Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Most Beloved Mealbox in Taiwan

By Asia Pop Culture

The Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA) released two new flavors of meal boxes today. A round meal box with three kinds of dishes from Taiwan, Korea and Japan, and a vegetarian mushroom meal box with seasonal vegetables. The mealbox is usually in rectangular shape.  The round shape of the new lunchbox symbolizes the spirit of reunion during Chinese Lunar New Year.  The Chinese New Year day in 2017 falls on Saturday, Jan. 28.  
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Taiwan News reported that TRA will offer the new meal boxes at a special discount of NT$100 (That's $3.19 USD!!) from January 26 to February 11. Each day during this period, 300 round box meals and 100 mushroom box meals will be provided.

You might be wondering what the big deal is about a mealbox.  Since Taiwan is such a small island, train (and high speed rail) is a popular mode of transport for the mass.  Everybody on the island takes the rail for work, school, play, etc. Taiwan Railway Mealbox (臺鐵便當) has a very long history.  During the island's Japanese Era (Taiwan was under Japanese rule between 1895 and 1945), train passengers either dined at a dining car or ate an ekiben. However, ekiben boxes were only available at stations, not in train cars.

Then after Japan returned Taiwan to the Chinese Nationalists' Party (from 1945 onwards), a variety of private catering services were integrated by the Taiwan Railway Administration in 1960.  Gradually the mealbox has become the major source of revenues of TRA other than transport. It is estimated that, with five million boxed meals sold per anum, the annual revenue from bento distribution is NT 370 million. (approx. $10 million USD).

If you are on board during meal time (11:00-13:00 and 17:00-19:00), rail car attendants ask if there are passengers who would like a bento in Mandarin and Hokkien along the aisle with a trolley cart. You can also buy the mealbox at a distribution center inside the train station as well.

The most famous menu item among the locals is pork chop.  Taiwan Railway Mealboxes also contain a variety of side dishes in addition to rice, including a braised egg, a piece of dried tofu, several pieces of dried white radish, etc.

The food style in mealbox has heavy Japanese influence.  Today, Japan's Keikyu Corporation (京急電鉄) has taken over distribution of Taiwan Railway Mealboxes since Feb. 26, 2015.

For as many bian dang (便當 or mealbox) you can find and buy almost anywhere in Taiwan, none are perhaps as beloved as those made for decades by the government-run Taiwan Railways Administration.  TRA celebrated its first ever Formosa Railroad Bento Festival in July 2015, and the 2nd one in Aug. 2016.

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