Annals of cheap: Kitchen Dive

January 15th, 2010 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Stacked in your favor

Stacked in your favor

One of the gauges the media uses to monitor the scourge of deflation is the price of bento, the “lunch boxes” of the hoi polloi. Back in the 1980s, I regularly bought a noriben for  ¥370 from the chain bento-ya Hokahoka, which has since renamed itself Hotto Motto. Noriben is traditionally the cheapest bento, and consists of rice with shaved bonito and a sheet of nori (dried seaweed) on top, accompanied by a small croquette or piece of grilled salmon or fried mackerel and some tsukemono (pickles). Above that there are variations on the rice-and-okazu (side dish) theme culminating in the makunouchi grade, so named because it was consumed during sumo tournaments and kabuki performances.

About two years ago reports started appearing about food stalls in shotengai (shopping arcades) selling uniform-sized bento for a uniform price of ¥350. Since then the price has regularly come down in jumps of ¥50. This trend seemed to have hit a wall at ¥250, but last year a take-out kitchen near Higashi Azuma Station in Sumida Ward called Kitchen Dive started offering bento for ¥200, and practically every wide show and quite a few regular food-related variety shows have covered the place.

Despite the publicity, I haven’t noticed any other business following suit, which seems to mean that ¥250 represents some kind of bottom limit for bento. One has to wonder how Dive does it. The first thing you have to understand about cheap bento is that the quality isn’t going to be very high. The rice is the lowest grade and the ingredients are certainly frozen-on-arrival, almost certainly imported from China. So much for the big “food safety” scare that erupted several years ago after several people became sick after eating frozen pot stickers from China.

Like the ¥250 bento found almost everywhere right now (it’s my suspicion that most of these places order their bento from the same handful of food-service companies since they tend to look the same wherever you go), Dive’s products are uniform in size with variations in terms of okazu. Volume-wise it’s less than your average makunouchi, but Dive, like all such takeout joints has a wide selection of separately packaged okazu that you can top your cheapo bento with so you can at least feel as if you’re eating makunouchi, and you’ll still pay less than ¥600, the going price for a makunouchi across the street at Hotto Motto, but I’ll leave that story for a later post.

Kitchen Dive: 1-23-13 Tachibana, Sumida-ku, Tokyo

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