Saturday, July 12, 2014

Japan: Food, Fish, and Grocery Stores

It’s finally time for the topic all of America has been waiting for: Food.

One of biggest differences between America and Japan as the sheer abundance of seafood here. The grocery stores overflow with seafood. There’s tuna, salmon, cod, mackerel, shrimp, and squid. There are clams, scallops, oysters, eels, skewers of sardines, and dozens of others unidentifiable creatures.  There’s ugly fish with their heads still on, beautiful striped fish cut in half, bags of alfalfa sprout sized fry, and every sort of roe. You can buy already cut sashimi, or fully prepared sushi rolls, cheaper and better than all but the classiest joints in Austin.

If do you visit Japan, I’d put the grocery stores high on the list of “must-see” places. There’s two grocery stores we frequent in Takayama. Valor is the safer of the two. Valor is ridiculously clean, well-organized, and almost always empty. The thing I really love about Valor is the music. It’s different than what’s on the radio. It’s some sort of super-shopping-fun-pop. No matter what’s playing, I sachet through the grocery store, cheerfully piling mysterious bottles of condiments into my cart while Super Sonico blasts on the speakers. It’s marvelous.

Valor’s great, but it’s definitely not my favorite grocery store. That title belongs to Asumo.

Asumo is located under a dollar store/ramen place and next to the “Santa Shop,” a second hand store topped with a Santa Claus statue that’s open year round. I don’t get it either. In front of the Asumo is a food stand that fills the parking lot with the delicious smell of dangos. Dangos are balls of sticky rice dough that are skewered, slathered in salty soy sauce and roasted. Dangos cost around 75 cents for a stick of five salty balls, and are an appetizing way to start your grocery experience.

Once inside, Asumo seems like a regular grocery store. The entry way is filled with produce, and shelves of products march off to the right, but it’s so much more than that. Careful hunting reveals cheap quail eggs, fresh noodles, still breathing clams, pickled everything, delicious fried sweet potato paddies as well as more exotic items. We’ve found olives, hotel mayonnais, marinara sauce, strawberry jelly and tiny jars of overpriced peanut butter. They even have tortillas.

The imports are great but as I prowl through the store, I study the careful choices of the Japanese. Clerks regularly brings out fresh boxes of fruits, vegetables, mollusks and fish, and the old Japanese ladies politely crowd around the fresh catch.  If one old lady puts a vegetable in her basket, I’m intrigued, if two old ladies choose the same cut of fish, I’m interested and if three old ladies pick the same organism, I buy it and make The Wifey cook it for dinner.

My most recent Japanese inspired purchase was a kind of never before seen mollusk. I know it was a mollusk only because it was  near the clams, squid, and snails. But what was it? A sea slug? An octopus heart? Perhaps a scallop and an oyster spawned near the shores of Fukushima and this orange piece of meat was the radioactive result. Whatever it was, the old ladies were piling the tiny packages into their carts. I grabbed two packages--proudly declaring them Kaiju testicles--then paraded them under the Wifey’s nose and demanded that she cook them for dinner.

At home, my pitiful attempt at researching the Japanese Kanji on the package revealed nothing. Dejected, I snapped a picture and left for school.

“What is this?” I asked, showing them the picture of the Kaiju testicles.

Tareto was the answer. Ah. This, of course, answered nothing. As usual I was doomed by my total lack of Japanese linguistic skills. Deeper probing of what sort of meat tareto was and where it belonged in the animal kingdom proved fruitless. Changing tactics, I asked if it was delicious. They all nodded. Hai, hai. I don’t know if they’ll ever learn English if they refuse to even say yes. I nodded my thanks and continued the lesson, not trusting a word any of them said.

I didn't trust their taste because we'd gone to yakitori place two nights ago had paid handsomely to try delicacies that Americans normally grind up and feed to public school students. Yakitori is just meat and vegetables skewered and grilled, though in Japan meat is a broader term than in America. At first we ate delicious grilled beef and chicken, while we threw back shochu and sake. But as the plates stacked up, and the alcohol dulled my senses, our new friends began to order more “traditionally.” We tried chicken stomach (too chewy) chicken cartilage (crunchy but flavorful) and a bowl of purple slime.

“What is this?” I asked, the purple slime dangling from my chopsticks as the server brought out our next dish, a bowl of soup covered in dried fish flakes. The fish flakes quivered and squirmed as they rehydrated; this wasn’t doing much for my appetite

“Try a bite then take a shot of sake! That’s how to eat these!”
I smiled, readied my sake, and ate the slime. It tasted of soy sauce and a dirty beach, and was very chewy. The pieces were so small all I could really do was swallow it and hope it didn’t get stuck in my teeth. Yes, sake made it taste better, but sake makes everything better.

“So, how do you like fermented baby squid?” they asked me, grinning like idiots.

I prefer my sake straight.

So, though my students seemed to believe that tareto was delicious, it did little to assuage my fears.

I arrived home to discover the Wifey was on strike.

“I’m not cooking those. Do you even know what they are?”

Of course I do! They’re tareto! Delicious tareto!

Unmoved, she forced me to don an apron and cook ‘em up. I know little about cooking anything besides eggs, steak and grilled cheese sandwiches, but in Japan, overcooking anything is grounds for hari-kari. So, thinking of the little old ladies who inspired this meal, I focused all my attention on not overcooking the tareto, and adding enough butter.

I cooked the Kaiju testicles just until they changed color, added lemon, salt, parsley and more butter, then poured it all over soba noodles. I cautiously set a plate in front of the Wifey.

She sniffed it, smiled, and looked to me. I nodded encouragingly and rambled about the succulence and umami and blah blah blah. She lifted a tareto to her mouth, took a bite, and loved it! We devoured them all, leaving nothing for leftovers. Wifey even said I handled them well (whatever that means) but we both agreed, next time she’s cooking the scallops.


  1. You guys are going to be great at using chopsticks! I'm looking forward to these grocery store adventures when I visit

    1. We are going to eat that entire grocery store, tentacles and all!