In the previous article, we discussed what to expect to find in a typical Japanese supermarket, and how to master your kitchen. This time we’ll talk about shopping wisely and what to cook.
Where to Buy
Exploration is the key; wherever you end up living, take a half day to wander around and eyeball your nearest shops, but look farther afield too as your nearest supermarket might not offer the best value or range of goods. When you get to know your neighbours, ask them where they do their shopping.
• Smaller, local supermarkets will carry the least familiar or desirable items for foreigners but can be all you need if you’re fully integrated into Japanese society and eat mostly what the Japanese eat. However, such stores might not sell household or bathroom items as well as foods.
• Larger supermarkets, often close to or part of station buildings, offer the biggest range of goods at generally competitive prices. They usually have a separate section or floor for household and personal items too. If a store offers you a membership card, take it; it won’t cost you anything and it’s often the way to get a 5% discount on your shopping bill or points that you can redeem later.
• Expensive options, and I can only really speak for Tokyo personally, include a limited number of supermarkets such as Queens Isetan and Peacock, and department store basement food courts. You can quite often find a wider range of imported products in these places, as well as fine quality domestic produce, but I wouldn’t recommend them for the budget-conscious as they’re rather pricey.
• International Stores; if you really must have a frozen turkey for Christmas, can’t live without Vegemite on your toast, or demand only free-range quails eggs, stores like Tokyo’s National Azabu and Kinokuniya offer unimaginative and over-paid expats another way of isolating themselves from the host culture. Harsh? Perhaps, but then, if either of these is your local supermarket, cash flow will be the least of your worries.
• Local businesses, such as green grocers and butchers deserve a mention too, for though they might not be cheap, they do usually offer good quality produce. You’ll also be supporting the local economy and getting the chance to practice Japanese. I gave up buying vegetables from our usual supermarket because their stuff turned too quickly; now I have a good relationship with the old fella at our local veg shop and he’ll often round his prices down for me. He even gets extra large potatoes for me when he can, which means I can indulge my expat need for proper chips and jacket spuds!
Getting home well after the supermarkets have closed is a fact of life for most salaried workers and commuters, so if you’re going to avoid cash traps like station ramen bars, convenience stores and delivery pizzas, you should fill your fridge with foods that’ll last the week, and your cupboards with things that are quick to prepare.
Actually, most everyday Japanese dishes are quickly prepared, so if you’ve set the timer on your rice cooker so that rice is ready for your return from work, it’ll just take a few more minutes to stir-fry a few vegetables and meat with a cook-in type sauce. Then again, preparing one or two meals on a Sunday and freezing them for use during the week can save a lot of time whilst ensuring you eat a balanced, healthy diet.
Here are plenty of Japanese recipe ideas to get you started:
A Final Thought
For younger people who may be living away from home for the first time, shopping for food and preparing and cooking meals can seem daunting, or even rather melancholic if you don’t have another person to share your life with. But working for a Japanese company will mean you need all the nourishment and stamina you can get if you’re going to avoid fatigue and maintain a healthy body and mind. You don’t have to enjoy shopping or cooking, but when you make taking care of your dietary needs a priority, it’ll soon become second nature. Bon appetit!
By Bill Ambler
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