Ekiben is the shortened Japanese word for “eki bento” or station lunch box meals. These compact and affordable meals can be found in most train stations near the ticket gates or sold directly on the train platform. But how does one distinguish an ekiben from all other foods found at the station?
First, if you walk into a konbini or convenience store, head for the exit immediately; you'll find bentos there but not an ekiben. Ekibens are sold in stands that center around a similar type of food item like fish, beef or tempura. Second, a common denominator in all ekibens is rice with some type of meat and little side dishes like pickled veggies. I’ve never come across a soupy or liquid types of ekiben yet like curry or udon because as I imagine, eating something like that on a moving piece of speed machinery like the shinkansen or bullet train might give your shirt or blouse an unwanted food stains at the end of the ride. Finally, many of Japan’s hundreds of towns and cities usually have a specialty ekiben that is exclusively sold at its local train stations.
As the first officially sanctioned city to host foreigners after the opening of Japan to international trade in in the mid-19th century, the country’s first Chinatown took root in Yokohama City. Immigrants from China brought with them their cultural foods among them steamed pork buns (nikuman in Japan, baozi in China) and dumplings or shumai.
The Kiyoken company, founded in 1908, started selling food items at the original Yokohama Station (presently where Sakuragicho Station is located). In 1928, the shumai that millions of customers have devoured over the years made its debut in Chinatown. Unlike the typical shumai which takes two to three bites to eat, these were about half the size.
In 1950, the Kiyoken company initiated a sales campaign in which the shumai musume or pork dumpling daughters would hawk boxes of delicious steamed morsels of minced pork and scallops at the station. The intent of the campaign was to have smiling young women sells clerks brighten the spirits of the Japanese people afflicted by tremendous damage caused by World War II. As one of the major centers of commerce in the country, Yokohama City was a frequent target of the US bombing campaigns.
In 1954, Kiyoken went full steam ahead (pun intended) and eight balls of rice, a slice of baked fish and fried chicken along with a serving of veggies to the box and walah! a meibutsu was born. Since then, trekkers to Yokohama have made a ritual to get a box (or three like me!) of the famous shumai bento. So next time you’re traveling south of Tokyo, make sure to pick up a box of the incredible ekiben. You never know, love might be right around the corner.