The Airmen and Family Readiness Center on base offers a variety of awesome cultural classes to help Americans living in Japan learn more about the culture and life in the local community. I absolutely love taking these classes and going on these excursions. Many are free, often you carpool to a location, and if you do pay, you get something in return (like when I did the weaving and glass blowing classes). I even took their Survival Japanese class already and I plan to take the Beyond Survival Japanese class next month.
The one activity I wanted to do the most was the grocery store tour. I wanted to go right away, but the time always conflicted with the live seminar I teach for Kaplan. Now, you may or may not know this, but I am working on writing an iPhone app for Eat Well Global. I am so excited about this project and I enjoyed writing about what I have learned about Japanese food from living here in Japan, along with being able to communicate with locals about what food and nutrition means to them.
Here is a description of Eat Well Global from the website:
Eat Well Global, Inc., founded by Julie Meyer, RD, is a nutritionist-led global communications company bringing together a stellar network of nutrition experts to offer YOU the inside scoop on eating well at home and around the globe. Eat Well Global travel apps provide tourists, residents and arm-chair travelers with local information on: health/nutrition trends, tips and insights; food safety; organic labeling; restaurant, market and food tourism destinations; recipes from local chefs and special considerations for those traveling with special food needs and allergies. These nutritionist-in-your-pocket guides are available for iPhone and Android.
Well, the app is almost done, but I said better late than never on this grocery store tour. Not only did I get the chance to confirm everything I had learned, but I was able to teach Mayu a little too about regulatory code and labeling in Japan (she had no idea about organic food labels!).
We went to a smaller supermarket, making sure to go on a Tuesday because this is known as 100 yen day at Yokomachi's. Some, but not all, of the produce is sold for 100 yen. How much is 100 yen? Right now that is about $1.30.
You can bet I asked question after question, and because most of my work is done on the app (yes, it will be available shortly...you know you
want need it!), I took to asking questions that would help me personally to determine what I can and can't eat with my vegetarian food prefs. The Japanese do like their pork lard, so you really never know.
Right at the entrance there was a nice display of local produce. I will say this is great and I love the local goods, but if you are looking for organic, Japan is not the place to go. Organic is a fairly new concept here and is confined to major cities, like Tokyo and Kyoto. According to Mayu, this region (we live in Aomori prefecture) is based in agriculture, and this industry supports everyone, so no one questions their food source farming methods, they just buy what they have to support local farming and the local economy, which in turn supports their families. Also, and I believe it is similar in the US, the conversion process to turn a farm from conventional to organic is a 2 year process where the land is unusable. These communities, in my opinion at least as I have not confirmed this with any farmers, can't afford not to farm during that time, especially not after the earthquake and tsunami. So, I happily buy local goods, and make sure to wash my produce well, which in all honesty is what I do with American produced goods too, or at least for most items. I will almost always choose local over organic any day (less pollution from transport and I can still wash my food). Aomori, where we live, produces the most apples in Japan (and are insanely delicious), so the best advice if you are visiting here and concerned about the pesticides and apples would be to wash well, and use a produce wash if you have it available.
Back to the local produce...
If only I could read Japanese! The produce comes labelled with the farmer's information so you know exactly what you are getting.
Here you can see the label for 100 yen. So each broccoli bunch here is 100 yen. Not a bad deal seeing as Japan is notoriously expensive.
More 100 yen produce! This time it is mushrooms.
More mushrooms. Boy, good thing I LOVE mushrooms.
These are chrysanthemum petals. They are edible and used often in this region. Now you see why the Chrysanthemum Festival is so big around here.
Ever heard of shirataki noodles? Perhaps you have, especially if you have tried losing weight or sought out very low calorie foods. These are made from a yam known as devil's tongue. Not only do they come in noodle form, but you can buy blocks as well. It is gelatinous in consistency, but very low calorie. Many US stores now carry the noodles. I know before I moved to Japan I saw these, and they are listed as tofu, so it is possible in the US they are made from soy instead, but in Japan (where they originate) they are made from devil's tongue, also known in Japanese as konnyaku.
In the refrigerated case you can find noodles that are ready to go for traditional noodle based dishes, like yakisoba.
Miso is a very important ingredient in Japan, and you can find a variety of miso in the store. It really helps to know some Japanese, but if not, I suppose trial and error can work too!
Lots of options too for vinegars, including some sake based options. They also have lots of soy sauce around. The Japanese word for soy sauce is shoyu.
Like I said before, organic is rare in the smaller communities, and Mayu had never seen the label before. Boy was she surprised when I described it to her, and then she spotted this in the soy milk section. Yep, we found organic soy milk. Not surprised that of all things it was the soy milk. That JAS symbol in green is the organic symbol in Japan.
In the future I will post some more pictures from markets (check this out if you missed my post on the local fish market) with produce and things you can find here in Japan. The grocery store was very busy because it is a major shopping day with the 100 yen special, and I did not want to be climbing over people to get pictures. On the way out I did snap one more picture as we passed by the bakery. This is mochi. It is a traditional, glutinous rice cake, often sweet. Many of you may know this from the US, perhaps in the ice cream version.
I also wanted to share what might just be the healthiest fast food meal ever. One day we stopped by Sukiya, which we pass often. It is a local chain and our impression was that there would be nothing vegetarian on the menu.
Well, we were close. Ok, not entirely close, but the main dishes are all meat. However, the side dish menu offered some surprising options. I wasn't too hungry, but if I was I would have also ordered the side salad. Instead, I just went with grilled salmon and white rice (come on, it's Japan, of course there was white rice with this). Like I said, adding some veggies to this would have really made a nice addition, but overall I was really impressed. I am glad we stopped in.
Ryan ordered from the regular menu, which was basically curry type dishes. I am sure we will go back again, especially if we are in need of a quick meal at an off time (many places close between lunch and dinner, and Europe is the same way so this is not new for us).
QUESTIONS: Have you ever tried mochi? Do you have an Asian market in your town? Have you ever heard of shirataki noodles?