Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Trip to the Supermarket

I'm the kind of tourist who gets just as excited about going to a supermarket in a foreign country as I do about going to a monument or museum. At a supermarket, I can imagine I live there, and pretend I blend in - just one of the locals doing my weekly shopping. It's a window onto people's ordinary lives, displaying what they eat, how they spend their money, what kind of packaging and advertising attracts them. In Japan, there are piles of picture-perfect, often individually-plastic-wrapped fruits and vegetables near the entrance of almost every supermarket. Inside, there are small, neat aisles of groceries, many with gorgeous calligraphy or cute cartoons on the wrapper. Sales stickers are prominently displayed, and like other kinds of stores, supermarkets often have "point cards" that let you rack up bonus yen as a percentage of your purchase price. I have no idea how my point card actually works, but I dutifully give it to the cashier every time I shop.Of course, a Japanese supermarket has most of the normal foods, drinks, cleaning supplies, and toiletries you'd find in a supermarket at home. But it also has a number of things that are unique to Japan (or at least to Asia). The picture at the top is a huge selection of various brands of natto, the slimy, sticky, stinky fermented soybeans that are every foreigner's (and many Japanese people's) bane. I actually like it, which is a continual source of amazement to people whose first question to any foreigner is, "Can you eat natto?" It's supposed to be extremely healthy, and is therefore popular with tiny, old Japanese grandmas. It's also a common filling for sushi rolls, which are made using the dried seaweed nori, shown in even more incredible variety of brands and packaging in the photo just above. There are actually numerous types and flavors of nori - it can be saltier or sweeter, roasted more or less, air or machine dried, harvested in Japan or Korea - and it comes in various cuts, sized to be rolled into sushi or wrapped around individual onigiri or sliced to be sprinkled on top of rice or other dishes.
Tofu is another thing that comes in a surprising number of variations. It's not just firm or soft, though those categories do exist. There's "fresh" tofu (obviously not really fresh, since it's wrapped in plastic on a refrigerated shelf), which is very creamy and is sold floating in liquid; there's seared tofu, which is firm and brown on one side; there are various types of fried tofu; and there's my favorite - silky, smooth, plain blocks in individual, bad for the earth, packaging. The brand at the far lower right is among the best - silken perfection.
Of course there are all kinds of fish (meat, too) in the supermarket. Fish comes pre-sliced for sashimi, in larger cuts for sauteeing or baking, and in the form of a whole fish (not necessarily cleaned - an unhappy surprise for the American purchaser). There's also a selection of dried fish, shown above. I've seen on TV how they're processed, by being split in half, salted, skewered, and hung in a cage overnight to dry out. But I have no idea what you're supposed to do with them in your kitchen. I think you grill them. But I haven't ever tried it, and probably never will. Tofu is just much easier.

Speaking of easy, most supermarkets also have a deli section with pre-cooked food all ready to be taken home and re-heated. Things on a stick are always popular - here I think we're looking at yaki-tori, grilled chicken, front and center. There are some fried vegetables and fish in the back at left, and in the foreground at right is some braised eel. When I was moving into my apartment and didn't have any pots or plates yet, I ate supermarket food for several days, and it was pretty good - not to mention a great way to feel like one of the locals.

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