In 1978, I was 8 years old, and I spent most of August pestering my mother for the one item that I was sure would make me happy: a "Star Wars" lunchbox. Instead I ended up with a "Land of the Lost" lunchbox with luridly colored scenes from the television show stamped into its lid. I did everything that 8-year-old ingenuity suggested to destroy it. I didn't think much about why that hated lunchbox was so durable.
When I started spending summers with family in the coal belt of West Virginia I encountered the cheery lunchbox's indestructible cousin, the dinner bucket. The heavy-duty aluminum container my uncle carried down into the mines was bulkier than mine, and the Thermos was either a separate thing made of steel or a flat plastic container full of Campbell's chunky soup or Dinty Moore beef stew. The bucket had two trays nested one atop the other and locked together with clasps on either side. Roughly kidney-shaped, it could easily be clipped onto a work belt. When the bucket came home empty at the end of a shift it looked like it had been to hell and back – blackened with coal dust and dirt, often with a ding or a bright, new scratch in its surface.
The lunchbox – both the gaudy ones for school and the sober, durable ones for grown-ups -- are American icons. But Americans didn't invent the lunchbox, or even perfect it. Wherever people work away from home, either in the factory or the field, they always devise ways of bringing lunch along with them. You can certainly brown bag it, or grab a sub or sandwich. But in the spirit of back-to-school season, here are some more exotic, ethnic takes on the to-go lunch that you can find around Rochester.
Lunch is a light meal, the province of schoolkids and folks with leisure. Where I grew up, people called it dinner and it was the principal meal of the day – protein and starch-heavy, the sort of food to replenish you from a morning of hard work and sustain you for the rest of the afternoon. At its simplest, lunch away from home looks like the English ploughman's fare: meat, cheese, pickles, bread and ale. But if you come a bit up the ladder and try to include hot food you encounter the Chinese rice plate, heavily sauced, often salty leftover meat and vegetables in sauce served atop a substantial portion of steamed rice packed into a two-layer aluminum box called a fan ho.
You aren't likely to find a fan ho in Rochester, but you can try out this typical Chinese lunch at Han Noodle (687 Monroe Ave., 242-7333, hannoodlebar.com). According to co-owner Tony Ko, the rice plate served at his restaurant is pretty typical. Compared to more refined Chinese dishes, it's not pretty to look at, often not much more than a plate of beef with black-bean sauce with scallions or slices of stir-fried chicken, and carrots in a bright yellow curry sauce ladled on top of starchy rice. But it sure is filling.
Ko told me that in modern industrial cities in China, the rice plate now comes in styrofoam containers, picked up – often by contract – from a lunch truck that pulls up outside an office or factory, or even brought right to an employee's desk. But before e-mail and text messaging made such coordinated food service possible, workers often brought their own carefully marked fan ho with them to work, dropping them off in communal kitchens in the morning where they would be stacked one atop the other in gigantic steamers and then picked up during the noon-time dinner break. Six hours after my most recent curry chicken rice plate, I was still going strong and had to be reminded by my family that they needed to eat.
Lunchbox fare doesn't have to be humble, but it does have to be filling. In India, particularly in Mumbai, around lunchtime every day thousands of mostly-illiterate dabba-wallahs fan out across the cities picking up, delivering, and returning more than 200,000 tiffins – again, multilayered, multicompartment aluminum containers. Inside those tiffins are curries, rice or idly, vegetables, raita, naan, and the ubiquitous daal, each element in its own compartment. Spread out on an elaborate plate, such a lunch is called thali, and it's as much a way of eating as it is the plate on which it is served.
According to chef Shabber Chowdury at Amaya (1900 S. Clinton Ave., 241-3223, amayabarandgrill.com), which offers a bottomless thali lunch served on a giant brass plate that will make you feel like a Mughal lord. Thali-style dining has its origins in concerns about the cross-contamination inevitable when everyone eats from a communal dish. Each diner is served a separate dish and then transfers this portion to the mound of rice at the center of his own plate. Served on a thali, such a lunch looks like a miniature feast. Served from a multilevel tiffin, it's like a series of small presents or a box of chocolates for those who crave savory dishes and curries over sweets, a way of bringing home to the office.
The most refined lunchbox is also the most familiar. Developed as a way of feeding spectators at kabuki dramas or sumo matches about 300 years ago, the bento box is a fixture on almost every Japanese restaurant menu. Looking like a highly lacquered and decorated version of a school lunch tray, the bento box is an elegant lunchbox for a more civilized time. Pork tonkatsu (a breaded, fried pork chop) or pork sukiyaki (pork stir fried with scallions) are two of the many protein choices on offer at Plum Garden (3349 Monroe Ave., 381-8730), where chef Takamizu fills out the compartments in his bento boxes with blood-red tuna rolls, California rolls, a bit of pickled cucumber to add a savory element, a salad with ginger dressing, miso soup and steamed rice, to make a lunch that would sustain even the hungriest of samurai.
Fan Zhang, manager of Plum Garden, noted that her restaurant serves Shokado-style bento boxes, where rice is served on the side rather than as an integral part of the box. But Makunouchi bento – where the rice is usually served underneath the protein -- is the more popular lunchtime choice of those packing their own bento to take to work, picking one up to take back to the office, or sliding through a cafeteria line at school (bento is school lunch in Japan).
What's your favorite take-out lunch options in Rochester? Comment on this article at rochestercitynewspaper.com.