clerk placed into a bag along with a printed instruction and warning sheet. (Nothing like a meal that comes with large-print disclaimers.)

Once I reached my seat, I removed the box, took hold of the rip cord, and pulled it out.

The box did not explode. However, within a few seconds, it did get remarkably hot to the touch, and steam began to emerge from beneath the lid on both ends. A lot of steam.

Sadly, it didn't show up in the photograph:

As promised, five minutes later, I had a thoroughly heated dinner of steak and rice with a side of vegetables.

While it may not look like a five-star meal, I can assure you it was actually delicious. The beef was tender and nicely cooked (a little better done than I usually eat it, but surprisingly, still pink in the center). The vegetables retained enough integrity to offer a little snap, and the rice was delicious--as always, in Japan.

Since then, I've had this bento several times. I don't eat meat very often anymore, and it makes a nice night-before-the-mountains treat when I'm outward bound on the bullet train for another climb.

The novelty still hasn't worn off, either. Every time I get that ripcord in my hands, I'm five years old, amazed and delighted by the fact that in Japan, sometimes your dinner knows how to cook itself.

So...would you give a self-heating bento box a try? Yes or no?


  1. What Michael said! You know: I can't eat the contents due to my TOTALLY inconvenient soy allergy, but the kid in me REALLY wants to pull the ripcord!

  2. Yes with a side of the spiral french fries!
    I have seen the planets chocolates on one of the sites that sells Japanese things...ridiculously expensive. Are they worth it?

  3. I forgot to ask how your book on the 100 mountains is coming along? Looking forward to it. I enjoy this site very much, reading such intelligent, varied and caring blog postings lightens the gloom, and I thank you all. I am anonymous as I don't have a google account.

  4. I'd do it in a heartbeat, Susan, though not the steak so as to preserve the heartbeat.

    Hmm, I wonder what would happen if KFC began marketing "Chicken Thighs that Surprise--Just Pull the Rip-Cord." On second thought, I'd rather not. :)