Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Hangaku bento

I have a bad habit that I am trying to convince myself is actually budget conscious. I picked it up a few years ago, when I was teaching English in the boonies of Chiba. My work days would end at 9 or 10 pm and since lunch time had been at 1pm and I had normally been teaching straight right through the afternoon, I was exhausted and hungry by the time I left my classroom. If I didn't have something in the fridge waiting to be heated up for dinner I'd often swing by the big 24 hour grocery store on my way home, stopping at the prepared food section to grab dinner (many days I was so hungry that dinner didn't make it home in tact, I would munch on it as I walked through the dark streets to my apartment).

Early in the day the prepared food and bento section would be well stocked with a variety of freshly made meals and separate packages of all sorts of different foods - sushi rolls, rice balls, sandwiches, salads, noodle dishes, dumplings, stirfrys (or is that stirfries?), breaded pork cutlets, tempura,... and the list goes on and on. By the time I'd get there, however, the pickings were usually pretty slim and somewhat random. I'd end up with a couple of skewers of yakitori and a caesar salad one night, and a cheese and roast beef wrap and shrimp tempura the next. It was a bit of an adventure never quite knowing what I might find! Given how tired I was some nights not having to make a choice was very much appreciated. The real bonus, however, was the price. At that hour most things were 10% or 30% off, or even half-price.

Supermarket prepared foods have a limited shelf-life. In some stores there is a set time of day when all the remaining foods go on a certain discount. An employee will go around with a sticker machine, affixing bright red and yellow discount stickers to the plastic and styrofoam containers. Often times the employee will be followed by a trail of shoppers who swoop in and grab packages of certain items as soon as the sticker goes on. One grocery store near where I used to live closed at 10pm. At 5pm the bakery counter closed and baked goods went on various discounts. Prepared foods were 10% off after 5pm, 30% after 7pm, and 50% (if anything was still left) after 9pm. At 24 hour places, however, food tends to be prepared at different times during the day, and so the discount stickers will go on items based on how long they've been sitting out. The older the item the better the discount and the more likely it is to be snapped up by an eager shopper.

Now that I am back in an apartment and have a kitchen, I do find myself cooking a lot more than I did when I was in the dorm (when I all but lived off of the discounted prepared foods and bento from a network of different grocery stores). I especially like to make up a big pot of soup or stirfry or stew and freeze individual-sized portions for later meals. But there are also days when I have evening classes and find myself sizing up the discounted prepared foods at my local grocery store...

on the menu for tonight: salad, kara-age chicken with a spicy Chinese sauce

note the big red and yellow sticker emblazoned with "taimu sabisu" or time-service, and a discounted price

and one of my all-time favourites, negi-toro maki (rolled sushi with green onion and tuna belly)
at half-price (han-gaku) how can you go wrong?!!

Perhaps not the best way to ensure a healthy balanced meal, but still a cheap way of getting a quick and yummy late meal (or breakfast, if you dare to defy the eat-before time stamp and save a couple of things for the next morning - I've done so a number of times and lived to tell the tale!)

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