Monday, March 30, 2015

Farmers Market Review: Flemington Street Market - Melbourne, Australia


Nibbling Around Melbourne and Tasmania 
I visited as many farmers markets as I could during our three-week stay in Australia. Markets are one of the best ways to glimpse a place and its culture, meet its people, and learn its history. What we saw during our short time was not only mouth-watering, but utterly thrilling. As we toured the Queen Victoria Market, arguably Melbourne’s most famous and oldest market, I learned that the first vendors were English with their meat pies, quickly followed by Germans and an assortment of Europeans with cheese and heavy breads. Then came a wave of Greeks and Italians with their spicy lamb and espresso machines, respectively. Then Middle Easterners arrived, bringing the glories of hummus and tabouleh with them. The pure joy of finding myself in such a glorious melting pot, surrounded by the buffet of history, is nearly indescribable. Melbourne is literally the most deliciously intriguing place I have been in a long time. 

With that in mind, I’m writing up a series of reviews of the markets. There were more farmers markets than I could get to, although heaven knows if Melbourne asked me to come back and cover every last one, I would do so in a heart beat. (Melbourne, please see my About Me page for my email. I’m there if you need me. - JB)

Tasmania, frankly, was no less delicious, and reviews of the markets I was able to attend there will also appear here. I can say I met some passionate growers and producers at those markets, had terrific conversations, and caught a glimpse of a growing community that is going to be exciting to keep tabs on in the future. And the food - from sausages to beets to yogurt to bread to cheese to a glorious array of apples and pies both savory and sweet - was even better. We are already planning a trip back. 


Flemington's sign of great things come to pass.
Set on the grounds of Mount Alexander College for the last six years, the Flemington Street Market bills itself as Melbourne’s only year-round weekly market. Visitors stepping through the gate will find a parade of seasonal and perennial items: seedlings, meats, a variety of excellent baked goods, and enough fruits and vegetables (fresh along with dried and otherwise preserved or prepared) to settle the week’s menu. The majority of the roughly 60 vendors appeared to be organic growers and producers or use organic, Australia-grown ingredients whenever possible. Some, like Shuki and Louisa and their fantastic variety of hummuses, are regulars at the Slow Food Market Melbourne at Abbotsford Convent, too, which I saw as testament to a strong entrepreneurial spirit and the quality of this market.

"Rain, schmain," says Melbourne.
Peninsula Fresh Organics sported full tables of three kinds of kale, two types of chard, four varieties of lettuces and whole fennel. The Mushroom Company offered nine kinds of fungus for our dining pleasure, and Happy Fruit offered a predominantly Australian-grown compendium of naturally sweet delights. The Five and Dime Bagel Company was doing a bit of grassroots work outside of their usual location in Melbourne in Katherine Place, as was Sourdough Kitchen. We did manage to go home with a loaf of the latters hazelnut and beetroot bread because it sounded too good not to buy. Sourdough’s Alex started his working life as a teacher, but a tough job market ten years ago inspired him to dabble in the art of raising natural yeast. As I watched the loaves disappearing from the table it appeared he’d found an appreciative audience for his work.

The famous beetroot and hazelnut from Sourdough Kitchen. 
“You get to know your customers, develop relationships. I’ve watched kids grow up,” said Noell, another baker I stopped to chat with. I’d spotted a dark and dense loaf of rye sourdough on an earlier pass, but I held to my rule to make a lap before shopping. This was one of the few occasions where the rule let me down. “You just missed it,” he said with a sad smile and offered me a sample of his regular sourdough as consolation. 

I wandered on to find John Howell, the fourth generation of his family to work that land. “One hundred sixty years,” he told me in that same modest yet prideful matter-of-fact way all farmers have: shoulders going a bit straighter, blue eyes in a tanned face leveling at me as though daring me to dispute it. I nodded. Through those eyes I saw all those people who came before, his leather bush hat slightly askew, chin strap pulled tight and firm.

John Howell and his extraordinary apples.
“You get what you get right from the tree here,” he said, bagging up some hail-damaged Bosc Pears for me as we talked about the difference between markets and consumers in Australia and Japan. (Those pears would never even make it to a chokubaijo, much less a market. The compost heap would be their home.)

