It is an understatement to say that grocery shopping has been an adventure here in Japan. Not only is most of the packaging written in Japanese characters that I struggle to understand, but I find a completely new bunch of products to choose from. The Japanese diet is very different from the typical American diet. The grocery store that I shop near our apartment, has a good selection of foreign products, and I can usually find most of the things I want… at least with a little bit of searching, and sometimes some help from Google Translate. Still… and I find this most strikingly with the produce section… I have had to adapt our American diet to Japanese products. Particularly with the produce, the items I would typically buy in the US are either hard to find, or ridiculously expensive. For instance, tomatoes are plentiful and available here, but pricey! Apples are also expensive, as well as bell peppers, and strawberries.
Being a somewhat “adventurous eater” anyway, I really don’t mind trying all the different veggies I have found in the produce section. Here, following, are a few of my discoveries:
Chinese Cabbage — I know it is available at home, but I never bought it. Here, it is more common than lettuce, and used for many more things than lettuce ever is back home. Lettuces are harder to find, and again… more expensive. I buy Chinese cabbage and use it for salad, in soups, and other cooked recipes. It has a good texture — crunchy for salads, and still holds up when cooked. It has more umami flavor than lettuce (more about umami in a later blog post.) In the photo, I am holding just a quarter of the cabbage. My grocery store cuts and packages larger veggies into smaller portions… They know we all have tiny refrigerators.
Yes… This is just a carrot. I use them all the time back home. The reason I even talk about these is that they are so large here. Here, I buy carrots individually, or in packages of two or three. These carrots are awesome! I found a great little slicer gadget at the Daiso (100 yen store) that will slice this beautiful carrot into almost paper thin slices! I use them for salads, soups, everything. Oh… and strangely, ( I never would have thought it) carrots are also on that list of foods high in umami flavor. Guess that is why carrots are so popular, and such a common snack food item everywhere.
Daikon radish. Another thing that you can get in the US, but that I never purchased before I came here. Daikon radish is very popular in Japanese cooking… mostly grated raw as a condiment, or thinly sliced on salads, or with sushi. The photo shows only part of a daikon radish. The whole thing would be too big for my refrigerator. Seriously… the whole daikon radish is about 12 to 15 inches long. Beautiful, pure white flesh with a mildly peppery radish flavor. My husband won’t touch those little red and white radishes back home, but the daikon has such a mild flavor, he has started eating it here. The noodle shops here often grate it raw on top of soba or udon noodle soups. Very tasty.
Japanese sweet potato. These are purple-skinned with a pale yellow flesh. The flesh is very dense and has a tendency to be somewhat dry when roasted. It has a nice sweet taste similar to the orange fleshed sweet potatoes in the US. Street vendors sell these here in Tokyo. Small trucks park on the side streets selling these, hot and roasted, and ready to eat. A filling and nutritious snack to eat as you walk along the street. I zap these in my microwave, then wrap them in foil and finish them off in my fish grill. We eat them skin and all with butter and salt, or with soy sauce. Also good dipped in a mixture of soy sauce and honey. French fried, they are a popular street food, sprinkled with sugar.
Shiso leaves. This small package of shiso leaves — about 6 or 8 leaves in this package — sells for about 70 yen in my grocery store. I first saw shiso leaves at a sushi restaurant right after we moved here. They sometimes put the wasabi on the shiso leaf, or the shiso will be used as a pretty garnish on the plate. I think that some people who see these think that it is just a garnish like parsley, and is not really meant to be eaten. Here… anything on the plate, is a food that can, and should , be eaten. Shiso has a somewhat bitter peppery flavor, and is a good compliment to sashimi and sushi, and sliced thinly is good on salad or as a topping for noodles.
Lotus root. The edible rhizome of the aquatic lotus plant, it has a rather bland flavor, but has a nice crunchy texture. It comes packaged tightly in plastic to keep it from discoloring. It generally needs to be peeled and blanched to keep the nice white color, but then is good added to salads, or to soups and stews. the longer it is cooked, the starchier it tastes, but it still maintains a nice crunchy texture. I have added it to curry, and used it as a salad. It tends to take on the flavor of whatever it is served with. It is high in fiber, and is said to have many health benefits.
Japanese long onion. These things are very large, and very popular in Japanese cuisine. When I first saw them in the store — sold individually or in bunches of two or three — I thought they were leeks. They are like the small green onions we have back in the US, only HUGE! They can be thinly sliced and added to salads or soups, or as a condiment for sashimi or other raw fish, but they have a rather strong onion flavor. When sauteed or otherwise cooked, they become a little milder and sweeter. I have to cut these in half to get them to fit in my refrigerator, and I use the whole thing… white and green parts.
This last one is a Japanese pumpkin. Also known as a kabocha squash. It is sold in small pieces too, and is usually thinly sliced and steamed lightly to be added to salads, or stewed with other vegetables and meats, or in a curry. It has a denser, sweeter flesh than pumpkins back in the US, and holds together well in a stew. Very tasty, and eaten with the outer rind on it.
I am interested to see how the selection of produce changes as the seasons change. I am hoping that some of the things that are really expensive right now, will become more reasonable in price through the spring and summer. We are enjoying trying these new foods, and don’t really miss the produce we had back in the US. At least not too much… yet. There are foods that we do miss… things that are not commonly available here… like peanut butter… and, they don’t eat much cheese here… But, oh well… we will manage without for now.