Value-for-money bentos so good we were tempted to keep the secret to ourselves.

Walk into any supermarket in Japan and you’ll find ready-made obento lunchboxes filled with rice and a variety of different morsels to provide you with a filling, well-balanced meal.

Not all bento meals are made the same however, and locals often know where the best ones are hiding, so when we heard whispers of a bento range so good the locals want to keep the secret to themselves, we knew we had to set out to find it, and the trail led us to a supermarket chain in Okinawa called Union.

Union’s 24-hour supermarkets are beloved by locals for their cheap prices and convenience, but not many people outside the prefecture know about them. Locals are happy for the chain to remain under the radar, though, because that means there’s less competition for their goods, especially their prized bentos, which come wrapped in eye-catching paper that advertises what’s inside, with a humorous nod to the Union logo and catchphrase.

▼ “Union Desu Kara!” (“Because it’s Union!”) is the chain’s catchphrase, so their “Nori Ben” (seaweed bento) is sold as “Nori Ben Desu Kara!

There’s not just one type of Union bento available here, though, as there’s also the “Buta Hire Katsudon Desu Kara!” (Pork Tenderloin Katsudon)…

…the “Gorogoro Yakitori Noukou Goma Ninniku Desu kara!” (Rumbling Stomach Grilled Chicken Rich Sesame Garlic) and the “Ebi Fry Tamagotojidon Desu Kara!” (Deep Fried Prawn Raw-egg-topped Bowl)…

…and “Za Uchinaa Bento” (The Okinawa Bento), which is a very Okinawan Bento, given that “Uchinaa” means “Okinawa” in the local dialect. The suffix “ben” in Japanese is tacked on to the end of place names to mean “dialect”, so the Uchinaa Bento can be read as “The Okinawa-ben to”, a fun play on words that made us smile so much we knew this was the bento for us.

Having been ruled by the Ryukyu Kingdom from 1429 to 1879, Okinawa has a unique culture slightly different to what you’d find on mainland Japan, and that extends to the local food culture as well. The gorgeous hand-drawn illustration on the pack points to some of the island’s local specialties like goya chanpuru (bitter melon stir fry) and san-mai niku (three-layered pork containing skin, meat and fat).

Union’s bentos are renowned for being great value for money, so we were excited to find out what lay behind the illustration. Removing the packaging and the lid revealed all this, which is a fantastic return for just…350 yen (US$3.21)!

Locals really do know how to spot great value when they see it, because…well, just wow. For 350 yen you get not just one but three slices of san-mai niku, a generous serving of goya chanpuru, a mound of stir-fried shredded radish, some pickles, half a boiled soy-sauce infused egg and half a croquette, all served on a bed of white rice.

It wasn’t just the variety and amount of food in the bento that impressed us, as the flavour of each morsel was absolutely fantastic. Unlike a lot of the bentos available at supermarkets in big cities, everything in this one tasted as if it had been lovingly homemade.

The balance of flavours throughout was just right, and we felt like we were eating a meal made for us by a family friend or a family-run izakaya pub tavern. It was warming, hearty, filling, and insanely delicious!

▼ Adding a locally brewed Orion beer on the side is entirely optional but highly recommended.

▼ Viewing this ad for Union is also optional, but highly recommended.

We were thrilled to have found these fantastic bentos, which ticked all the boxes for us in terms of price, packaging, quality, volume, and taste. All the bentos at Union are priced from 350-399 yen, plus tax, which is an incredible deal for what you get, so if you pass by one of the supermarkets while you’re in the area, be sure to stop in and check them out.

And if you’re looking to explore more of the Okinawan food scene, don’t forget to take a look at their epic pork and egg onigiri rice balls that are more like rice sandwiches, and this special “soul drink” containing rice and barley. Okinawa really is packed full of pleasant surprises!

Related: Union locations
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