When I told John about my search for the Snow White - a rich red apple I remembered from my Wisconsin childhood that fits neatly in the hand with flesh so white it hurts the eye and a flavor so tart it tingles - he leaned forward, listening carefully, mentally scrolling through his orchard for a match. He cut a Gravenstein, a small apple with a skin gradually turning green to red, for me to try, but it wasn't quite right. He narrowed his eyes then, gazing at the apples, tanned hand on the wood box in front of him and said, “I think they are your apple. They’ve just been picked a bit too soon.” I bought two for lunch.

Two in the hand...Pastry Lounge's sweet delights.
The Pastry Lounge offered a table full of scrumptious looking meat pies and delectable sweets. Their classic tart, Citrus and Passion Fruit, was already sold out, so I opted for Sticky Date and Walnut along with Gin and Lime. Lemon, custard, chocolate and apple and almond were also on hand. Started about 14 years ago by my young clerk’s mother and a few friends, they branched into finger foods about eight years ago. If they are half as good as the tarts I sampled, I believe their future will be deliciously successful.

Breakfast under the tree.
Of course, since it’s Melbourne there’s good coffee to be had, too. A food truck parked under the big tree at one end of the market serves piping hot breakfasts that can be enjoyed at tables spread out in the shade. Rain or shine, the Flemington Market is a gem worth searching out.

Every Sunday
Mount Alexander College
9am to 1pm

Friday, March 27, 2015

Tokyo and Yokohama Regional Farmers Markets: Saturday, March 28th and Sunday, March 29th

John Howell with some of his lovely apples at Melbourne's Flemington Street Market.
John's apples, along with his daughter, can also be found at Melbourne's Slow Food Market.
The sakura are bursting at the seams outside my window, which is surely one of the earliest flutterings of Spring's cape as she starts round the corner. Pick up some of the best grub going at a farmers market this weekend for hanami delights or better yet settle in at Beernista just around the corner from the Earth Day Market. This two day market and craft beer extravaganza is seriously the best scene in town. Pick up your salad fixings and head on over!

Saturday, March 28th and Sunday, March 29th
I could go wax on forever about how great this market is and how important it is for the future of Japanese farming and global food security. Instead, I'll just insist that folks go and see for themselves what great things the market and these innovative growers are doing. This month the market will be a a three-day wonderland of organic and fair trade goodness not to be missed. Come frolic and enjoy!
10am to 4pm, Rain or shine!
Map

Kamakura Farmers Market
Every day
A small local affair featuring Kamakura heirloom fruits and vegetables raised in yet another former capital city, the Kamakura Market is a small but wonderful venue. Head in early to get the best selection and pick up a loaf of Paradise Alley's charcoal infused bread while you're there.
7am until sold out
Map

Futamatagawa Farmers Market - Yokohama
Every Friday
A charming little weekly market tucked conveniently just outside the turnstile at Futamatagawa Station in Yokohama where a nice selection of fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables await. Joining them are baked goods, rice, miso, and all the other fixings one might need for the week or just a good snack. Plenty of Kanagawa goodies, too, so be sure to ask!
10am to 6pm
Look for the tables when you step out the gate!

Every Saturday and Sunday
A massive weekend affair that is great fun and features a variety of fruits and vegetables and prepared products from all over Japan. Plus, there's a most excellent selection of food trucks offering everything from salad to zingy curry to roast chicken to falafel!
10am to 4pm

Every Saturday
Back up and running after a refurbishment of the market space, the Roppongi Farmers Market is as booming and bountiful as ever. Don't miss this chance to meet a grower from Tokyo's very own Kokobunji and sample seasonal bounty.
10am to 4pm (Usually. Do check their website for schedule fluctuations.)
Map

Yurakucho Farmer's Market
Every Saturday and Sunday
Smaller than the UNU Market, Yurakacho features a particular region of Japan each week along with an excellent selection of seasonal fruit and vegetables. Growers from nearby Chiba, Kamakura, and Saitama are also on hand to help fill the larder.
11am to 5pm
Directions: Turn left out of Yurakacho station and cross the courtyard toward Tokyo Kouku Keitan. Look for the fun under the overhang!

