Get a taste of Tai­wan train cui­sine

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

ONCE served as no-frills sus­te­nance for train pas­sen­gers in Tai­wan, sim­ple rice lunch­boxes are sell­ing in their mil­lions across the is­land, a food trend fu­elled by nos­tal­gia. Known as rail­way bian­dang, which means “con­ve­nience” in Chi­nese, the meals have changed lit­tle over the decades.

Tra­di­tion­ally a prag­matic com­bi­na­tion of braised or fried meat and pick­les piled onto steamed white rice – in­gre­di­ents de­signed to en­dure long train jour­neys – they are now seen as an en­dur­ing sym­bol of the “good old days” when rail travel trumped planes and cars.

While they used to be the pre­serve of pas­sen­gers look­ing for a low-cost meal, now fans are pick­ing them up as com­fort food, whether they are tak­ing a jour­ney or not.

“It re­minds me of when I was lit­tle, when I would take the train to Yi­lan with my fam­ily,” said a 42-year-old woman sur­named Chang, buy­ing boxes of clas­sic pork chop rice from a shop at a Taipei sta­tion to take home.

Chang es­ti­mates she eats a rail­way-style lunch­box about 10 times a month, mak­ing a point to buy one when­ever she is pass­ing a sta­tion.

Although there are now fancier, pricier lunch­boxes con­tain­ing ev­ery­thing from red quinoa rice to rose­mary chicken, Chang still prefers the tra­di­tional com­bi­na­tion.

“It’s just tastier – the rice tastes bet­ter,” she said.

The Tai­wan Rail­ways Ad­min­is­tra­tion (TRA) ex­pects to sell a record 10 mil­lion of the pop­u­lar lunch­boxes this year, pulling in roughly TW$700 mil­lion (US$22.4 mil­lion).

The TRA still sells the bian­dang on trains and in sta­tions – trol­leys wend their way through car­riages, or pas­sen­gers can or­der them in ad­vance.

Pri­vate ven­dors are also cash­ing in, run­ning their own kiosks in or nearby sta­tions, while con­ve­nience store chains now sell “rail­way style” lunch­boxes too.

Orig­i­nally pre­sented in round metal tins placed un­der seats for col­lec­tion when fin­ished, they now usu­ally come in sim­ple paper or wooden con­tain­ers.

The TRA’s most pop­u­lar box is the sim­ple pork chop rice, says Michael Lee, deputy gen­eral man­ager of its food and ser­vices di­vi­sion.

As well as a nos­tal­gia hit, price is still a ma­jor draw – the clas­sic combo costs just Tw$60 ($1.90).

“Like our ticket prices, our bian­dang prices haven’t in­creased for many years,” Lee said.

The idea of cater­ing meals to-go for train trav­ellers orig­i­nated in far-flung lo­ca­tions along Tai­wan’s east coast, ac­cord­ing to food writer Wang Jue-yao.

“The more in­ac­ces­si­ble a place is, the more there is a need for bian­dang,” she said.

Some ven­dors who sold them from sta­tion plat­forms would in­clude a pick­led plum to pre­vent meals from spoil­ing, a trick picked up from the Ja­pa­nese, she added.

Ja­pan built much of Tai­wan’s rail­ways dur­ing its half-cen­tury rule of the is­land, which ended with its de­feat in World War II.

The name bian­dang is thought to come from the Ja­pa­nese bento, used to de­scribe a lunch­box with var­i­ous in­gre­di­ents.

While more than 230 mil­lion peo­ple still travel by train in Tai­wan each year, in­creased plane and car travel has hit some lunch­box sell­ers.

For Tseng A-fa, sales at his store in the north­ern beach­side Fu­long vil­lage have fallen since a tun­nel opened in 2006 mak­ing car travel eas­ier.

“Fewer and fewer trains now stop at Fu­long,” he told AFP at a re­cent culi­nary fair in the cap­i­tal Taipei that fea­tured a section ded­i­cated to rail­way bian­dang.

But Tseng, 70, says he still man­ages to sell 1000 lunch­boxes each day and will con­tinue with his business – which has loyal customers.

He has barely changed his recipe for 18 years, serv­ing up rice piled with pork, tofu, egg and pick­les.

Fair vis­i­tor Vicky Chen, 32, shunned trendier ver­sions to buy one of Tseng’s tra­di­tional lunch­boxes.

“I used to buy one on the plat­form to take onto the train,” she said, re­call­ing the days of com­mut­ing home as a uni­ver­sity stu­dent in the eastern county of Hualien.

“I miss that feel­ing.”

Pho­tos: AFP

The Tai­wan Rail­way lunch­box costs less than US$2.

Peo­ple line up to buy the nos­tal­gic snacks. A man ex­am­ines the rail­way maps of Taipei.

Train at­ten­dants from dif­fer­ent routes demon­strate their lunch boxes at the 2016 Tai­wan Culi­nary Ex­hi­bi­tion in Taipei in Au­gust.

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