Grocery Shopping in Japan

Like most people, I have been trying hard to eat healthily post-Christmas, and I also made the fairly vague resolution to cook more Japanese food, so that is what I have been doing. Of course if you want to cook Japanese, you have to shop Japanese.
Usually, I buy my groceries from a supermarket, much like the ones in the UK. There is a small one very close by, a medium-sized but better quality one a short bike ride away, and a very big and rather expensive one near the train station (about 20 minutes ride by bike). Although the layout is basically the same as the UK, the products stocked are considerably different. I am still getting used to finding my way around, and there are still a great many foods for sale which I have no understanding of at all!
It is possible, if you are determined, to buy Western ingredients and therefore cook familiar Western food at home. However, many of the products which I take for granted in England are much rarer here (although they are available) and tend to be more expensive than I have come to expect. Examples include tinned tomatoes and tomato puree, beef mince (usually just eat pork now), pasta, potatoes, loaves of bread (usually we buy packets of 8 thick slices of bread, but it tastes sweet, like American bread), tinned beans, chickpeas, herbs and spices, cheese, bacon, butter… I could go on. These are foods which simply don’t form part of the staple diet of most people here, and so only occupy a small amount of counter space, if any at all.
There are different fruits and vegetables for sale too; peppers are much less readily available, as are carrots, courgettes, broccoli and cauliflower. Now, I’m not saying you can’t get these, it’s just that instead of huge racks of them, you may only find four or five at any time. Instead, there is a huge selection of mushrooms, many more types of turnip, giant radish and other large roots, such as moohli, burdock and daikon, and lots of varieties of cabbage and spring onion.
The fact is, that although I enjoy both the challenge and the familiar-tasting result of cooking Western food in Japan, it really would be better to cook more Japanese dishes. And cheaper too.
This morning I went shopping for fish. It’s definitely better to shop for fish in the morning, as it seems that everyone else does, which means that if you go later in the day, it’s mostly gone. It’s also fresher in the morning of course. The choice of seafood, even in the smallest supermarket is a little bit baffling to me. There are all kinds of small shellfish, clams and so on, as well as numerous types of seaweed. There are whole octopus tentacles, large chunks of squid and the most enormous prawns I’ve ever seen. As for the fish, there are many different types, red and white, smoked and unsmoked, boned and unboned, portioned, ready-prepared and even whole, fresh fish in large blue tanks of ice. It doesn’t help that much of the fish is labelled in kanji (Chinese picture-based writing), which I have not yet learned to read, rather than the much easier Japanese phonetic alphabet. Still, I have had lots of good luck choosing fish and a lot of it is ready-prepared in some way, either marinated in delicious dressing or smoked or spatch-cocked ready for frying. The main types I can recognise at the moment, apart from salmon, are saba (mackerel) and aji (horse mackerel). The easiest way to these that I have found is either to bake them in foil in the oven, fry them, or poach them in water, soy sauce and mirin (Japanese sherry), and then serve it with rice and vegetables. Sometimes we buy ready-prepared crispy tempura vegetables to go with our fish and rice. It is perfectly acceptable to eat this cold, but I prefer to heat it up (and crisp it up) in the oven for a few minutes and then dip it in soy sauce before each bite.
Speaking of soy sauce and mirin, my “stock ingredients” change somewhat when I’m cooking Japanese dishes. Instead of my usual olive oil, stock cubes, tinned tomatoes and herbs and spices, in Japanese cooking, the key ingredients are soy sauce, rice vinegar, mirin and miso paste. We also use sesame oil or conventional sunflower oil for frying things. In terms of herbs and spices, there are considerably fewer than I would use, but instead I use finely sliced spring onions, whole peppercorns and dried, sliced chillis, or sometimes chilli sauce. Japanese cooking also uses sesame seeds a lot, as well as various types of dried seaweed and fish flakes, which I confess I am less keen on.
In terms of dry ingredients, naturally we have a large bag of rice, and a fair amount of dried noodles. After a trip to a beautiful soba-making area in the north of Ibaraki a couple of weeks ago, we even have some fresh soba noodles in the freezer, but we’re saving them until we’ve bought a good knife and a good pan to cook up something really delicious. We also have a bag of rice flour, a bag of okonomiyaki flour (more on that in another entry) and a bag of panko breadcrumbs.

And with all of those ingredients, and a little bit of determined and internet recipe-hunting, we have managed to make a few delicious dishes. But more on those in another post!


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