Know of a market? Give me a shout and we'll add it to the list!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Tokyo and Yokohama Regional Farmers Markets: Saturday, March 21st and Sunday, March 22nd

Delicious seasonal fun at Melbourne's Slow Food Farmers Market.
This weekend marks the beginning of Spring, and what better way to mark the Vernal Equinox than with a trip to a lovely market? We've just returned from Australia - Melbourne and Tasmania, to be specific - where I visited markets galore and saw listings for even more. It feels good, though, to be back here where winter vegetables are still on the table and in the bowl, and where the last of the ume are blooming. I confess to seeing umeboshi, umeshu, and plenty of jam in each and every flower. Tasty times ahead! See you at the market!

Koenji Farmer's Market
Saturday, March 21st
A new market I spotted while riding the train on a Saturday morning into the city center. That circle of red awnings in front of the Za-Koenji Public Theatre could only mean one thing! Sure enough, I found a small group of area growers and producers, and the bounty surely continues!
11am - 5pm
Map

Nippori Farmer's Market
Saturday, March 21st and Sunday, March 22nd
Another great market in the city found with a little help from friends, this one is sure to not disappoint. A small but lively market, particularly on Saturday, it is well worth the trip. Plus, Tohoku growers are on hand sharing their best-of-the-best, so come on out to be part of the recovery and get something good to eat.
No map, but just head out the east exit and look for the green awnings!
10am to 5pm

Kamakura Farmers Market
Every day
A small local affair featuring Kamakura heirloom fruits and vegetables raised in yet another former capital city, the Kamakura Market is a small but wonderful venue. Head in early to get the best selection and pick up a loaf of Paradise Alley's charcoal infused bread while you're there.
7am until sold out
Map

Futamatagawa Farmers Market - Yokohama
Every Friday
A charming little weekly market tucked conveniently just outside the turnstile at Futamatagawa Station in Yokohama where a nice selection of fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables await. Joining them are baked goods, rice, miso, and all the other fixings one might need for the week or just a good snack. Plenty of Kanagawa goodies, too, so be sure to ask!
10am to 6pm
Look for the tables when you step out the gate!

Every Saturday and Sunday
A massive weekend affair that is great fun and features a variety of fruits and vegetables and prepared products from all over Japan. Plus, there's a most excellent selection of food trucks offering everything from salad to zingy curry to roast chicken to falafel!
10am to 4pm

Every Saturday
Back up and running after a refurbishment of the market space, the Roppongi Farmers Market is as booming and bountiful as ever. Don't miss this chance to meet a grower from Tokyo's very own Kokobunji and sample seasonal bounty.
10am to 4pm (Usually. Do check their website for schedule fluctuations.)
Map

Yurakucho Farmer's Market
Every Saturday and Sunday
Smaller than the UNU Market, Yurakacho features a particular region of Japan each week along with an excellent selection of seasonal fruit and vegetables. Growers from nearby Chiba, Kamakura, and Saitama are also on hand to help fill the larder.
11am to 5pm
Directions: Turn left out of Yurakacho station and cross the courtyard toward Tokyo Kouku Keitan. Look for the fun under the overhang!

Know of a market? Give me a shout and we'll add it to the list!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Reprise: Udo: Good Things Grow in Odd Packages

Udo on the chopping block.
This post first appeared in June, 2012 at Ecotwaza.com, a lovely little company here in Japan sharing the best of Japanese culture, where I used to write a monthly column. 

Udo (Aralia cordata) is one of the stranger vegetables to be met in a Japanese market. It's length alone – sometimes half a meter or more – can be intimidating. Add pale hairy skin with a blush of maroon near the center growth joint, a curl of leaves resembling a withered hand, and you have a decidedly freakish-looking vegetable. Yet, those that pass this wild vegetable by for more sedate produce such as the carrot miss a seasonal delicacy with delightful flavor and versatility. 

Udo is one of the few vegetables eaten raw in Japan, where it shows off a sweet-spicy flavor reminiscent of ginseng with a texture not unlike a good firm apple. It can also be boiled with miso and pork, served by itself with a dollop of miso, or simply massaged with salt and left to rest a bit before eating, after the fashion of tsukemono (traditional Japanese pickles). Others simply grate it into fresh salads for a seasonal zest.

