Until just a few years ago, shashoku — short for shain shokudō (company canteens) — were sources of convenience food, where meals was gulped down, not chewed and savored, and where the offerings were cheap but bland.

But some canteens are being rebranded as proper eateries, offering dishes that are not only cheap but also balanced, healthy and — what’s most important — tasty. One company that served as a catalyst for this turnaround of shashoku is Tanita, a 90-year-old maker of weight and body-fat scales.

In 2010, Tanita published “Taishibōkei Tanita no Shain Shokudō: Gohyakukirokarorī no Manpuku Teishoku” (“The Staff Canteen at Body-Fat Scale Maker Tanita: 500-kcal Meals That Make You Full”), a recipe book of the Japanese dishes served at its canteen. That book and its sequel, also released in 2010, have sold a combined 4.8 million copies so far. It created such a buzz that in January this year the company opened a restaurant modeled after their canteen. Situated in the business district of Marunouchi in central Tokyo, Tanita Shain Shokudō (Tanita Staff Canteen) is a self-service eatery that offers just two lunch-set options at ¥800 or ¥900, one of which changes daily and the other weekly. Four months into its opening, there is still always a long line of customers, young and old, waiting to be served, even though the prices are roughly double those at most company canteens, which are subsidized by employers. In fact, to prevent lines and the restaurant getting too crowded, tickets are being issued every morning, so that customers know when they can get served and what time they should come back for lunch.

Now, another company canteen has gone through a makeover — and it appears to be trying to out-do Tanita.

Last month, Tokyo-based Sekai Bunka Publishing refurbished its staff cafeteria and started serving a new menu that had been created in cooperation with Kagawa Nutrition University. The private university in Tokyo runs a highly popular diet clinic and has recently published numerous diet recipe books. Sekai Bunka Publishing recently offered members of the press a chance to visit and eat at its canteen, which is normally off limits to non-employees.

“When we decided to renovate our cafeteria, many people in the company said they didn’t want to eat something that tasted like hospital meals,” said Akiko Imai, a general manager at the publisher. “We went to see many cafeterias at other companies for ideas. We think it is important to serve delicious food at shashoku, and we also realized that canteens these days are expected to play a greater role in improving employees’ health.”

With health as a focus, the publishing house tied up with the Kagawa Nutrition University and hired one of its graduates to oversee the nutritional value of dishes and come up with new menus. The cooks at its canteen — who are employees of a third-party contractor — now follow the Kagawa method, whose main concept is, like Tanita’s, to prepare and cook a variety of foods in ways that will keep them tasty but at around 500 kcal per meal.

Can it really be filling, healthy and tasty at the same time, though? There were two teishoku (set meal) choices given at the canteen — I chose the one with fish. The five-dish, 565-kcal meal consisted of grilled salmon marinated with honey and soy sauce (137 kcal); stir-fried pumpkin and carrot (92 kcal); boiled shungiku (edible chrysanthemum) and shiitake mushrooms marinated with yuzu citrus juice (25 kcal); miso soup with shimeji mushrooms and nira garlic chives (28 kcal); and a bowl of half-milled rice (283 kcal).

To be honest, I would have preferred a fattier salmon, as I think it’s the oil from the fish that makes it taste so great. But, compared to the heavily-salted salmon you often get in restaurants, the fish was flavorful, even though it had been cooked using just kosaji ippai (one teaspoonful, or 5 cc) of soy sauce per slice. The flavor, it was explained to me, came from a marinade of honey and sake that the salmon had been left in for half a day before cooking.

My favorites dishes were the shungiku/shiitake combination and the pumpkin/carrot dish, a special extra dish of the day. The shiitake was chunky and was toasted before being mixed with boiled shungiku. But it was the seasonings, a mixture of yuzu citrus juice, a splash of soy sauce and dashi (soup stock made from fish and/or kelp), that made all the difference. The pumpkin and carrot slices, too, were crunchy, making them a filling side dish, even though the portion was quite small. Also a pinch of shichimi (seven-spice hot pepper) added a sharpness to the simple veggie dish.

Imai pointed out that, in line with Kagawa’s policy, the kitchen avoids frozen, pre-cooked foods as much as it can, and serves haigamai (half-milled rice), which contains more vitamins and dietary fiber than white rice but is easier to digest than brown rice. Due to extra preparation for the dishes, the company’s cost has gone up on a per-meal basis from ¥350 to ¥450, but it has kept the prices for employees at ¥400, according to Imai.

The question is, are the company’s efforts appreciated? Sekai Bunka Publishing, which has a total of 300 employees, used to serve only 160 lunch meals a day, but since it switched to the new recipes, the number of diners has gone up to nearly 200 a day, Imai said proudly.

And like Tanita, the publisher wants to cash in on its canteen success by creating a book about it, though they plan to focus the publication on improving the health of diners as well as recipes.

“We want to help change Japan’s canteens,” Imai says. “We have already identified several of our employees as ‘study subjects’ and are planning on monitoring their changes (in weight and other health indicators). We want to be a nutrition clinic that our employees can come to daily.”

For its part, Kagawa Nutrition University — founded by Aya Kagawa [1899-1997], who introduced the idea of tea spoons and measuring cups to Japan — intends to spread its knowhow on nutritious Japanese cooking further through tie-ups with more companies, said Tadahiko Someya, a managing director at the university.

“Our canteen knowhow is based on our experience of running our university cafeteria,” he said. “Together (with the publishing company), we want to help other company canteens change, and they will all make valuable case studies. We already have received inquiries from top executives of companies showing interest.”

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