The Vegetarian/Vegan Guide to Japan, Part 2: Supermarkets
Cooking food in Japan is simple, right? Whip up some miso, chuck some noodles and stock together and you`re done, right? Wrong. Oh so wrong. While there are some simple Japanese recipes, if you don`t know the basics, things can go very differently from planned. Here are some hints about shopping for food in Japan so you`re not unpleasantly surprised when you make that next meal for all your friends and family.
First of all, it should be said that it is occasionally difficult to make dishes you make often in your own country in Japan. This is because (chances are) Japanese supermarkets will not stock the ingredients you need. This first happened to me when I tried to make a simple risotto. After going to the supermarket and searching for my ingredients, I realized half of them weren`t there. Most importantly, the staple ingredients, Arborio rice and parmesan cheese, were missing. I did what I could with what the supermarket had to offer, but needless to say the dish tasted completely different with Japanese ingredients. Turns out that pretty much only Japanese rice is sold in supermarkets. Here were some other bad and good surprises:
Pretty much any cheese apart from cheddar (what Japanese people may deem `smelly` cheese) – is considered by many Japanese people too strong tasting, and so is not typically sold in your average Japanese supermarket. In fact, many supermarkets do not even sell cheese by the block, selling instead only grated processed cheese in a bag or processed and flattened cheese to grill on bread (what many people call `plastic cheese`). Don`t expect to find your crumbly feta or smooth brie here. Instead head to the bottom floor of a department store, where typically delicatessens will sell various cheese, meats, and sweets, or a `Kaldi Coffee` (a chain store which imports and supplies popular foods from other countries – but beware – they often come at about two times what you`d pay at home).
Butter and Milk
Butter is pricey and very sweet in Japan. While it tastes great on toast, it will definitely change the taste of that favorite recipe you make every week at home – whether for the best or not only you can decide. Butter is also in short supply recently in Japan, so don`t be surprised if your supermarket only lets you buy one stick. Milk is typically fairly cheap and tastes very different from brand to brand. Make sure to try out some Japanese tounyuu (soy milk) for something different. Soymilk seems to be more popular in Japan than in many other countries and comes in a large range of flavours in most supermarkets – and for only a few yen more than the same amount of milk.
Fruits and Vegetables
Japan is very proud of their fruits and vegetables, and particular regions of Japan (called prefectures) are famous for the taste of their local produce. Hokkaido, for example, is famous for its corn, while Aomori is well-known for its apples. While to some (including me) the produce may not taste any different from that of a different part of the country, it`s always polite, if asked by a local, to say it`s delicious. Japan sells a huge range of vegetables you may not have even seen before, including huge daikon radishes, renkon (lotus root), and natto (a type of slimy and slightly smelly fermented bean mixure often eaten with rice – it is absolutely an acquired taste).
One of the main misunderstandings common with foreigners doing their food shopping in Japan is perhaps over trying to buy a capsicum/pepper. While it`s hard enough trying to determine what this veg is called in other English-speaking countries, when it gets to Japan the confusion doubles. In Japan there are piman (small green capsicums) and papurika (large red and yellow capsicums). Paprika is apparently not a spice in Japan but a veg, so be careful when you are asking staff where to find that particular vegetable.
Some vegetables are, while not necessarily unique to Japan, certainly hard to find overseas. This includes daikon and hakusai (basically like a mixture between a lettuce and a cabbage, but longer), among others. If you`re lucky, you may even come across a square watermelon, or, one of the less well known fruits of Japan, an akebi (`Chocolate Vine`). When I was first given an akebi, I thought I had just been given a raw potato to eat. For all purposes, from the outside, the akebi looks almost identical to a potato. I took a bite, and realized it was very far from a potato. The skin was bitter, and not meant to be eaten. The inside, however, was filled with juicy seeds (perhaps a little like a pomegranate) which are said to taste like chocolate (hence the name. They don`t, though).
While food shopping in Japan may seem like a chore, take a look around and pick out some exotic-looking foods to try out. Who knows, you might even like natto!