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Retro Taiwan lunchboxes cash in on train nostalgia
[TAIPEI] Once served as no-frills sustenance for train passengers in Taiwan, simple rice lunchboxes are selling in their millions across the island, a food trend fuelled by nostalgia.
Known as railway "biandang", which means "convenience" in Chinese, the meals have changed little over the decades.
Traditionally a pragmatic combination of braised or fried meat and pickles piled onto steamed white rice - ingredients designed to endure long train journeys - they are now seen as an enduring symbol of the "good old days", when rail travel trumped planes and cars.
While they used to be the preserve of passengers looking for a low-cost meal, now fans are picking them up as comfort food, whether they are taking a journey or not.
"It reminds me of when I was little, when I would take the train to Yilan with my family," said a 42-year-old woman surnamed Chang, buying boxes of classic pork chop rice from a shop at a Taipei station to take home.
Ms Chang estimates she eats a railway style lunchbox about 10 times a month, making a point to buy one whenever she is passing a station.
Although there are now fancier, pricier, lunchboxes containing everything from red quinoa rice to rosemary chicken, Ms Chang still prefers the traditional combination.
"It's just tastier - the rice tastes better," she said.
The Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) expects to sell a record 10 million of the popular lunchboxes this year, pulling in roughly NT$700 million (S$30.17 million).
The TRA still sells the "biandang" on trains and in stations - trolleys wend their way through carriages, or passengers can order them in advance.
Private vendors are also cashing in, running their own kiosks in or nearby stations, while convenience store chains now sell "railway style" lunchboxes too.
Originally presented in round metal tins placed under seats for collection when finished, they now usually come in simple paper or wooden containers.
The TRA's most popular box is the simple pork chop rice, says Michael Lee, deputy general manager of its food and services division.
As well as a nostalgia hit, price is still a major draw - the classic combo costs just NT$60 (S$2.56).
"Like our ticket prices, our biandang prices haven't increased for many years," Mr Lee said.
The idea of catering meals to-go for train travellers originated in far-flung locations along Taiwan's east coast, according to food writer Wang Jue Yao.
"The more inaccessible a place is, the more there is a need for biandang," she said.
Some vendors who sold them from station platforms would include a pickled plum to prevent meals from spoiling, a trick picked up from the Japanese, she added.
Japan built much of Taiwan's railways during its half-century rule of the island, which ended with its defeat in World War II.
The name "biandang" is thought to come from the Japanese "bento", used to describe a lunchbox with various ingredients.
While more than 230 million people still travel by train in Taiwan each year, increased plane and car travel has hit some lunchbox sellers.
For Tseng A-fa, sales at his store in the northern beachside Fulong village have fallen since a tunnel opened in 2006 making car travel easier.
"Fewer and fewer trains now stop at Fulong," he told AFP at a recent culinary fair in the capital Taipei that featured a section dedicated to railway "biandang".
But Mr Tseng, 70, says he still manages to sell 1,000 lunchboxes each day and will continue with his business - which has loyal customers.
He has barely changed his recipe for 18 years, serving up rice piled with pork, tofu, egg and pickles.
Fair visitor Vicky Chen, 32, shunned trendier versions to buy one of Mr Tseng's traditional lunchboxes.
"I used to buy one on the platform to take onto the train," she said, recalling the days of commuting home as a university student in the eastern county of Hualien.
"I miss that feeling."