There was a time when I was embarrassed by my speedy eating. I’d worry that gulping with abandon labeled me a gluttonous, thoughtless ugly American, so I’d try to slow down, to savor each morsel, to sip my wine and toy with my salad. But then one fateful day I was eating lunch with my friend Ken. It was a bright, sunny afternoon, the restaurant was bustling, and the waiter brought us bowls of thick miso soup, brimming with tofu and green strips of seaweed. I took a deep breath and started counting to 10, a trick I’d devised for slowing down. "One, two," I counted to myself, glancing at Ken, who’d already picked up his chopsticks and bent over his bowl, "three, four, five." I looked back up at Ken, who had set aside his chopsticks and was lifting the bowl to his mouth, gulping the last of the warm broth.
"You eat faster than I do," I gasped in astonishment, abandoning the countdown and grabbing my bowl with both hands. "I like to eat," he replied simply, swallowing a delicately wrapped piece of salmon roll in one huge bite. "I don’t want to wait." I smiled as I reached for the plate of bumpy, briny pickles. "Eating fast just feels right."
Ken, a Japanese American who was born in Japan and has spent most of his life moving back and forth between the two countries, explained that in Japan, there’s an entire tradition of foods that are served and eaten quickly. That revelation helped me realize that just because I like to eat my food fast doesn’t mean I like fast food or that I don’t care about my health or that I am an ugly American. Ever since then I’ve noticed that, from Paris bistros to Tokyo bento stalls, people around the world have always enjoyed healthy fast food. And now some of these traditions are emerging or reemerging in America. To whet your appetite, here are three quick bites.
Tokyo Take-out, Portland-style
Spend a few days in Portland, Oregon, and you’ll surely run across at least a few compact restaurants selling bento, the classic Japanese takeout lunch of grilled meats, vegetables, pickles, rice, and sushi artfully packed in a box or carrying case.
This alternative to typical greasy fast-food fare took root back in 1987, when Portland native Dan Mosley, who’d spent a few years studying (and eating) in Japan, opened Big Dan’s West Coast Bento. At first no one knew what to make of the concept, but after a rocky few years, Mosley was selling as many as 300 lunches a day out of his 180-square-foot store. Would-be restaurateurs aped Mosley’s idea, and Portland has become the bento capital of North America, with shops dotting the city.
O’Naturals: The McAlternative
If you look out the front window of O’Naturals restaurant in Falmouth, Maine, there’s a great view of the golden arches. "McDonald’s is my neighbor," laughs Mac McCabe, who, with partners Gary Hirshberg (president and CEO of Stonyfield Farm yogurt) and Pam Solo (president of the Institute for Civil Society) opened the first of what they hope will be a nationwide chain of organic, natural fast-food restaurants.
But can a restaurant that offers foods like flatbread sandwiches, salads, soups, and Asian noodles made with natural and organic ingredients really go head to head with the established masters of the quick meal? McCabe and his partners think so. After conducting extensive market research among shoppers at natural-food stores, they uncovered an enthusiastic group of potential customers, folks who would be overjoyed to find a fast, healthy meal for under $10.
2 tbs. almond butter
Blend ingredients together, adding water as needed to create desired consistency. This sauce is a good with cooked or steamed vegetables, mixed with couscous or rice, or used as a dressing on salads.
Right now there’s just one O’Naturals, but McCabe and company plan to open two more in the Boston area within the year. After that, McCabe explains, they want to move fast on franchises, which means that an O’Naturals could be opening soon in a neighborhood near you.
Julia Butterfly Hill’s Fast Food Kitchen
Sure, Julia Butterfly Hill lives to preach the gospel of environmental activism, but she also loves to spread the word about healthy eating.
"It’s a shame that when people think ‘healthy and vegetarian’ they also think ‘bland and boring,’ " laments Hill, who ran a restaurant at age 18, before she began her famous ascent into the thousand-year-old California redwood named Luna. "I can tell you from firsthand experience that vegetarian food doesn’t have to taste bland. And I can also tell you that with a little advance preparation, you can make healthy foods in your own kitchen in minutes."
Setting up what Hill calls Julia’s Fast Food Kitchen means keeping "cupboards, refrigerator doors, and refrigerator drawers" stocked with a few essential items. "Once you’ve got everything you need," she says, "cooking stops being a chore and starts being a joy." And Hill practices what she preaches. When she’s out on the road, she takes along many of the foods listed here and makes her own meals.
To assemble Julia’s Fast Food Kitchen, you’ll need:
Spices, oils, and seasonings
(all organic and nonirradiated, when possible)
Italian spice blend
Low-spice chili-powder blend
Low-spice curry blend
Herbed salt blend, like Herbemare
Fresh-ground black pepper
Crushed red pepper flakes
Tamari or shoyu (organic soy sauce)
Apple cider vinegar
Virgin unfiltered cold-pressed olive oil
Nut butter (almond, cashew, or peanut)
Rice (precooked for speedy preparation)
Fruits and vegetables
Apples, oranges, lemons
Carrots, broccoli, celery, onion, garlic (Hill advises cutting your vegetables right after you buy them to save time.)