We all have food fetishes, from banana and marmite on toast to spreading butter on Weetabix. I have more than a few, but one of the more repeatable is my obsession with Japanese convenience store pre-packed sandwiches. Sober or sake’d up, at breakfast or midnight, the fridges of 7-11, Lawson and Circle K Sunkus beckon me in with holy trinities of egg mayonnaise, tuna and tonkatsu, always squashed together, always gloriously crust-less.
The bread may be industrial white-sliced, but it retains the perfect softness and yield, without ever getting soggy. The mayonnaise is the sweetened Japanese kewpie version and all the better for it. Eggs are stunning orange-gold suns, tonkatsu somehow keeps its crunch and even the tuna tastes like it wasn’t long out of Tsukiji.
Admittedly the range of fillings is pretty limited, with ham, cheese and salad versions also making cameo appearances. But true to form in Japan, when things are done, they are done beautifully, all for around Y250/US$3.50. Even the packaging is simplicity itself, the thinnest layer of film enveloping these pocket-sized wonders.
In comparison, Hong Kong convenience store sandwiches are a dry and soulless abomination, while in the UK the filling can often feel like an afterthought, lost amidst the doughy bookends. I’d heard that sandwiches in certain British 24-hour petrol stations are made by prisoners – not that there’s anything wrong with that and doubtless an urban myth – but somehow in Japan I imagine they are lovingly filled by old ladies at kitchen tables in rural Hokkaido, carefully cutting off the crusts before dispatching them to the shinkansen bullet train and a place on the fridge shelf only a couple of hours later.
They sit there proudly amongst decent-looking rice triangles and microwave beef curries, just along from the brick-red corn dogs and karaage (fried chicken) of the countertop grill oven. But these pretenders have never come close to tempting me away. As soon as I land in Haneda, Osaka or Chitose, kewpie mayonnaise starts coursing through my veins before an urgent transfusion is made, just in case. The home of umi and umami is a culinary wonderland of countless joys – with convenience store sandwiches right up there.