Can fishcake tempura, burdock root, and seaweed taste good on a bun?

A cornerstone of the Japanese diet is the bento. Well-known around the world, these are boxed lunches that almost always contain a helping of rice along with an assortment of meats and/or vegetables. Bentos come in many shapes and sizes from the homemade kyaraben, decorated with popular characters and logos, to the regional ekiben, sold on train station platforms to showcase that area’s best foodstuffs.

One more variety is known as the noriben. This is a commonly found version in which the rice is covered in a layer of seaweed (nori in Japanese).

However, our travel-weary reporter Mr. Sato has stumbled across a peculiar noriben that breaks with this formula: the Tokyo Noriben Dog.

He found this oddity buried in a bento kiosk at Terminal 1 of Haneda Airport in Tokyo while on his way to Kochi Prefecture. Married life must have made Mr. Sato look less like a troublemaker because he passed through the security check much more quickly than usual and had some time to spare before his flight.

Perusing the shelf of bentos, he caught a glimpse of a sign that read: “A high-quality bento made casual!” The promotion was so subtle, however, he probably wouldn’t event have noticed it had he been in a rush, despite the exotic nature of what it was pointing out.

The Tokyo Noriben Dog is most easily described as a pile of bento ingredients on a bun. Sounds simple but totally flies in the face of how Japanese people see a noriben. Intrigued, Mr. Sato put his 390 yen (US$3.65) on the line to try one.

The only thing on his mind was, “Is there rice in this thing?” It would seem not, since the bun offered more than enough carbs for one meal, and yet it would also seem like there should be rice since it was a noriben…and that’s just the way they are.

Searching for rice, Mr. Sato popped it open and took a look under the hood. All of the usual bento suspects were lined up underneath such as a fried fish filet, some sauteed burdock root, chikuwa (fishcake) tempura, and mentaiko (spicy cod roe). Beneath everything was the layer of seaweed typical of a noriben…but no rice.

All of these components would certainly classify the Tokyo Noriben Dog as a “bento,” but the lack of rice – considered by most to be the backbone of the noriben – was still a glaring omission.

Mr. Sato took a bite and was pleased with the taste. All of the toppings melded well with the bun and it was quite nice. However, Mr. Sato just couldn’t shake a lingering sense that something was missing.

Westerners in Japan might be able to sympathize when dining on a “hamburg” which is basically a hamburger patty served with sauce, vegetables, fries, and occasionally cheese…but no bun. These high-quality Salisbury steaks taste very good and all, but there’s an undeniable sense that they’re just not complete.

▼ Nothing wrong with this at all, but still, I wonder if these patties would have been better as part of a full-fledged hamburger…

There have been times where I would even have been satisfied if they had just diced up some bread and put it on the side, as odd as that would be. In the same way, Mr. Sato daydreamed that they might serve the Tokyo Noriben Dog with a little dish of rice…just to fill this void.

Considering it’s sold at Haneda Airport, perhaps the target market for the Tokyo Noriben Dog is made up of foreigners who don’t mind the lack of rice and appreciate getting all that Japanese food goodness packed into a convenient sandwich. Then again, maybe it is meant to challenge Japanese people’s perceptions of a bento and take the culinary art to a whole new level. Smart money’s on the former, but you never know!

Photos ©SoraNews24
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