Railway Bento

New Flavors for a Nostalgic Travel Icon

2020 / January

Chen Chun-fang /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Bruce Humes

Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) offer a traditional pork chop boxed meal, but they also feature a new series of mouthwatering combos with ingredients sourced from all over Taiwan; the railroad-­fan owner of Fu Jing Restaurant sells lunchboxes in his hometown; and the Satoyama Animal Train brings humans closer to Nature with charming ecological scenes. Trains transport memories, ideals, and nostalgia for home, and recount tales of goodness.

Upon lifting the lunch box lid, your nostrils are greeted by the combined salty fragrance of a stewed pork chop, a round, plump soy egg (a hard-boiled egg cooked in a savory stock), and the downhome scent of steamed rice. These nostalgic flavors have long been engraved in the minds of the Taiwanese, as if their journey would be incomplete without partaking of a bento—the Japanese name for a boxed meal, pronounced biandang in Mandarin.

Taiwan Railways’ secret recipes

Taiwan Railway has been serving bento for at least 70 years. The price has always been reasonable, and they never skimp on the content. For example, take the pork cutlet set: The rectangular paper lunch box contains a pork chop, a soy egg, a block of bean curd skin, some cabbage, and a generous portion of plain rice. Given today’s high food prices, to be able to eat like this for just NT$60—about US$2—is truly “a moving experience.” For something more flavorful, there is the star anise pork chop for NT$80, or the NT$100 “nostalgic” pork chop with veggie rice, as well as a choice of other accompanying vegetables for taste buds that thrive on variety.

Careful selection of fresh, high-quality ingredients is key to the deliciousness of Taiwan Railway’s boxed meals. For example, Grade 1 Taiwan rice is standard, and even during the Lunar New Year it’s purchased daily to guarantee freshness. The cooking process is adjusted according to when the rice was harvested, ensuring it is neither too soft nor too hard. No wonder that even if the bento has cooled, the rice doesn’t turn dry and hard. 

The process for making the best-selling pork chops is never given short shrift either. Each pork chop is pounded five to six times with a meat mallet from the center outwards to break down the cartilage, says Taipei Railway Restaurant head chef Yu Hsun-an, then marin­ated and kneaded, and finally braised after frying. To produce the restaurant’s daily quota of 12,000 cutlets, two staff are employed solely to hammer the pork. No wonder Yu jokes that he has no idea how many chopping boards have been smashed in the process. 

Traditional bento, new flavors

Various TRA restaurants also produce special versions with local ingredients, such as the Roasted Cherry Duck Bento produced by the Qidu Catering Service Center in Keelung, which includes slices of Cherry Valley duck from Yilan, kumquats, also from Yilan, and dried radish omelet made with Sanxing scallions. These specialties made with locally sourced ingredients boast low food miles and express local character. They are not sold onboard trains, but must be purchased at bento shops inside TRA stations. Daily supply is limited, so netizens have nicknamed them “hidden bento.”

In response to various exhibitions and festivals, Taiwan Railway also launches limited-edition boxed meals. For the fifth Formosa Railroad Bento Festival, held last November, Taichung Railway Restaurant offered the “Provence Basil Roasted Chicken Leg Bento,” while the Hualien Catering Service Center featured its “Maqaw Mountain Pepper Chicken Filet.” These dishes showcase the chefs’ cooking techniques and creativity. Although more than 20 Japan­ese railway bento suppliers participated in the festival, the TRA’s cuisine was by no means inferior.

For consumers who may not be taking a train that day, each major station operates a bento shop, and some even operate train-shaped sales kiosks where the boxed meals can also be purchased. Last year, the TRA formally set up a subsidiary operations center to better exploit local special­ties and heighten recognition for its signature bento.

Railway time tunnel

Take the train to Shetou in Changhua County, exit the station and walk straight ahead. After about 500 meters, you will come to a railroad crossing signal. Beside it is a signboard like the ones posted at railroad stations, bearing the name “Fu Jin” at top, and below it the names of neighboring stops “Happiness” (Xingfu) and “Safety” (Ping’an).

This is Fu Jing Restaurant, a railroad-themed eatery. As you walk through the automated blue train door, dark green leather train seats enter your line of vision. Placed in a corner is a steel frame for luggage, and on the wall are painted train windows shaded by greenery. The faux windows, plus the seat number and cup holder at each seat, feed the illusion that you are onboard a train as you dine.

This carefully crafted ambience is all down to the owner, railway aficionado Chen Zhaoqiang (who also goes by the moniker Two Water, after his hometown ­of Er­shui in Changhua County).

