The Japanese are serious foodies. And because they are foodies, you can feast in style at Japan’s konbini (convenience stores).
Here’s a fun fact: while France has more Michelin stars than runner-up Japan, Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than Paris. From a 3-star restaurant to a humble konbini, there is one strong constant about food here: quality.
When I first was stationed in Japan, I stuck to items that were familiar. If I could not identify the animal, vegetable, or body part, I stayed clear. My second time in Japan, the Japanese had begun labelling there food in English, and I could understand what it was I was going to eat.
Somewhere along the way, I also lost my fear of experimenting. I no longer shied away from the Okinawan pig ears in the refrigerated section of Lawson’s, or foie gras-flavored potato chips and dried smoked squid.
You truly can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner exclusively from konbini and be happy. Hence, I resolved to eat all three meals at Japan’s three major konbini: Lawsons, Family Mart, and 7-Eleven.
Aside from offering plenty of variety, the food is inexpensive. All of the meals each day – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – came to less than $18. May you and your taste buds have fun!
Family Mart Breakfast
My carefully selected breakfast consisted of a spring onsen egg with special dashi and soy sauce. It is not the easiest food to eat in an office, but it sure is a fun way to start the day. Try it – you will feel like Rocky.
The next item was a set of pancakes with butter and maple syrup. Rather than place the syrup and butter on top, the would-be toppings are cleverly sandwiched in between the two pancakes. Throw the pancakes in a microwave for 20 seconds, and they taste exactly like what you would get at an old-fashioned American diner. (The only real difference is that the portions are much smaller.)
For a fruit serving, I bought a cup of grapes. Here in Japan, grapes are positively bursting with naturally sweet flavor. One cup of exquisite grapes cost only ¥268.
For a drink, I chose one of my favorites: a concoction made from juicy litchi fruit and Okinawa salt. Admittedly, it is an acquired taste for some, but on a hot day it is AMAZING and super refreshing.
Family Mart Lunch
Most konbini feature a range of different pastas, such as spinach and ham, or linguine with clams and garlic. I chose a bowl of pasta with cream and spicy roe. Mixed together, it turned the pasta a very pretty shade of pink. Do you like pasta and seafood? If so, there is a good chance will love the unexpected pizzaz that the spicy roe brings.
Family Mart Dinner
I picked up a bottle of Italian red wine for under $5. The evening feast began with a beef tongue appetizer. Tongue is not a food I would ever order at a restaurant, however, the taste was surprisingly tender. Moreover, it speaks to the wide range of proteins that are available.
The meal continued with a few slices of cold cherry-smoked salmon, fish in miso sauce, and a pack of seaweed and bean salad.
It is a pretty genius idea to have the salad in a package. Simply rip off the top, and dive in with chopsticks (or the utensil of your choice). I have never been disappointed in the salad selection at a konbini. Indeed, while all the food was good, the seaweed and bean salad was my hands-down favorite.
Lawson is famous for its curry bread. Alas! The trays by the cashier were empty when I rolled through at 6:20 a.m.; the store had not started making the bread.
I opted for a light breakfast and picked up a package of dried strawberries, and a strawberry and cream sandwich.
It is natural to feel skeptical – how the heck do they keep the bread from getting soggy? Indeed, it is a mystery to me, too. But the fruit in the sandwiches always looks like it came out of a magazine.
Lunch was an eclectic meal featuring a container of shrimp and clam ajillo, burdock root salad, pike bamboo shoots, and onegiri (rice triangles with assorted filling wrapped in seaweed) with grilled salmon flakes.
The salads were divine, and there is something so utterly satisfying about onegiri. There is a good reason they are prominently featured in every konbini.
I cannot help but think onegiri was originally created someone in Mensa as an IQ test. There is an art to opening the package so that the seaweed wraps tidily around the rice. If you can successfully open the wrapper of an onegiri triangle WITHOUT looking at the instructions, you must be:
- 1. A GENIUS. Seriously, I would not be surprised if, during a final engineering job interview, Western candidates are handed an onegiri triangle and told to assemble it.
- 2. Know a thing or two about Japan.
In either case, feel free to look a bit smug.
Sometimes, after a long day, you just want something straightforward and simple.
Dinner that evening consisted of rice with grilled pork with ginger, and a glass of wine. Satisfying? Absolutely!
**I cheated a little by drinking the wine purchased the previous day at Family Mart.
Not every breakfast has to be Western-inspired. For breakfast I stayed away from the shelves of melon pan, chocolate croissants, and apple pastries. Instead, I purchased a small box of futomaki (maki zushi) and sweet tofu skin wrapped around rice. The futomaki had tuna, simmered shiitake mushrooms, cucumber, Japanese rolled omelet, imitation crab.
I was a little taken aback by the sweet tofu and rice, but was bowled over by the delicate assembly and sublime flavors of the futomaki. Five stars!
Do not knock a Japanese 7-Eleven hot dog until you have tried it. The hot dog comes pre-made with ketch-up and mustard. They are much smaller than the typical American hot dog, and at only ¥168, it makes for a tasty lunch/snack.
As it so happens, a package of aged cod roe and potato salad pairs perfectly with the hot dog. 🙂
One of the many things I love about Japan is that I have never left a konbini feeling cheated. When it comes to meals, the Japanese pull out all the stops and showcase a little bit of everything.
I selected a meal that featured an assortment of goodies: sesame-seed topped rice, a piece of salmon, five pasta noodles, a generously sized meatball, ginger, fish cake, and pickled vegetables.
I also picked up a “real” salad (meaning it was in a container, not a package). No kidding – the salad of deep-fried tofu slices, salad, ginger, seaweed, and sesame sauce was restaurant quality. Every single ingredient exuded freshness.
As with the other konbini, 7-Eleven offers seasonal snacks and desserts. Since it is still cherry blossom season, I finished the meal with a cold sakura and white chocolate pudding.
And there you have it! A variety of budget-friendly ways to tease your taste buds.
Although all of the food I tried was honestly excellent, the standouts were the salads. I love the flavor combinations, and the ingredients are not ones you can typically find in the U.S….even at a 3-star Michelin restaurant. 🙂