The  Japanese enjoy udo roots, its most popular and well-known form, until shortly before summer officially begins. A perennial edible in the vast and varied sansai (mountain vegetable) family, udo is counted as a welcome sign of warmer days to come. Found along mountain stream banks where it thrives in dappled sunlight and moist soil, udo reaches a height of 2-3 meters even before sporting a spiked bloom consisting of hundreds of small white flowers. 

Today, people return to rural family lands to forage as their ancestors did for sansai, including yama udo (mountain udo).  When the first leaves are discovered emerging and unfurling, foragers gently dig away the surrounding soil to reveal the signature white roots. Later in the summer, they will return to selectively harvest young leaves and flower buds from remaining plants to make a lovely tempura companion to cold soba or udon. 

Valued as a perennial edible, udo is also used in traditional Chinese medicine. Powder from the dried roots is prescribed to alleviate fevers and reduce muscle and joint pains. The Ainu, Hokkaido's native people,  made a poultice of this mountain herb to help heal bruises.

While udo began in the wild, what most people see at the supermarket or farmers market is most likely from a farmer's field. Planted in 'caves' or holes about three meters deep with a thick tarp flung over the top to keep out light, domesticated udo grows in complete darkness until harvest. These months of darkness mimic the deep forest soil of its natural home and keep the root from photosynthesizing and turning green. The difference between the two udos is slight but distinct with yama udo possessing the stronger flavor. Domestic or wild, both are equally loved for their distinctive crunch and flavor. 

Recipes vary from family to family, but the following is a regular favorite at home or in the izakaya. 

Udo Tsumiso
1 udo
3 tablespoons miso (preferably white, although other varieties will also work)
3 tablespoons vinegar
1 teaspoon mirin
1 teaspoon sake
Dashi, a dash
**Pinches of karashi (spicy yellow Japanese mustard) can be added as taste buds desire.

Peel the udo and cut off the leaves and side shoots. Cut into sticks about four centimeters long. Set aside to soak in a bowl of water. Mix miso, mirin, and sake together in a bowl thoroughly. Serve udo cold with dressing on the side.

Note: Stephen Barstow also mention this lovely edible in his most amazing book, Around the World in 80 Plants

Friday, March 13, 2015

Tokyo and Yokohama Region Farmers Markets: Saturday, March 14th and Sunday, March 15th

Kimura-san keeping cheerful even on a chilly day at the Nippori Farmers Market.
March is in full swing and this weekend promises to be a hopping one for farmers markets fans in the Tokyo and Yokohama regions. Don't miss the good fun at Ebisu, Oiso, or Kamakura as well as the usual round of weekly ones. There's plenty of good food to be had, so don't be shy!

Ebisu Market
Sunday, March 15th
Don't miss the opportunity to head to a nifty part of the city where on these sweet Sundays you'll find farmers and producers galore. (One even comes from Okutama with a lovely array of vegetables and a vegetable-based spread that will knock your socks off.) It's worth noting, too, that Do One Good, an animal NPO will be on hand with some of the cutest dogs ever waiting to go home with you!
11am to 5pm
Map

Market of the Sun
Saturday, March 14th and Sunday, March 15th
The newest of Tokyo's farmers markets, Market of the Sun professes to be one of the largest, and this month looks to have a bit of an Italian theme, too. Cheese, anyone?. A short walk from Tsukiji Market and its wonderful surrounds, it's worth a stop for a selection of foodly and crafty items that rivals that at the UNU Market.
10am to 4pm
No map but step out of Kachidoki Station exits A4a and A4b

Oiso Farmers Market
Sunday, March 15th
This little gem of a community shindig is one of the best things going outside of the Earth Day Market, and I don't say that lightly. A nice little community affair started a handful of years ago, it blossomed into a full-on monthly festival that just happens to feature Shonan area produce in its fresh, seasonal form as well as pickled, dried, and prepared-hot-in-a-bowl. In summer it turns into a night market, but in fall it will swing back to regular daylight hours. More than worth the trek down to see what's going on!
10am to 3pm
Oiso Port Building

Kamakura Farmers Market
Every day
A small local affair featuring Kamakura heirloom fruits and vegetables raised in yet another former capital city, the Kamakura Market is a small but wonderful venue. Head in early to get the best selection and pick up a loaf of Paradise Alley's charcoal infused bread while you're there.
7am until sold out
Map

Futamatagawa Farmers Market - Yokohama
Every Friday
A charming little weekly market tucked conveniently just outside the turnstile at Futamatagawa Station in Yokohama where a nice selection of fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables await. Joining them are baked goods, rice, miso, and all the other fixings one might need for the week or just a good snack. Plenty of Kanagawa goodies, too, so be sure to ask!
10am to 6pm
Look for the tables when you step out the gate!

