Monday, May 5, 2014

How to Find Organic Food in Tokyo (and Beyond!)

Organic kohlrabi at the Earth Day Farmers Market.
Recently, I've received a lovely run of emails asking how to find organic produce in Tokyo. It seems a number of folks are moving to the area or preparing to move, and are working on sorting out their grocery options. I decided to put my answers into a post here so others can find it, too. That said, if others have more ideas or suggestions or even other questions about food, farming, and farmers markets in Tokyo (or even gardening!) then let me know. I'm happy to help out as best I can. - JB

Hands down, the best way to get the least expensive organic produce is to head to the Earth Day Farmers Market in Yoyogi Park. Prices are incredibly reasonable and the selection is great. It's a great way to begin learning what is in season when in Japan (citrus in winter and bamboo in spring, for example) and how to cook with these items. Whether the item in question is tea or tomatoes, the tanned and smiling person behind the table is almost invariably the person who grew it. They come with a bounty of knowledge of recipes, growing tips, and general good humor. Plus, it is a very fun market with music, workshops, an excellent selection of food carts, and a nice mix of handmade soaps, clothing, ceramics, and more. It's a guaranteed good time.

The same holds true for organic fruit. Fruit, in general, can be very expensive in Japan. At the Earth Day Market fruit growers and producers are often featured or, at the very least, present on a regular basis. It's an excellent way to get to know the wide variety of citrus as well as the seasonality of other fruits. It's also a great way to support these growers, many of whom are young and/or new to farming. Fruit can be particularly challenging, so by putting something yummy on your dinner table you contribute to a better world. Seriously, how satisfying is that? The other benefit of heading to the Earth Day Farmers Market and meeting the grower is the possibility of setting up regular delivery to your home. It takes a bit of language skill, patience, and time, but most farmers will be happy to make that a reality. Such a relationship may also create the opportunity to visit the farm for events, which makes for more good fun.

Organic grains are also available at markets or in supermarkets. Quinoa, for example, can be ordered from Alishan or purchased at slightly upscale stores like Natural House, Seijo Ishii, and National Azabu Supermarket. (The websites are mostly in Japanese, but the products will have both languages or be decipherable by looking at the contents.) The Earth Day Market also has three vendors who sell a variety of grains such as barley, whole soba (buckwheat), millet, as well as red, black, and brown rices and a wide variety of heirloom soybeans. I buy most of what I want there, but if I want an interesting flour for making bread (in the rice cooker) I try my local soba shop or one of the above stores.

It is worth noting that organic growers can also be found at other Tokyo farmers markets. I strongly encourage folks to also head out to those and see what you can find. Growers and producers go to different markets for different reasons – scheduling, table pricing, number of visitors, and location to name just a few – just like customers. Go see what market is near your home and suits your personality and shopping desires. Offerings and vendors change throughout the year, so spend some time exploring and sampling.

Organic as well as locally grown produce and products can also be found at most supermarkets. They can be a bit more expensive, but again it's good to keep your money circulating locally. Imports are available and can be expensive. Assorted trade agreements make some things, like citrus, cheap despite the fact that Japan produces heaps of its own. If you want imports of specific foreign foods, it can add up; however, if you want a Japanese version or substitute, it can be cheaper. My husband and I simply switched our ingredients over to whatever was locally and seasonally available that we thought was tasty. There were some errors along the way, so be prepared.

Got more questions? Send them along. I'm happy to help!

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