The shop is old-fashioned in style; the doors slide instead of swing. (Photo: Laura Welch)

Kawai Tei: Traditional Fast Food

Delicious, fresh onigiri, croquettes and bento

The shop is old-fashioned in style; the doors slide instead of swing. (Photo: Laura Welch)
Laura Welch   - 3 min read

If you're like me, even before coming to Japan you had ideas about onigiri and bento, gleaned from books, or anime, or cooking blogs. The original Japanese handheld snack, often compared to a sandwich, onigiri are balls or triangles of rice that can be filled with almost anything. A bento is a Japanese-style packed lunch, often made to look as spectacular as it tastes. Both onigiri and bento are about the only things that are acceptable to eat on a train (and you still have to be tidy). Onigiri aren't hard to find, but the ones from convenience stores aren't generous on the filling and are most definitely not fresh. Good bento are easier to find, from specialty stores to good supermarkets. At Kawai Tei, both are fresh and delicious.

Kawai Tei is a very small chain, with just three stores in the Sendai area: one in Ochiai, one in Ayashi and a counter in the food basement of the Sakurano department store near Sendai Station. Each one sells the same basic items- bento, onigiri, croquettes and Japanese sweets – but with a bit of variation. Although the Sakurano location has slightly fancier-looking bento, the Ochiai store has some exclusive flavors of croquettes and so on. The atmosphere is a lot more relaxed than the high-end department store as well, and it's conveniently located only a few minutes' walk from Rikuzen-Ochiai station.

The store is styled in the old-fashioned way, from the fabric banner to the sliding doors at the entrance. The staff were very welcoming – the first time I went, late in the day, they took pains to assure me that they could make any onigiri that they had sold out of if necessary. The produce is all displayed in a counter, so you can see exactly what you're buying or rely on pointing if you don't feel confident ordering (or reading the labels) in Japanese.

The range of food is almost bewildering when you first go in – I saw one local woman unable to choose – but the freedom of making a selection is wonderful. You can also choose according to your appetite and budget, but it's not expensive – I bought a small lunch for 450 yen. It was made up of a tuna-mayo onigiri, a chicken-cheese croquette and meat-stuffed aburaage (fried tofu). The tuna tasted fresh, and was nicely in proportion to the amount of rice; the croquette wasn't too oily and full of flavor; but the aburaage was something else. Kawai Tei uses sankakuage from the Johgi Nyorai Saihoji Temple area (Johgi for short). Aburaage in a distinctive triangle shape that is famous not only locally, but nationally. And for good reason – it's absolutely delicious. I would go to Kawai Tei for this alone, because Johgi is difficult to get to without a car.

You can also buy bottles of green tea or handwipes (shibori, 3 yen) and chopsticks are automatically provided when needed, so this really is a lunch to go, Japanese style!

Laura Welch

Laura Welch @laura.welch

One of my favourite things about Japan is the wonderful variety of food, and I love to share what I find. When I'm not eating, you might find me singing karaoke or walking around hoping to make new discoveries!