Say what you like about the high cost of living is in Japan, but the truth is, life in a major city like Tokyo or Nagoya is often only as expensive as you want to make it, and there are ways to save money and live well in Japan, if you shop wisely and master your kitchen.
If you don’t have a significant other to do the shopping and prepare your meals for you, you’ll need to give thought to what you eat and how you’re going to cook it if you don’t want to spend every evening at a station noodle bar or waste cash at over-priced convenience stores.
Your Japanese Kitchen(ette)
The cooking area in rented accommodation in Japan is typically compact; in most cases a simple kitchenette combined with the living/sleeping space (1LDK). Our apartment’s a substantial 3LDK, but even so, I’ve seen bigger galley’s on a 40ft yacht than our euphemistically named kitchen. But it’s surprising how elaborate a meal one can put together, even in such a small space.
Fortunately for those renting accommodation, Japanese landlords almost invariably provide a fridge/freezer and cooker top (2 or three burners) for the kitchenette, possibly a microwave and/or rice cooker. If the latter aren’t provided, it’s highly recommended that you buy them yourself, and if you have a rice cooker, you’ll also need a colander for soaking rice. Ovens are very rare in Japan, so if you’re an avid baker or can’t bear to do without your Sunday roast, you’ll have to get a combined microwave/oven. Now all you’ll need is some food and a few simple recipes off the internet.
The Horn of Plenty
Foodies will be delighted to know that the ingredients sold in Japanese supermarkets and grocery stores are pretty much the same as those found in Western shops, with a few local variations. However, Western products and specific branded goods are limited to a few generally expensive imports. For this reason, it’s probably better – meaning cheaper and easier – to embrace Japanese culinary habits as much as possible. Anyway, here’s what you can expect to find in a typical Japanese supermarket:
• Fruit & Vegetables: no big surprises here; the variety of domestically grown produce is excellent. Prices are up and down according to season or following bad weather, but the things the Japanese eat a lot of, such as daikon radish, leeks, carrots, Japanese mushrooms, aubergines, etc. tend to hold their prices better. Freshness can be an issue though, especially if you only shop once a week, so when you find a shop with consistent quality and acceptable prices, stick with it.
• Meats: most meat is sold thinly sliced for hot-pot dishes such as shabu shabu and sukiyaki so you won’t find joints of meat per se, except for small blocks of pork (leg) for slow braising as cha-shu, a typical accompaniment to ramen noodles. Belly pork for stewing Chinese style and pork cutlets for breading are also commonly available, as is beef frying steak. Lamb, however, is hard to find, except in frozen, thin slices as used in the Hokkaido hot-pot dish known as Genghis Khan.
Mince comes in four exciting varieties: pork, chicken, 100% beef, and the most common 70/30 beef/pork mix. They all have their uses of course, but the latter makes for the juiciest burgers!
Meat prices can vary considerably from store to store, but imported meat (from Australia or the USA) is usually much cheaper than domestic varieties. Regulations governing the importation and sale of meat are very stiff in Japan, so shopping around for the best buys won’t mean taking a nose dive in terms of quality or increase the slim chance of getting listeria.
• Poultry: Why did the chicken cross the road? A duck, a goose, a capon or even a turkey wouldn’t be that reckless, which is why you don’t typically find many of those in the poultry section at a Japanese supermarket. Maybe I’m just a bit myopic – a tad chicken-sighted, you might say – but I don’t see much else happening in the poultry section but chicken. But that’s fine; chicken is cheap, plentiful and… well, just plain chickeny!
• Processed Meats: Japanese hams and bacon are as good, if not better than most similar products in the West. Sausages though tend to be of the wiener/frank/brats variety, so if your life isn’t complete without Cumberland ring, Lincolnshire herb bangers or black pudding on a Sunday morning, Japan won’t be for you. Actually, wiener, egg and chips isn’t all that bad, and a frankfurter toad-in-the-hole is quite delicious, so one can get used to anything when push comes to shove!
• Seafood: The only way the Japanese could consume more seafood would be if they grew fins and went back to the water, so prepare to be amazed by what the supermarkets have to offer. Fish can be expensive, so look around for the best buys.
• Dairy produce: the only thing you’re likely to miss here is good cheese. Yes, they do make cheese in Japan, but it’s that processed stuff that kids love. For cooking, you can buy bags of mixed, ready-shredded cheese (product of more than one country), but a wedge of quality imported cheese from the UK or Europe costs an arm and a leg.
• Rice: Japanese rice is a short grain type (essentially pudding rice). There are many varieties, though the difference between them may be subtle and less obvious to a Western palate. I tend to buy what’s on offer and prefer older rice, which is less sticky when steamed. If you like very sticky rice, new rice (新米shinmai) is what you should look for.
Imported long grain rice, such as basmati, is hard to find and usually only sold at ‘ethnic’ food shops like Tokyo’s Maya Bazaar – Indian Grocery Store.
A Shopping List
In addition to the above, there are many dry goods, frozen foods, canned goods and uniquely Japanese food items you’ll encounter at a Japanese supermarket. However, here are a few essential items you will definitely need for cooking Japanese style, whatever other ingredients you choose to use:
• Miso paste: comes in 1kg bags that last for ages when refrigerated, some with dashi already added (だし入). Supermarket brands usually good value.
• Dashi (だし): The essential stock for all Japanese soups, broths and sauces. Comes in packs of handy, measured sachets.
• Soy sauce (しょうゆ): an essential condiment, flavouring and colouring.
• Sake for cooking (料理酒) has dozens of uses.
• Mirin: a sweeter rice liquor. Genuine mirin (本みりん hon mirin) is what you should look for.
• Seven spice mix (七味 shichimi) adds zest to various dishes and preparations.
• Ginger (しょうが shōga), root or ready grated, for flavouring beef and pork.
• Sesame oil: buy a small bottle and add just a drop or two to any Chinese-inspired Japanese dishes.
Next time we’ll discuss where to shop and what dishes to make! Read Part 2 here.
By Bill Ambler
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