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Ukon: Traditional kaiseki cuisine served in a bento box

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Special To The Japan Times

The answer: bento box. The question: What Japanese food — or type of meal — would I miss most if I left Japan? And now for some qualifications, before an explanation in the form of a restaurant review.

Owing to a combination of globalization and the changing tastes of bourgeois gourmands, sushi shops and ramen restaurants are fast closing in on the Golden Arches and Colonel Sanders in terms of their ubiquity. Kobe beef also seems to be making an appearance on menus across the world — although it’s often Kobe beef in name only. And though yakiniku barbecue restaurants are relatively uncommon abroad, perhaps barbecued meat isn’t something Japan does better than anyone else.

No, not sushi, ramen, Kobe beef or yakiniku, what I would miss most is the humble bento: that simple boxed lunch that holds all manner of tradition and possibility. This occurred to me on a recent visit to Ukon, a 6-year-old restaurant in Osaka’s Fukushima neighborhood that looks and feels a lot older than it is.

I was seated at the long counter, under a noticeably large kamidana, a type of Shinto alter commonly found in homes throughout the country. It’s a symbol of Japan’s traditional beliefs, but it signifies something else, too: homeyness. Most of the clientele are drawn from the neighborhood and, unlike me, don’t spend three minutes photographing their food. But, like me, most of the other diners were there for Ukon’s lunchbox.

The lunchtime menu is limited. Besides the bento, there are usually only a few other choices: typically a donburi (rice bowl) served with tempura or chicken and egg. At night the menu is far more generous, with as many options as any good izakaya (Japanese -style pub).

But if you’ve come for lunch, go with the bento. The inspiration for the style of cooking inside is kaiseki ryōri, Japan’s elaborate traditional multicourse cuisine. At Ukon, they’ve scrubbed off the layers of pomp and ceremony, and packed what’s left into a wooden box. But what’s left is still substantial: fatty chunks of tuna in soy sauce, and tempura of prawn, sweet potato, maitake mushrooms and pumpkin. Vegetables on one side of the bento — bamboo shoots, pumpkin and eggplant simmered in broth — contrast with pickled cabbage and tomato on the other side.

What made Ukon’s bento stand out, however, was two other vegetarian dishes: a sweet springy tamagoyaki omelette and namafu (soft cakes of wheat gluten) simmered in teriyaki sauce. Ukon managed to draw out the inherent umami — that essential but hard-to-pin-down taste — in both of these dishes.

Rounding out lunch is a serving of rice and an irresistibly small portion of liquorice-like konbu (kelp) sweetened by mirin (rice wine) and soy sauce. The kelp shows up again in the suimono (clear soup), but this time as gossamer seaweed threads marinated in vinegar.

Ukon may well offer the best kaiseki meal-in-a-box you’re likely to find.