Every Saturday and Sunday
A massive weekend affair that is great fun and features a variety of fruits and vegetables and prepared products from all over Japan. Plus, there's a most excellent selection of food trucks offering everything from salad to zingy curry to roast chicken to falafel!
10am to 4pm

Every Saturday
Back up and running after a refurbishment of the market space, the Roppongi Farmers Market is as booming and bountiful as ever. Don't miss this chance to meet a grower from Tokyo's very own Kokobunji and sample seasonal bounty.
10am to 4pm (Usually. Do check their website for schedule fluctuations.)
Map

Yurakucho Farmer's Market
Every Saturday and Sunday
Smaller than the UNU Market, Yurakacho features a particular region of Japan each week along with an excellent selection of seasonal fruit and vegetables. Growers from nearby Chiba, Kamakura, and Saitama are also on hand to help fill the larder.
11am to 5pm
Directions: Turn left out of Yurakacho station and cross the courtyard toward Tokyo Kouku Keitan. Look for the fun under the overhang!

Know of a market? Give me a shout and we'll add it to the list!

Monday, March 9, 2015

Reprise: A Review of Strong in the Rain


This post first appeared in March, 2013 at Ecotwaza.com, a lovely little company here in Japan dedicated to sharing the joys of Japanese culture, where I wrote a monthly column.

The aftermath of a natural disaster is no simple affair. Even in Japan, a country long accustomed to earthquakes and the tsunamis that inevitably follow, there is an element of unpredictability. The 9.0 magnitude quake that struck on March 11th, 2011, brought with it a tsunami the likes of which had not been seen for 500 years. That was long enough to forget the warnings of previous generations and trust man-made barriers to protect shoreline communities. Still, it was the nuclear wild card that threw this country of calm and order, the one most prepared for such kinds of calamities, into new realms of environmental degradation, community displacement, and crisis management. For those living in Tohoku, the northern region of the country directly impacted by this triple calamity, the catastrophe lingers two years later as a dull ache of temporary housing, economic crisis, and energy turmoil. 

Strong in the Rain by Birmingham and McNeill (2012) introduces readers to six survivors, each representing a particular segment of Tohoku. Readers meet a fisherman whose first instinct took him to his boat and the sea to avoid the tsunami; a school teacher who fought the tsunami to help others survive as the water inundated the gymnasium where they waited; a nuclear power plant worker who readily returned to his job despite the risks; a high school student who barely escaped the tsunami with his family; a mayor who struggled to bring his city's plight to the attention of the world; and a nursery school cook who helps her young charges to safety only to return to the unrecognizable landscape of her city to begin the search for her own loved ones.  

Some are famous, like Mayor Sakurai of Minami-soma whose city lies twelve miles from the ailing power plant. His cries for help via YouTube echoed around the world and brought the world and it's helping hands to his ailing city. Others, like Kai Watanabe (a pseudonym), a nuclear power plant worker who returned to the plant again and again out of a sense of duty to his company, community, and country, remain unknown. Readers meet each one the morning of March 11th, by all accounts a bright sunny day with snow predicted for the afternoon, as they finish breakfast, head to work or school, and say goodbye to loved ones. 

It is, of course, the middle of that afternoon that forever changes their lives, destroying homes, stealing loved ones and livelihoods in a few moments. It is also from that moment that Birmingham and McNeill set about unraveling the tangle of events, people and issues which become the March 11th triple disaster. Alternating personal stories with official accounts and scientific information, a picture of a geologic and environmental disaster layered against a complex background of history, politics and culture becomes clear. The pattern that emerges as these threads are woven together is one of brave citizens fighting the same battle their ancestors did against a government and corporate culture that often appears ready to take all they can with little regard for the consequences. 

