Taiwanese lunchboxes are the offspring of Japanese bento boxes, which provide a full meal on one tray or in one box: rice, a protein, some sides, and usually some soup. Most also have a little bit of some kind of pickle lurking in the corner.
The shallow rectangular white box of the lunchboxes is ubiquitous here, as iconic as the oyster-pail used for Chinese food back home. Ironically, an American new to Taiwan might find that the contents of a lunchbox feel almost familiar. A “standard” lunchbox (the kind that your boss might order for you without having the tedious conversation about what you want before you understand what’s available), is often a piece of fried chicken or a fried pork chop laid on a slab of rice, with three vegetables on the side. Just like mamma used to make for Sunday dinner!
Here are some of my favorite, or at least my regular, lunchbox meals in Zhongli.
This is by far my favorite lunchbox, a grilled chicken meal from a place in Bade called Qiao Wei Lunchbox (巧味便當). I used to have it every Friday when I was teaching out there. Unfortunately, Bade is not in my neighborhood and I am lazy, so I don’t get to eat this much anymore. This chicken was grilled to perfection, every time, and this place was always crowded at lunch time.
This is a grilled chicken lunch box from a “famous” local place in Zhongli called Zhengzhong Ribs Meal (正忠排骨飯). It’s very good, and also, you can choose your three sides. Here I got some greens, some eggplant, and some curry-potatoes. But I still love the chicken from Qiao Wei the best.
This is a railway lunchbox from place in Pingzhen. This particular lunchbox place is not special, it was just next to the school I taught at last semester. It smelled of stale oil and they used the microwave a lot…
But, this railway meal is pretty cool. According to Cathy Erway in her awesome book, The Food of Taiwan, the first lunchboxes in Taiwan were the lunchboxes served on the trains and at the train stations. And in the beginning, that was the only place they were served. Now lunchboxes are so popular and such a part of the Taiwanese diet that school children typically eat lunchboxes for lunch every day, if not also for dinner in between cram-school classes. But now a lot of lunchbox places have gotten nostalgic, offering these “railway meals” in the old-school, round, bamboo boxes. There’s no little compartments, and there’s usually a bit of Taiwanese sausage as well as a pork chop included.
This is a fried chicken lunchbox from that same place in Pingzhen. I ate this so often last year that I got sick of it. It’s a pretty dense meal.
This is a pretty unique lunchbox. I found it at a place that makes Macau- (澳门) and Hong-Kong style food called Macau Xin Hao Ji Char Siu Shop (澳門新濠記燒臘店) Because it was my first time here, I went for broke and got the “five-meat” rice box. It was tasty, but too much meat for me. I had the duck meat over rice the next time, and that was good. Duck meat lunchboxes are usually more expensive, around NT$100 each.
Not technically what people mean when they say “lunchbox,” but this is often my dinner. Each piece of “sushi” is NT$10. Obviously, this is really Taiwanese with the mayo-corn mixture and the pork floss in the sushi rolls. But it’s good, it’s cheap, and it tastes fresh. You can also get salmon, tuna, etc. I love the steamed egg, too. I got this set from a little street vendor called Black 5 Sushi (黑武藏10元壽司). These vendors are everywhere.
My only complaint is that if they give you condiments, it’s not enough, so I usually roll with my own bottle of soy sauce and my own tube of wasabi when I’m planning on having street sushi for dinner. Also, they don’t give you chopsticks. Sushi is actually finger food, but if eating with your fingers puts you off, you better pack your own pair of chopsticks.
Also not a lunchbox, but this is a fairly low-calorie option from 7-11. I avoid carbs as far as possible, but every once in a while, I’m stuck between classes, the nearest 7 is out of apples, the melon chunks have seen better days, and I don’t want to eat another tea egg, so I’ll throw in the towel and have some kimchi noodles.
If you’re eating a lot of convenience-store lunchboxes, I don’t judge, but you’d do yourself a favor to check out the calories on some of those boxes. It might come as a shock that even the innocuous-looking fried rice has 600-800 calories. I am not opposed to 700-calorie meals, but if I am gonna go out like that, I’d rather have something that wasn’t microwaved at a convenience store.
I’ll leave you with my lunchbox pro-tips:
- Order the “famous” lunchbox at any lunchbox place, particularly if it’s your first time. This is what the owners are putting all their effort into. It will be fresher and your meal will come faster.
- Along the same lines, avoid “interesting” offerings like Thai-style chicken or Three Cup Chicken lunchboxes. It’s usually something they’re gonna have to remember how to prepare and then microwave, and it’s never as good as what you’d get in a sit-down restaurant. In my experience. There are exceptions to every rule.
- I avoid simple carbs and grains (when I’m on the wagon), so I’ll often get a roasted sweet potato with to have with my lunchbox, and then skip the rice. Most convenience stores offer roasted sweet potatoes. A piece of fruit would also do the trick. I find that eating the rice guarantees I’ll want to succumb to a food coma. Ever notice how Taiwanese offices shut down for a little shuteye after lunch? Mmmhmmm…
- Cheaper is not better. If you’re counting dollars, you’ll appreciate the savings, but there’s a reason some lunchboxes are NT$50 and some lunchboxes are NT$80.
- If you can’t speak Chinese and there’s no English menu, have a friend help you find a self-serve buffet where you fill up your box and pay by the weight or the item. (Beware of Mama’s Lunchbox, though. One of my favorites, but you might get a surprise at the cash register!)
What’s in your favorite lunchbox? I’d also love to get suggestions for excellent local places!