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In search of Tokyo’s vegetarian bentōs

by

Special To The Japan Times

In the TV industry, bentō (boxed lunches) come with the territory, and, in my years here, I’ve seen nearly every type of bentō you could imagine. They are, however, often ordered in bulk and usually contain some kind of meat or fish. Still, to refuse a bentō on set (in favor of eating your own packed lunch or running to the nearest convenience store) means it will go to waste, so I’ve spent many breaks between takes picking through the edible bits and handing off the meat to hungry fellow actors.

But every once in a while a wonderful surprise comes along: the vegetarian bentō. Yes, they do exist, and they are a beautiful sight.

Vegetarian bentōs will likely be prepared with quality ingredients, which are often organic or macrobiotic. And when I open one of these colorful boxes of joy (on the rare occasion when they’re available) they’re met with the envious gazes of those left with standard meat choices, which makes me wonder why veggie options are not offered regularly.

I’m pleased to share some of the bentō shops I learned about recently. Find the one nearest to you next time you need to pick up a boxed lunch in the city. (Some places will deliver, but, be warned, delivery charges can be steep when ordering only one or two, so it’s best to avoid delivery unless you’re ordering for a group.)

Midorie, in Tokyo’s Gakugei Daigaku district, is a fantastic option for vegetarians (Tokyo, Meguro, Takaban, 3-4-18-102 for delivery and Takaban 2-21-10 for the eat-in restaurant; 03-5725-5535; www.m-delivery.jp). Its website lists at least seven glorious-looking vegetarian bentōs, starting around ¥1,000. I tried the sesame-fried soy-meat option and, while I’m not usually one for fake meats, it was absolutely delicious.

I also recommend the tempeh and vegetables with mustard sauce. The unique soy-bean patties are hearty and like nothing I’d ever tasted, and the bentō also comes with succulent renkon.

Pariya has locations in Aoyama, Yokohama and Shibuya (for more information, visit www.pariya.jp) and offers take-out bentōs for around ¥1,000. Ordering is easy, as you pick a combination of three dishes on display in the store and brown or white rice, which is all packed into a neat square-shaped bentō. The main dishes here are meat-based but, never fear, the salads and sides offer plenty of choices to make your own boxed lunch. The menu changes weekly and is also written in English. Pariya can be busy at lunch, so reserving a bentō by phone the day before is recommended.

Finally, if you’re leaving Tokyo on the Tohoku Shinkansen, look for a special vegetarian meal available via the food pushcart on the Hayabusa, Hayate and Komachi Shinkansen — Train Cafe’s Vege Deli bentō (¥600). Reserve one in advance, at www.nre.co.jp/ressya/syahan/traincafe.shtml.

There are many more options for vegetarian bentō in Tokyo, and nonspecialty places will sometimes swap meat for vegetables, so don’t be afraid to ask. I, for one, will be circulating through the rest of the menu at Midorie for a while.

Ananda Jacobs has been an ovo-lacto vegetarian for more than 20 years.