Chen’s affinity with railroads was established in childhood. His grandfather, two grand-uncles and his father were all train conductors. Chen himself was born in a TRA dormitory at Ershui, and grew up hearing the sounds of all kinds of trains. Falling in love with this mode of transport was as natural to him as breathing.

At first, whenever Chen saw a model train for sale he would take it home, and gradually items such as bottles of commemorative liquor, conductors’ briefcases, pocket watches, parts of out-of-service carriages, and other railway-­related relics also found their way into his ­collection.

Intending to look after his parents in their old age, upon finishing his military service Chen decided to return to his hometown and start a business. Thanks to catering work experience accumulated during his student years, coupled with his passion for train travel, the idea of ​​setting up a railway-themed restaurant gradually formed in his mind.

Dreams of bento and a museum

Fu Jing Restaurant serves mainly local residents. Offer­ing reasonably priced bento, owner and head chef Chen utilizes local ingredients to make different side dishes daily, and serves up a selection of more than ten main courses including pork cutlets, braised pork belly, chicken legs and milkfish.

After dining in the eatery, don’t miss the railway museum on the second and third floors, which displays Chen’s railway paraphernalia collected over three ­decades. They include train schedule leaflets from the 1960s, engin­eers’ sign-in registers, large wooden signboards from railroad stations, a wooden gate once installed where tickets were punched, and even railway engineering blueprints from the era of Japanese rule. Thanks to Chen, these historical relics that bear witness to railroad development are generously open to the public for free.

Not satisfied with collecting railway relics, Chen even purchased a genuine rail car—a former Taiwan Sugar Corporation track inspection car—that he spent 762 days and NT$500,000 (about US$16,500) to restore. Origin­ally destined for the scrapyard, the body was severely rusted, and the engine badly damaged. Chen brought in Zhan Yongfu, boss of a workshop specializing in the repair of tour bus bodies. Proceeding step by step, they began by restoring the chassis, then installed a new steel frame, and fitted the bodywork panels to the frame. Thanks to their rescue efforts, the inspection car was rejuven­ated, and at the age of 63 was able to return to the Xihu sugar refinery in Changhua County, where it now transports visitors.

Word of mouth has long ensured that the combined eatery and railway museum is a “must-see” for Taiwanese and Japanese railroad fans.

Co-existing harmoniously with Nature

Trains pave the way for bonds between people, and tighten the connections between humankind and Nature. 

Taiwan’s Forestry Bureau and the TRA have joined forces to launch the “Satoyama Animal Train.” On the body of a commuter train, four Satoyama ecosystems have been painted in color: secondary forests; streams and rivers; irrigated paddies and wetlands; and rural fields and villages. The creatures that inhabit these environ­ments have been rendered in adorable images that spring to life on the train’s exterior, as if beckoning travel­ers to take an ecological tour.

If you observe carefully, on a seat inside the carriage you will find a sculpted leopard cat, made from Taiwanese materials. When you look up, you may discover a wooden carving of a Taiwan barbet in flight.

But the Satoyama Animal Train, full of creatures that delight the young, is not a sightseeing train on a fixed route: it is a commuter train that is reassigned to a different service daily. For passengers who take it by chance, such a random encounter is always a pleasant surprise.

“Satoyama” is a word that has often been heard in recent years, but it is not a place name. This Japanese term refers to piedmonts, hills, and plains at low elevations, and the secondary forests, streams, and fields embedded in them, while the creatures that inhabit these environments are dubbed Satoyama wildlife. Human development has caused animals’ original habitats to become divided and fragmented, hindering migration; animals may be killed when crossing roads, or they may in­advert­ently eat pesticides or poison baits laid on agri­cultural land. To address this situation, Taiwan’s “National Green Network” was born.

Through cooperation with its sister agencies at the Council of Agriculture, as well as with the Ministries of the Interior, Transportation and Communications, and Economic Affairs, and with local governments, the Forestry Bureau has established wildlife migration corridors by planting ecologically managed woodlands along east‡west running rivers; by installing fences next to highways that guide animals to cross via elevated passages or underground culverts; and by encouraging farmers to practice eco-friendly farming that provides animals with livable habitats.

Passengers can get to know these creatures who share this land with us by watching onboard videos or scanning the QR codes. Local offices of the Forestry Bureau also organize guided eco-tours related to the Satoyama Animal Train.

As nature writer Liu Ka-shiang mentioned in the promotional video for the Formosa Railroad Bento Festival, when he travels by train he likes to munch on a railway bento while enjoying the scenery outside, get off at a small station with few travelers, and take a stroll or go hiking in the hills to check out the local culture and scenery. Or we can ride the Satoyama Animal Train, then venture into nature for an ecological journey and experience the beauty of travel.

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