It’s the advice that everybody gets the first time they visit Japan: “You have to try the food from convenience stores” (also known as konbini). And when you do, it’s easy to understand why the shops are so popular among locals and travellers alike.
For Naoya Shimada, who grew up in Sydney in an Australian-Japanese family, konbini were lifesavers when he lived in Japan as a 17-year-old: “I was working over there and basically living off konbini food, which ranges from bentos to sandos to onigiri.”
“The main difference between Japanese convenience stores and Australian ones is that the quality of the food tends to be a bit higher in Japan. It’s still not the healthiest, but you don’t feel as guilty eating it. It’s delicious and cheap,” adds the chef, who ran Sydney's Sando Bar until last June and currently works as group chef for Shwarmama, Reuben Hills and Paramount Coffee Project.
And with more than 50,000 Lawson, 7-Eleven and Family Mart stores around the country, you’re never too far from a konbini, whether you’re in the middle of Tokyo or the countryside.
Jason Barber, the owner of Adelaide’s Konbini, was in Japan for work when he set foot in a konbini for the first time. “There’s real attention to details. The sandwiches are made twice a day and everything is fresh. You go there and every second person is walking out with their lunch for the day; it’s a highly trusted way of eating. It’s consistent and so damn good!” he says.
Konbini sandos to sink your teeth into
Part of the appeal of konbini sandos (sando is short for sandoitchi, the Japanese word for sandwich) is the crustless pillowy bread they’re made with, shokupan. But sandwich fillings like egg salad and fried pork cutlet have also reached cult status.
“The one I kept going back to was the tamago, the classic fluffy egg one. With the Kewpie mayo, it’s creamy and just a bit sweet. It’s the one that catches the attention of a lot of people,” says Barber. The combination of egg salad and Kewpie is indeed hard to beat, but you’ll also find omelette and sliced hard-boiled egg sandos.
For Shimada, the tonkatsu sando was a new way to revisit one of his favourite childhood dishes: “The pork cutlet itself was quite special in my family. It took a lot of effort so we made it all together and the next day we’d use the leftovers for katsu don so there was never really a time where they were enough left over for sandwiches.”
The tonkatsu sando with fried pork cutlet, shredded cabbage and special tonkatsu sauce (and sometimes mustard) is his favourite, followed by the prawn katsu sando. You can also find fried chicken, ham, and minced meat and pork cutlet sandwiched into two slices of shokupan.
Lettuce sandos (which also contain ham and cheese) and yakisoba pan (stir-fried soba in a bun) are also among the most common savoury options you’ll find on the shelves.
But the konbini experience wouldn’t be complete without a taste of a dessert sando. They’re filled with sweet things like custard, whipped cream, matcha cream, and beautifully layered fruit. The fluffy texture of the shokupan gives these sandwiches a sponge-cake feel. If you’re ever in Japan during the spring, look out for strawberry and whipped cream sandos, a seasonal staple.
Japanese sandos in Australia
“Japanese culture in general has a tendency to become trendy for other cultures. The food is obviously tasty, but it’s more than just the food and flavour, it’s the whole package,” says Shimada, who had created a curried egg sando, a pork katsu sando with fennel and cabbage slaw and a chicken katsu sando with pickled daikon for his now-closed Sando Bar in Surry Hills.
In Adelaide, Barber has channelled his love for Japanese convenience stores into Konbini, his counter-only cafe. Head there to find pork katsu, eggplant katsu, curried egg, and fruit and cream sandos.
On soft white bread, the Sando Bar chef layers Japanese pork cutlets with tonkatsu sauce and a Western-style slaw.
Egg sandwiches are popular at convenience stores throughout Japan. Konbini in Adelaide adds extra Japanese flavours to this fast-food staple.