The book could almost be called “The Places in Between” for all the gaps it charts in the landscape of the unprecedented triple disaster. McNeill and Birmingham guide us through the tightly entangled relationship between TEPCO, the company that owns and operates the nuclear power plant, and politicians and money that continues to muddy the waters of recovery and investigation today. We also witness the shocking failings of the Japanese media, government, and most of all, TEPCO. Journalists, ordered out of the area by their companies and at risk of losing their jobs if they returned, left the citizens of Fukushima alone at a time when their story most needed to be told. Foreign journalists, often with little or no knowledge of the country, culture, or region, eagerly filled in. The exaggerated reporting that often resulted brought attention to the regions plight but further muddied the waters surrounding an already chaotic situation. Meanwhile, Japanese media and government officials faithfully listened to and believed TEPCO's reports that everything was under control. Until, that is, the moment of the first explosion. 

Taking its title from a poem by Iwate poet Kenji Miyazawa, the themes of duty and community responsibility pervade. Touted again and again as a region epitomizing much of what Japan considers best about itself: sacrifice, perseverance, loyalty, and humility, each turn of the page introduces people who show what the human spirit is capable of even in the worst of times. These six are joined by other survivors who helped settle fellow community members settle in temporary housing or identify recovered bodies. Readers also meet others who come to lend a hand, ranging from the Tokyo firefighters who volunteered at the plant in the earliest days of the crisis; members of Japan's Self-Defense Forces who scoured endless fields of debris for personal mementos, the injured, and those beyond help; and more. 


Birmingham and McNeill's time spent in the region interviewing and visiting sites as well as researching its history and culture shape a compelling narrative of the events as they played out following that fateful moment two years ago. They weave the threads of loss, politics, and perseverance into the context of national as well as regional culture and context to present a clear picture of the crisis, its immediate aftermath, and how the decisions made then rippled out to Tohoku and beyond.  Readers are also left with a feeling of hope, however feeble, that perhaps Japan will take this opportunity to move forward to safer, sustainable methods of energy creation.  For the sake of those we meet in these pages and beyond, let's hope they do. 

Friday, March 6, 2015

Tokyo and Yokohama Region Farmers Markets: Saturday, March 7th and Sunday, March 8th

Sea Gull Marche in Yokohama full of good food!
March is breezing its way in as winter vegetables begin to give way for spring in field and furrow. There will be some evidence at the market as nanohana starts to appear, but for the most part I'd recommend taking advantage of those glorious winter leafs (komatsuna, karashina, and the like) as well as any last mekabbetsu (brussel sprouts) while the getting is still good. I'm in Australia cruising the market scene in Melbourne and Tasmania, but don't be shy about heading out!

Kamakura Farmers Market
Every day
A small local affair featuring Kamakura heirloom fruits and vegetables raised in yet another former capital city, the Kamakura Market is a small but wonderful venue. Head in early to get the best selection and pick up a loaf of Paradise Alley's charcoal infused bread while you're there.
7am until sold out
Map

Futamatagawa Farmers Market - Yokohama
Every Friday
A charming little weekly market tucked conveniently just outside the turnstile at Futamatagawa Station in Yokohama where a nice selection of fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables await. Joining them are baked goods, rice, miso, and all the other fixings one might need for the week or just a good snack. Plenty of Kanagawa goodies, too, so be sure to ask!
10am to 6pm
Look for the tables when you step out the gate!

Every Saturday and Sunday
A massive weekend affair that is great fun and features a variety of fruits and vegetables and prepared products from all over Japan. Plus, there's a most excellent selection of food trucks offering everything from salad to zingy curry to roast chicken to falafel!
10am to 4pm

Every Saturday
Back up and running after a refurbishment of the market space, the Roppongi Farmers Market is as booming and bountiful as ever. Don't miss this chance to meet a grower from Tokyo's very own Kokobunji and sample seasonal bounty.
10am to 4pm (Usually. Do check their website for schedule fluctuations.)
Map

Yurakucho Farmer's Market
Every Saturday and Sunday
Smaller than the UNU Market, Yurakacho features a particular region of Japan each week along with an excellent selection of seasonal fruit and vegetables. Growers from nearby Chiba, Kamakura, and Saitama are also on hand to help fill the larder.
11am to 5pm
Directions: Turn left out of Yurakacho station and cross the courtyard toward Tokyo Kouku Keitan. Look for the fun under the overhang!

