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Maru no Uchi Tanita Shokudo – Eating for the Patient

January 28, 2012

Being in Tokyo for a day this week I used the opportunity to visit the restaurant of the Japanese scale maker Tanita which opened earlier this month. Tanita, the company which introduces itself as the one “who measures health” (「健康をはかる」タニタです), had already published two cookbooks based on the recipes the company’s cafeteria offers its employees. All of these recipes describe set menus designed to provide around 500 kcal and hardly any salt while it is claimed they are tasty and filling. With these cookbooks Tanita tackled two problems of contemporary Japanese eating habits: Eating too much and too salty. Both books became bestsellers in no time and now it seems like Tanita hits the spot again with its restaurant based on the same principles.

“Maru no uchi Tanita Shokudo” is located between Tokyo station and the imperial palace. Walking to the restaurant you pass expensive brand shops and busy salarymen. This location certainly was chosen on purpose and hints to a Japanese characteristic. Unlike other industrialized countries, in Japan being overweight is not a problem of the poor but the wealthy so it’s no wonder that a restaurant which aims at educating people about food and maintaining a healthy weight is found in Maru no uchi.

When I arrived at the restaurant at 13:30 approximately 30 people were already standing in line waiting to get in. But these weren’t people who just waited to get a place in the restaurant as I thought at first, they were some of the lucky ones who managed to get a ticket in the morning.

Since Tanita Shokudo opened its doors on January 11th, there’s such a rush of people, that a ticket system was introduced to reduce frustration among guests and disturbance to the neighboring restaurants. 400 Tickets are now being distributed every morning from 8:30. You have to choose the time you want to eat while the restaurant is operating between 11 am and 3 pm, but you have to fetch your ticket early because they are given away in no time. It’s also not possible to get more than one ticket per person. Tanita says that information on the ticket system are published on newspapers and the restaurant’s homepage, but there are still many people who come without knowing of the system and have to leave disappointedly. While I was observing the scene, there was also an elderly woman who must have stood in line for over an hour without having a ticket and had to go when she finally was about to enter the restaurant.

For a last chance to enter the restaurant you have to wait at least until 14:30 when all persons with tickets have been served. If you’re lucky, some people cancelled their ticket so that a few more can come in. Around 2 pm the restaurant staff directed those willing to try their luck to wait on the stairs not far away from Tanita Shokudo so that they wouldn’t block the way to other restaurants.

In the meanwhile, guests of the restaurant also have a chance to get a free counselling from a dietician. There were constantly four to five people waiting for their turn to get into the totally transparent consultation room. The waiting guests observed and commented on the procedure inside and since the door wasn’t even closed they must have been able to understand the conversation inside. Privacy Zero.

The counselling starts with measuring weight and other data of the guest by stepping on a large scale. It is connected to a printer so that the data is immediately printed and discussed afterwards. The whole procedure takes around 5 minutes.

At 14:40 ten of the eighteen people waiting on the stairs are allowed to get into the restaurant, the others, including me, have to be patient a little bit longer and still don’t know whether their patience will pay off with a meal in the end. After another ten minutes the last six people are lucky and two have been waiting in vain… Being number 13 I am lucky to get in, but the usual choice between the weekly (900 Yen) and the daily (800 Yen) set menu has been reduced to the weekly only.

This week’s set menu consists of vegetables and fried codfish with a Japanese lemon and pepper sauce. The side dishes are the same as for the daily set menu and today consist of a dish made of carrot and konnyaku garnished with mangetouts, some cucumber and perilla mint salad and a soup containing onions and sprouts. Not to forget the white rice which you can take as much of as you like, but Tanita provides rice bowls with measuring lines that mark 100 and 150 g of rice. To make sure that your set menu doesn’t exceed 500 kcal you should take only 100 g rice. Tea is also offered and you can choose between green tea (sencha) or roasted tea (houjicha), both hot or cold.

Although the rice bowls have measuring lines, rice can be stuffed pretty much so that it’s difficult to measure the amount just by a line. Therefore, every table is equipped with a small scale so that you can check how much rice you really took. Unfortunately, I noticed the scale too late (it stood in a vertical position on top of the display at my table so I mistook it for a stand-up display), so I couldn’t check my amount of rice…

There’s also a timer at every table to check the time you take for eating. Both the scale and timer aim at educating people to reduce their rice consumption and eat slowly. Eating Shovelling large amounts of rice in a ridiculously short time is an often seen feature of Japanese men and said to be one of the reasons why men become overweight. All the devices used and displayed at Tanita Shokudo can also be purchased there to manage your eating habits at home, too. (One rice bowl for 1600 Yen anyone?)

I’m a quite slow eater anyways so I didn’t have to slow down to take more than 20 minutes as it is advised. Also, the meal is designed to be chewed a lot so it naturally takes some time to eat. The pieces of carrots and kabu, for example, were relatively big and hardly cooked so that they were still hard. I liked that they were not seasoned at all and enjoyed the pure taste of fresh vegetables. But this certainly is a point that won’t fit the taste of the Japanese at first. I often hear comments of Japanese about European food which they think is too bland and cooking for my boyfriend often results in a complaint that I should use more salt while I’m thinking I should be more careful with salt next time… The following video probably describes very well the impression of many Japanese eating at Tanita Shokudo:

What the guy in the video uses most often to describe the taste of the food is “yasashii” which means something like gentle and nice. He states that “it doesn’t contain anything unneeded” and that the miso soup tastes normal but not salty. While I really like Japanese food I find it too salty or sweet at times and therefore was surprised at the plain taste found here at first. The only spice that seems to be used a lot is pepper. It took me 22 minutes and 21 seconds to finish everything and I was pleasantly filled afterwards.

After all, eating at Maru no Uchi Tanita Shokudo is nothing for people on a tight schedule. At least not as long as you have to queue for a ticket in the morning and then queue again to get in at the time you want to eat. I wonder how long this rush on the restaurant will continue and whether the Japanese will get used to this somewhat tasteless taste. Reading the first comments on “Tabelog”, a website for restaurant reviews, most commentators agree on the weak taste and one even describes the meal as an “expensive hospital menu”.

I would be happy to hear your impression of Tanita Shokudo if you find the time and patience to eat there 🙂

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