“Fifty years had passed; parents and siblings had died, and the family homes we should have returned to had disappeared for those of us who passed our days in this park.” (8, Miri Yū, 2019)
Tokyo Ueno Station is the story of Kazu, a homeless man living in Ueno Park. Many homeless people find themselves in the same situation, and author Yu Miri spent time talking with them while she was researching her novel. The story she tells about Kazu is typical: he came to Tokyo to earn money to send back to his family, by working in construction in the lead up to the 1964 Tokyo olympics. He works first in Tokyo, and then in Sendai, sacrificing his family life and leading a solitary existence. A series of tragedies leads to Kazu’s eventual isolation from his family, and to homelessness in the park.
The story is beautifully told, and beautifully translated by Morgan Giles. That the book gives a voice to one of society’s forgotten people is virtuous. Miri moves back and forth between the past and present in order to demonstrate the living presence of Kazu’s memories and regrets. The sentences are often short and direct: unembellished prose for a life without ornament. The book is certainly bleak, but it is altogether human, and worth reading in order to learn about the experiences of the Other, those voiceless people about whom society has forgotten.
Food reappears throughout the book. (A book that pays close attention to food is a book committed to realism. Eating is a fixture of everyday life, and so much society and psychology revolves around eating.) One of the meals discussed in the book is eaten on a date; Kazu overhears two men discussing it in the park:
“We both got rice with one grilled eel fillet on top. And without even asking she sticks her chopsticks in my bowl and takes half my eel. She said one fillet just wasn’t enough for her. Meanwhile I’m left with all this rice and nothing to eat it with, so what else can I do? So there I am, eating rice seasoned with Sichuan pepper. In an eel place.” (89)
And Kazu remembers consuming simple ceremonial meals at funerals and memorials:
“The meal began, and as we ate root vegetables stewed in soy say, kinpura gobō, pickles, potato salad, and onigiri with vegetables mixed in, Katsunobu and I drank so much sake together that I was unsteady on my feet.” (117)
But the meal that we chose to work with comes from the following passage, in which Kazu is describing food that the homeless of Ueno Park would consume:
“We never lacked for food.
There was an unspoken agreement with many of the long-established restaurants in Ueno: after they had closed for the night, many places did not lock their backdoors. Inside, clearly set apart from the food waste, the unsold food would have been neatly portioned out and bagged.
Convenience stores, too, would put together bentos, sandwiches, and pastries past their best-before date in the area next to the dumpster, so if we went before the trash was collected, we could claim anything we wanted. When it was nice out we had to eat the food that day, but when it was cold, we could keep it in our huts for days and heat it up on camping stoves.” (9)
We chose to put together our own bento boxes, that you can easily recreate. And part of our goal in writing this post is to inspire people to think about food waste, and what they can do to help those who are food-insecure. After the recipe, we have put together things you can do to help, as an individual and as a business.
There are infinite combinations of bento box fillings. These are some of our favourites:
Base: Short grain brown sushi rice seasoned with rice vinegar. Traditionally served with an umeboshi plum to represent the Japanese flag with the white background and red circle.
Veggies: snap peas with sesame dressing, seaweed with miso dressing, pickled vegetables like cucumber and daikon
Umeboshi plums: placed on top of the rice, this is an edible representation of the japanese flag
Protein: soy marinated egg, thinly sliced sashimi-grade salmon or tuna served raw, tonkatsu chicken or pork. We didn’t include an egg in our box as Torben is allergic but here is a recipe to make soy eggs: https://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2012/03/ajitsuke-tamago-japanese-marinated-soft-boiled-egg-recipe.html
Traditionally, bento is meant to be eaten at room temperature. This means bento is perfect for a packed lunch. Here is the recipe to replicate our bento box:
1 cup short grain sushi rice (we prefer brown)
1 tbsp. rice wine vinegar
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. soy sauce
1 English cucumber or 4 small Japanese cucumbers, sliced
1 small daikon, peeled and sliced
⅔ cup rice wine vinegar
¼ cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. Soy sauce
1 tsp. Sesame oil
1 tsp. shichimi togarashi, optional
For 1 Box:
3 oz. sliced sashimi grade salmon
1 umeboshi plum
¼ cup cucumber daikon pickle
¼ cup seaweed salad
1 cup sushi rice
Sliced avocado, optional
Rinse rice with cold water in a colander until water runs clear. Drain well. Transfer to a medium pot you have a lid for. Add a pinch of salt and 300 mL cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir rice, cover, and reduce heat to low (do not stir or it will break). Cook until water is evaporated and rice is cooked, 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit, covered, 10 minutes.
Mix rice vinegar, sugar, and soy in a small bowl. Stir into rice and let sit until ready to use.
To make the pickle: cut cucumbers and daikon into thin slices. Combine rice vinegar, sugar, and salt together and add ½ a cup of boiling water, which will help to dissolve the sugar and salt. Pour liquid over veggies and make sure they are submerged (you can place something on top to keep them weighed down if needed). The longer the veggies pickle the more intense they will taste, after an hour or so they are usable and can be kept in the fridge for 10 days.
To make the seaweed salad, we used dried wakame seaweed which we rehydrated in boiling water until softened. It grows in size when rehydrated so one handful will be enough for a couple servings. We then drizzled the seaweed with sesame oil, soy sauce, and rice wine vinegar and sprinkled it with togarashi seasoning.
To prepare the salmon, use fluid slicing motions and a sharp knife to slice into thin long strips against the grain of the fish. Use the freshest salmon you can find and eat it within a day.
To assemble the box, start with about one cup of sushi rice. Place the umeboshi plum in the center of the rice. Place the pickles and the seaweed salad in the second compartment.
Tokyo Ueno Station really highlights the huge gap between classes and access to food. The food wasted due to preventable reasons could easily be feeding the hungry with some organization and dedication. Below we have listed some ways of being more responsible with our use of food, both from an environmental and humanitarian motivation.
What you can do to help:
- Eat less meat and fish
- Make eating meat an occasional treat, not a staple of your diet.
- If you are going to have meat or fish, use it as a garnish instead of as the main thing on your plate.
- Eat everything you buy
- Save food that you won’t be able to finish in time, instead of throwing it out. You can freeze it, make a big pot of soup or frittata with odds and ends, or give it to someone else. Also check out Olio, a very cool new app dedicated to reducing food waste: https://olioex.com
- Only buy what you need to make a recipe. If you only need 1 carrot for a recipe, don’t buy a bag! Shop at a farmer’s market or a grocery store that lets you buy things individually.
- Donate extra shelf-stable food to a local charity. Grocery stores will often have donation bins.
- Find ways to volunteer in your community, by working in a community garden or in a soup kitchen.
- Think of those around you who could benefit from a delicious healthy meal. For people dealing with illness, old age, a new baby, and conflict, a thoughtful gesture like delivering a meal or even extra groceries can be really meaningful and comforting.
- Donate leftovers to charities. Organizations will often be willing to come to you. Saves you taking out extra trash bags!
- Discount food before you close. Too Good To Go links customers with food that would otherwise go to waste.
- Donate food scraps to help compost community gardens.
Please comment if you have more suggestions about reducing food waste and hunger. Reading this book inspired us to take action and we hope you will feel the same.