I am a pro chef by no means, but I love to cook. I come from a family that eats spicy, ethnic, and American style food. Because of that, one of the hurdles I had to overcome when moving to Japan is Japanese food. My palette and stomach sometimes doesn’t agree with the salty and spice-less food many restaurants have to offer. Which left me with one option: to learn the basics of cooking.
You can only survive so long on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and scrambled eggs before snapping. Here are a few things I learned along the way to make cooking a little easier for the spatula-inept.
Invest in the Right Tools
What is a chef without his or her kitchen? To make a nice mac ‘n’ cheese or curry you need the right tools, and the right tools depend on your eating habits. Grilled sandwiches require either a fry pan or a panini press (I just got one that has swap-able plates so I can make paninis, donuts, and waffles), and soups need a pot or a slow cooker. For more information on where to buy those check out my previous posts, Working Your Way Around Your Japanese Kitchen.
The slow cooker is the best tool for those who don’t like to cook. It’s my favorite. Slow cookers are great because they are easy to use: just plop in the ingredients, stir occasionally, and serve. Everything from shredded beef to scalloped potatoes can be made in a slow cooker.
A hot, slow cooked meal is the best thing during the winter, typhoon season, or when you have nothing to do while waiting for a package to arrive. What is important when picking out a slow cooker is the size, mostly because of the cleaning and storage.
The optimal slow cooker is small enough to fit in the compartments under your kitchen burners or can slide into your closet. The last thing you’d want to do is trip over it when you’re not cooking. Also clean it right after cooking, if you don’t get ready for a real arm workout scrubbing it clean.
So with all of the leftovers, you need a place to store the food for rest of the week. A decent sized refrigerator is necessary. Unless you are someone who is constantly eating at restaurants or enjoy eating the same thing everyday, a 150 liter or less refrigerator is not sufficient.
Small refrigerators have their place in many Japan because Japanese ingredients such as rice, cooking alcohol, and soy sauce do not need refrigerated, and with all the convenient stores and fast food restaurants, some people don’t cook. But, if you are someone who switches up what you eat during the week, invest in a good shoulder height, 250 liter, refrigerator.
Buy in Bulk
Even though there is a supermarket and convenience store near every train station, it helps to buy in bulk. And by “bulk” I don’t necessarily mean a years supply of cheese, but just double down on packages. For example, most supermarkets sell bread in either six or eight slice packages, so if you are someone who eats two sandwiches in a sitting then you will go through a package in two days.
Milk in Japan is sold by the one liter cartons and if you are used to eating cereal or having a cup of milk everyday, doubling down means you don’t have to stand in a half hour line at the supermarket twice a week.
Costco is also an option; membership costs about 4000 yen a year and gives you access to a wide selection of imported goods at reasonable prices. For me it is the most cost effective method for food I eat every week like peanut butter, oatmeal, and feta cheese.
Fruits are particularly cheap and Costco is the only place I can find raspberries and blackberries in Tokyo. Even if you can’t gorge through an entire package of fruits in the week don’t worry! Freezing them and making smoothies is a great alternative.
Of course, shopping at a wholesale supermarket for one person is a bit intimidating because when you see something you want to purchase, an impulse buy, you have to step back and ask yourself: “can I eat/drink all of it before the expiration date?”.
Learn to Substitute
Did you know you could substitute butter with Greek yogurt? While both are readily available in Japan, there are some times you cannot find the ingredients you need. Certain oils used in cooking aren’t available and sometimes ingredients, such as coconut oil, are so expensive that it doesn’t make sense to purchase for one meal.
That’s when you have to substitute with ingredients like homemade applesauce or avocados. Yes I said homemade, because two apple things you can’t find in Japan are applesauce and apple pies. Well, pies in general aren’t really eaten in Japan.
The best way to learn substitution is through research and practice. Replacing will never produce the exact same consistency, but fine-tuning the substitution can lead to tasty results!
Cooking, like any other skill, is a process of trial and error. Thankfully we live in an age where people congregate their stories of failures and successes on blogs and recipe websites. It doesn’t take much, just go to a website such as Allrecipies, type in what you want to make or what you have as far as ingredients and you’ll find a recipe.
When it comes to living in Japan you just might have to swap out ingredients or purchase them from specialty stores. So grab your spatula and give something a whirl!
Software Engineer and Blogger at TalentHub
Usually coding, writing, or exploring Japan.
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