True story: I lived in Japan for two days before I went to the grocery store for the first time. I really only wanted two things: cereal and soy milk. I knew what cereal looked like, but had no idea which carton in the milk case was soy.
Being a jetlagged idiot, I didn’t think to Google it, and decided I was going to try to COMMUNICATE IN JAPANESE. This is what my dumb brain told me:
Soybean = Edamame
Milk = Gyuunyuu
So I walked up to the clerk and asked, “Edamame gyuunyuu?” (I swear it made sense at the time.) Her face was a mix of confusion and pity– thankfully an old lady with English skills was right there to save us. Sad.
If you don’t speak Japanese, going to the grocery store for the first time is intimidating. A trip that should take twenty minutes takes well over an hour—translating bottles and packages without pictures is a hurdle most expats face daily.
Most foreigners I know ate a lot of ramen, sushi, and fried chicken their first few months here until figuring out their grocery “regulars.” And I’m still pretty new here, so this is far from an exhaustive list, but here are a few things I buy weekly and think are worth knowing about.
Soy Milk (豆乳 Tounyuu): An old school gaijin friend explained to me: Tofu + gyuunyuu. Ohhhhh.
Almond Milk (アーモンドミルク): So anyone who’s read my stuff knows that almond milk is really my top choice. Almond Breeze was released in Japan last September, but it’s still pretty hard to find. I can get another brand at National Azuban… for 800 yen a carton.
Nabe Base: Easiest one pot meal ever. Put the soup in the pot, add vegis, meat or tofu, and BOOM. Done deal. Healthy, easy, yummy, cheap. I love this one.
Kamabuko: These little fried fish cakes are a yummy ingredient in Oden (Japanese hot pot) but they have sort of an egg-y omelette quality to them. I eat them for breakfast with fruit all the time. Are you “supposed” to eat them this way? No. Is it delicious? Yes.
Tsukemono (漬物): I’m a tsukemono-aholic. There are a million different kinds, but my favorites include:
Takuan: These are the pickled daikon served as a side to bentos. Crunchy, sweet, with a slightly squeaky bite. So yum.
Shibazuke: Woo- do I love these guys (cucumbers pickled in plum vinegar). If you like crunchy, sour, salty stuff, you’re welcome. I buy the chopped up ones at the store and eat them with fish, eggs, meat, rice bowls… (who am I kidding I just eat them out of the container…). NOM.
Rakkyo: Next to the Shibazuke, these are my second favorites. I first tried these at a friend’s house for dinner and became immediately hooked. These pickled scallions are way way sweeter that the others, so you can OD on them a little bit. I buy the sacks with the thinly sliced chilis in them for a little spice. I serve them with salads or starters, but use more sparingly because to me they’re pretty tangy.
Okay Let’s talk meat.
Kanji Meat: A Quick Guide
鶏肉 — toriniku (chicken)
豚 — butaniku (pork)
牛 — gyuuniku (beef)
肩肉 – shoulder / chuck: use this one for curry
サーロイン – sirloin (steak)
和牛 – Wagyu (high grade beef, so good)
Fish: the raw and the cooked. It’s pretty straightforward:
加熱用 – means you need to cook this fish
刺身用 — means sashimi grade. Just eat it.
I can keep going on the google-ables, but I’d like to crowdsource specific foods or brands from you guys. Post your photos, links, tips, names, kanji in the comments section. The newcomers need to know what they’re missing!