Here in Japan, I have to grocery shop almost daily. Our refrigerator and pantry space is small, and I have a kilometer walk to and from the store. I have talked about the challenges of grocery shopping and about Japanese products before, but here are a few things I bought today. Nothing too out of the ordinary, but still some interesting differences from products we buy in the US.
This is Japanese cooking sake — ryorishu. This brand is sold in a carton,and is found in the aisle with soy sauce, vinegars, mirin, etc. The difference between this and regular drinking sake, is that law requires the addition of 2-3% salt to make it unpalatable for drinking. You can use regular sake for cooking, but this is generally cheaper at about 400 yen for 900 ml. Many Japanese dishes are cooked in a savory mixture of soy sauce, mirin, and sake. Sake helps to tenderize meats, and helps to cut odors of fish dishes.
Mirin — also a type of cooking sake. The difference between mirin and the above ryorishu cooking sake, is that mirin has a lower alcohol content, and a higher sugar content. It is almost syrupy in comparison. Usually ryorishu is added first to help tenderize the meat, and much of the alcohol content is cooked away. Mirin is often added later in the cooking process.
Japanese mayonnaise. Important differences from US brands — generally more egg yolks, and less egg white. Rice wine vinegar instead of cider vinegar. Thinner consistency, and a richer flavor. In my opinion, a much more tasty product than regular mayo, and Kewpie brand is very popular here. Added as a condiment to many Japanese dishes and street foods — often sprinkled with bonito flakes and/or nori (seaweed) flakes.
Tofu. Sold in small blocks, and very reasonably priced here. This package of two 175 gram blocks (about 12 ounces total) for only 78 yen (about 69 cents). Most tofu here is soft. I haven’t found the firm or extra firm type that I buy in the US. We eat a lot of tofu here. It is very versatile, with a texture similar to cooked egg white, and a neutral flavor. It takes on the flavors of whatever it is cooked with. We often have it served cold — cubed and sprinkled with mirin and soy sauce.
Today’s produce. I have talked about Japanese long onion — negi. It is good stewed, roasted, or thinly sliced as a garnish. The apples here are almost the size of softballs, and I can use part of one, then wrap it tightly in plastic and keep it for several days in the refrigerator. Late fall/winter is the season for oranges — mikan — in Japan. These are small mandarin oranges — exceptionally sweet, easy to peel, and seedless. Delicious.
We eat a lot of fish and seafood here in Japan, and this is salmon collar — the cut behind the head and gills, in front of the fillet. Often the fillet is used for sushi, and the collar is sold for cooked dishes. This small package was 169 yen per 100 grams. I will marinate it in mirin and miso paste, and then grill it.
This trip to the supermarket was pretty typical, and cost a little less than 2500 yen — about 22 US dollars. So, shopping an average of 5 to 6 days per week, means our weekly grocery bill (including wine and other alcoholic beverages) is between $100 and $150 per week. Not too much more than what we spend in the US.
We eat different things here in Japan, and in general, I think we eat very well. Produce here seems a bit more expensive, but I feel like it is “cleaner” with fewer chemicals and pesticides. We eat small amounts of meat — mostly pork and chicken — and the chicken is cheaper than in the US. Beef is expensive, and we rarely eat it. Eggs in Japan are richer, with bright orange (not yellow) yolks, and are safe to eat raw or undercooked.
It has been a process learning about Japanese foods and cooking methods — and I still sometimes struggle to find the ingredients I want because most of the labeling is in Japanese. I know that when we do move back to the US, one of the things we will miss about Japan… is the food.