Food Fast (Not Fast Food)

Leisurely meals aren't always possible, so here are three ideas on how eating on the run can be healthy and tasty


| May/June 2002



I eat really fast. Sometimes, when I’m out for dinner, I’ll come up for air, look around, and realize that while everyone else at the table is still nibbling their appetizers, I’m already thinking about dessert.

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.