August 31, 2010
The Lunch Box
I have posted about snacks and drinks that you will find everywhere in Taiwan, so it's only fitting that I mention a type of meal that you will also find everywhere. From the trains to virtually every street in Taiwan, you will at some time almost certainly come across the lunch box (also known as bento, or "bee-en dang" in Chinese .
Basically, the lunch box (as I will call it in this post) is an all-in-one meal in a cardboard box, containing meat, two or three side dishes and rice. There are a lot of vegetarian places as well, but the principle is the same.
Typically it is for take out, but some of the shops selling them also have an area where you can eat on the premises. Usually if you eat in, you can help yourself to soup and a drink (most often a kind of tea). Actually if you take out you can also often get the soup, but I have found the bag they put it in to be incredibly difficult to open, and it is tricky to say the least to open the bag and get it in the bowl.
As you would expect from the name, they are sold during lunch time (typically 12 to 2 p.m.), but they are also sold in the evenings. They are perhaps the most common take out meal in Taiwan, and one reason for this is the value. You can get a basic lunch box for as little as NT$50 (about US$1.50). If you are traveling on a budget, then lunch boxes are really the best value (compared to a typical multi-national fast food chain meal which is about double that). I should mention that you can also get lunch boxes from most convenience stores (and they will microwave them for you), but in my opinion I would go for the real thing if you can.
I mentioned trains before as perhaps the most famous lunch box in Taiwan is served by the Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA: the regular inter-city train system). These lunch boxes have a special place in the hearts of many Taiwanese, and have been served since 1949, pretty much keeping their original flavor to this day. The most classic form is pork cooked in a special sauce, a hard boiled egg, rice, vegetables and famously, a pickle. They are so popular that they bring in huge revenue for TRA, and although also available at many train stations, they quickly sell out.
There is a tremendous range of different types of lunch box, and it's impossible to list every type you might experience. In general though, there are shops where you: 1) choose the meat and the rest is added as standard; 2) choose the meat and also the side dishes you want; 3) you pick up a box and fill it to your heart's desire.
In every case, one big advantage for the non-Chinese speaker is that you can just point, and this will absolutely not be taken as rude in Taiwan. In fact most stores will be delighted to serve an "international friend" (as a good Taiwanese friend calls us) and do their best to help. You might be asked if you want the meat cut up, and if the person serving you makes a chopping motion then that is what they mean. I think this is useful for pork, but with a chicken leg it can result in bits of bone so I would say no.
Which leads me onto the most common types of meat (and I will write a more extensive overview of vegetarian options next month). The two most overwhelmingly common types of meat in standard lunch boxes are chicken legs and pork. Again other stores will offer other options, and the best thing to do is point.
Back to the types of store. With the first two, you don't have much to do but point and pay. My favourite lunch box store though is the third type, where you pick up a box and can add things to the box by yourself. At one location where I used to work, the selection was fantastic, perhaps twenty different dishes to choose from. Although I think they should have charged me per meat item, I was almost always charged NT$75 (about US$2.50) for a wonderful selection of freshly cooked fare. Another advantage of this kind of store is that you can choose "safe" items, i.e. things you recognize, and also add a couple of things you don't to experiment with the local produce.
It is probably fair to say that there is also a wide range of quality of stores. I think a good general rule when you are overseas is to choose a place by popularity. If there are a lot of locals eating at any kind of restaurant or street stall then the chances are that is a good place to choose. Although at first glance a lunch box store may not seem like an option you would choose, I would strongly recommend trying it at least once while you are in Taiwan. It might not be the "classic" kind of Chinese food you think of, but it is the staple for many Taiwanese, and as such, I think it should be part of your Taiwan experience.
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