Know of a market? Give me a shout and we'll add it to the list!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Reprise: Mystery solved! A Review of A Guide to Food Buying in Japan by Carolyn R. Krouse


This post first appeared in June, 2012 at Ecotwaza.com, a lovely little company sharing the joys of Japanese culture, where I used to write a monthly column. Wander over and take a look at the good work they're up to. Don't be shy to email in English. They're fluent and more than happy to help! - JB

Buying food in a foreign culture can be as intimidating as it can be exhiliaraing. A new country, more often than not, means new vegetables and fruits, some bearing only a slight resemblance to beloved favorites from home and others so different, they are a tad frightening. A new culture also presents new  cooking challenges – a lack of an oven or only two burners on a stove, for example – not to mention different spices and sauces. Without a personal guide, the usually familiar terrain of supermarkets, green grocers and farmers markets suddenly becomes an alien landscape. Throw in an experimental purchase or two gone wrong, (“That was intestine?!?”) and even the most adventurous may begin searching for the the local branch of an international fast food chain or grocer.

Enter Carolyn Krouse's book, A Guide to Food Buying in Japan (Tuttle Publishing, 1986). Just the gentle hand most new arrivals need and desire, Krouse's book is a no-nonsense reference that still holds merit despite being published more than 25 years ago.  Many of the products she lists remain the same, as do the fish, vegetables, and fruits commonly  available.  New vegetables, such as zucchini, may well be familiar to foreigners in Japan, but the old guard – udo, daikon, kabu, komatsuna, and burdock – will most likely be strangers.  Soba, udon, ramen, and somen with matching sauces and broths are a new world of noodle much different than the pasta many people know. Similarly, the wide variety of tofus, teas, rice, and other cultural favorites are all also briefly but well explained. 

Laid out in a handful of chapters focusing on different food groups as well as common cleaning supplies, Krouse includes photos and sketches of various items, as well as the kanji, hiragana, and katakana that might be needed.  Enlarged illustrations of product labels – from food to cleaning products – are given with explanations of each item listed. The same is done for sale fliers and other commonly occurring signs found while out foraging for dinner.  Krouse even includes a recipe or two and some advice to get people started in their new kitchens with a new set of pantry items. Those with food allergies will find reassurance in clear examples of kanji (with the associated pronunciation aids) for assorted fish, nut, and dairy items. 

Photos and sketches complement short descriptions of everything from fruit to vegetables to seaweed, with a seasonal chart of fish thrown in for good measure. Krouse also thoughtfully includes some basic Japanese the shopper will find invaluable such as “How much is it?” and “Is it in season?” She describes specialty shops found along every shotengai (shopping street), too, although these are fast disappearing despite better service, less packaging, and usually slightly lower prices with the advent of chain supermarkets and the arrival of big box style stores.

She also lets readers in on a few handy tricks like finding baking soda (look in the drugstore rather than the supermarket) along with tips for quick substitutions (powdered cocoa and shortening can replace baking chocolate in a pinch) that will save cooking hassles galore. Her suggestion to visit department store basements with their vast selections of beautifully presented appetizers, main dishes, and desserts is a great idea for exploring and sampling new foods. Perhaps most wonderful for new arrivals as well as longer term residents, though, are the vocabulary lists (everything from additives to seaweed to drain cleaner is listed in English with corresponding kanjji, hiragana, katakana and a romanji pronunciation guide), recommended reading list (a bit dated but still useful), conversion tables, cooking terms, and counting terminology. 


A slim volume, A Guide to Buying Food in Japan, is meant to be easily whipped out when consternation and confusion strike. Krouse's brief explanations and definitions serve as an excellent starting point for those wishing to know exactly what it is in front of them. Users should keep in mind that this is a pocket reference, and that further knowledge of an item will require a bit of research, bumbling language efforts, and lots of smiling and laughter. While not answering every question a reader might have about a particular item, A Guide to Buying Food in Japan will certainly help transform the weird and new into old friends welcome in the household.