Monday, February 16, 2015

Nine Good Reasons to Shop at Farmers Markets: Reprise

A farmer and his interns at one of Sapporo's farmers markets.
This post first appeared at Ecotwaza, a beloved little company here in Japan doing good work to share the joys of Japanese culture. Take a look and don't worry about not speaking Japanese. Roam about and then email with questions. They are ridiculously happy to help! - JB

With supermarkets and convenience stores on nearly every block and food cooperatives that deliver right to the door, why take the extra time go to a farmers market? The answer lies in the variety these markets offer in terms of location and atmosphere, not to mention the produce and expertise found nowhere else in the city. From the United Nations University Farmers Market in Aoyoama to the Earth Day Market in Yoyogi, Tokyo farmers markets offer a year round spectacle of food that is a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds. Still feeling skeptical? Here are my nine favorite reasons for heading out to one each week. 

Take home less packaging. Years ago, Japan took great delight in wrapping items in furoshiki or tenugui for beauty and convenience. Those stunning pieces of fabrics have, unfortunately, been replaced with plastic and styrofoam. Shopping at a farmers market doesn't mean a complete escape from plastics' tyranny, but it does cut down on it, especially if you bring your own bag.

Find fresher food. Fruits and vegetables arrive at the farmers market shortly after harvest. Growers know that one of their greatest advantages over the supermarket is the fact that their produce is harvested only the day before or early that same morning. They make sure that the best of the season makes it to the table for customers to drool over. Nothing beats the flavor of freshly harvested komatsuna or eggplant.

Discover seasonal food. Seasonal eating means eating fruits and vegetables at their most succulent when flavor should be at its best. The easiest way to match produce to the calendar is to head to a farmers market. (The blessing and curse of the supermarket is its ability to stock the same produce year round with little emphasis on what is peaking locally.) Feast your eyes on the warm glow kaki (persimmons) cast over the market in fall, while winter greens tantalize and tempt on brisk days. Bright red strawberries, deep brown chestnuts, apples of all colors and more make for a year-long pageant that is as delicious as it is stunning.

Enjoy yourself. Tokyo bubbles over with fun things to do – karaoke, restaurants galore, izakayas, parks, and fantastic historic sites – in nearly every neighborhood. Like little festivals devoted to food, the thirteen farmers markets around the city often offer live music, an art show, educational workshops, and fun activities for kids all surrounded by good food. Why not get your weekly shopping done in an atmosphere full of sunshine and laughter?

Bring the whole family.  Kids large and small will find a world of wonder at a farmers market. Discover green tea seed pods and purple carrots. Sample homemade udon noodles or pick up a bag of hatomugi and learn the history of this traditional grain. Sit down to an awesome lunch of duck stuffed onigiri, freshly grilled mochi wrapped in nori, or a spicy curry with a glass of red shiso juice.

Meet your maker. What's better than buying a fresh peach or a jar of pickled burdock? Meeting the person who tends the orchard or dreamed up the combination of herbs and spices to make that humble root delicious beyond belief. Ask a few questions and get the story behind the orchard or a recipe that's been a hit, literally, for generations. Become a regular and think of it as the beginning of a beautiful (and delicious!) relationship.  

A local baker with her delicious treats at Nara's Organic Farmers Market.
Support the local economy. Buying directly from the farmer often means that money has a better chance of circulating within the local community. That farmer will purchase supplies and other materials from a local store where another community member is employed who buys their produce from the farmer. A recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists shows that farmers markets help not only build local (often small and rural) economies but keeps them vibrant.

Keep land in production. Since the very beginning, Japanese farmers have planted, harvested, and tended land that lies somewhere between ocean and mountains. Farmers terraced hillsides to carve out just a bit more space or ventured into the ocean to raise seaweed. Buying directly from a grower or producer keeps them in the business of growing, which means suburban, rural, and sometimes even urban land (or rooftops!) stay green and in production.

Foster new farmers. Japanese farmers are aging and their numbers are in steady decline, but there is also a movement of returning to the land.  Disgruntled, dissatisfied, and distressed by corporate and city life, a steady stream of salarymen and women trade black polyester suits and briefcases for work gloves and a good hoe. Shopping at a farmers market is not just a chance not just to meet these agrarian adventurers, but support them on their way.
Why do you shop at farmers markets? Drop us a line and share your ideas. We'd love to hear them.

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