Heaven Is the Food Court at a Suburban Japanese Supermarket
I took a delicious snack tour of Mitsuwa, a huge Japanese supermarket and food court in New Jersey, and came out knowing a lot more about milky soft drinks and pickled root vegetables.
Welcome back to Ashok Kondabolu's (a.k.a. Dapwell) column, Aisle Check, where he focuses on the concept of "ethnic" grocery stores. Aren't all grocery stores "ethnic" in the scope of the world? And aren't they all just grocery stores?
I think I may have heard of Edgewater, New Jersey's existence on an AM radio traffic report at some point, but I certainly didn't expect to be going there anytime soon (if ever).
I was recently talking to my friend—who had just moved to Los Angeles—about this giant Japanese supermarket called Mitsuwa where she'd been spending a lot of time hanging out, eating, and shopping. She explained that most people go there to eat Japanese food, mall-cafeteria style, but it's also a massive emporium of Japanese foods, cosmetics, art supplies, etc. There was even mention of a Japanese dentist the supermarket chain flies in from Japan.
Surprise, surprise: their website, featuring the lovely mascot Mi-Taro, listed a New Jersey location at the bottom. I had to do this.
I called my friend, dancer/choreographer Juri Onuki, and asked if she wanted to come with me to New Jersey to check out a Japanese supermarket there. She said she loved Mitsuwa, and to make sure to go with an empty stomach because eating after you shop (or before—hungry shopping is risky shopping) is the best part. Juri is from Ibaraki in Japan. It's an hour and a half north of Tokyo. "My hometown is rural: all agriculture and fishing" she told me. "The southern half is suburban—people commute to Tokyo."
We took an afternoon New Jersey Transit bus from Port Authority that stops directly in front of Mitsuwa. They operated free shuttle buses for years, but they stopped running this year. During the ride, I saw many places I'd only heard of, like Weehawken and Palisades Park, and was surprised by how close we were to New York. (Upper Manhattan is directly across the river.) On the New Jersey waterfront around there, it seemed like every building was built in the last few years, with many more giant condominiums under construction as the bus drove further north.
Half an hour after boarding, our bus rolled in front of the Mitsuwa complex. Juri helped me decipher the huge array of Japanese groceries that we encountered.
"These are some very casual mochis. Traditional mochi is typically filled with red bean paste. Seasonally, we add strawberries or other types of beans. Now they have matcha, peach—all sorts of non-traditional fillings. They're especially popular on New Year's. I ate a whole bag of mochi myself during the first week of January. Nine people died earlier this year from choking on mochi; if someone's choking on mochi, you have to take a vacuum and suck it out, or they'll die. Make sure you don't laugh while eating mochi."
"Yuzu pepper is originally from Kyushu. This is a liquid type, but it usually comes in a paste. We use the skin mostly, not so much the fruit. The skin is for garnishing wintry dishes, You would lay the yuzu on top of a New Year's soup called ozouni. It's very good with fish and meat—a very refreshing citrus flavor."
"Burdock root. It's huge. It's great for soup, and you can cook it with soy sauce. It's versatile. Kinpira is traditionally made with burdock."
"Mizuna is definitely one of my favorite greens. It's popular in the states as a 'supergreen' in grocery stores. It has a great texture and a refreshing taste. In the southern part of Ibaraki, where I'm from, they grow a ton of mizuna. You can eat it with cherry tomatoes, paprika, whatever you like. The best dressing is yuzu pepper, olive oil, salt and pepper. It tastes awesome."
"I sometimes see shiso on the sidewalk in Brooklyn. I explain it as being sort of like a Japanese basil. It's a very popular herb that's really good with daikon radish on the side of sushi or sashimi. You can make it into a paste and serve it with soba or really any type of noodle. Or marinate it with soy sauce and garlic for a week. It goes bad really quickly. But it's very easy to grow, so I recommend doing that."
"Peach- and strawberry-flavored soymilk. My mom drinks soymilk on a regular basis. The Japanese kind tastes very dense, not sweet. A shot of it can make you feel full."
"I like kimchi, but we have different kinds of pickles in Japan. Takuan is a very popular, standard Japanese radish pickle. You put it on the side of your meal and eat it in between bites of the other food."
"Umeboshi, or pickled plums. Another standard Japanese pickle. You can eat it with rice and it's really sour and salty. When I was little, I'd sneak into the fridge and eat like, five pickled plums. My mother would find me and be like "Oh my god, you don't know how much sodium you've eaten right now!""
"All these are different mashed fish cakes, mixed with vegetables and then fried. We use this kind of thing in a hotpot called oden. It's very homey—you want to have a glass of sake with it. It often comes in these ready-made kits with a broth packet included."
"This is natto—fermented soybeans. Most people don't like them, because they're stinky, but I love this stuff. Where I'm from is the natto capital of Japan. In the US, I don't find anything similar to what I grew up eating. I eat it over white rice, some people eat it with paste. Sometimes I crave it so much."
"This octopus is for a big, fancy bento box-like dish eaten for New Year's. It's pricey and is known as osechi. It's also made with cooked black beans, roast beef, pickled carrot, daikon, and cooked egg custard. It's a beautiful thing, all layered on top of each other."
"We do love our curry. It's not like Indian curry—it's in its own category. It's a little soupier. Meat, seafood, mushrooms, eat it as you like it. They have these brands that say 'European curry' and I wonder what it is. Some people have a weekly curry day—every Tuesday is curry day at my friend's house."
"We also love instant noodles. The quality of instant noodles has become top-notch, and you can hardly tell that they're freeze-dried. Nissin is a hugely popular brand. The ramen business is really competitive—people get so excited over what's good, what's not good, new flavors, freshness. Yaki-soba, easily one of my favorite dishes of all time, is a very simple stir-fried noodle that comes in a wide variety of thicknesses and flavors, like yuzu pepper or sweet miso. Classically, it just comes in a salt flavor. Vendors in the summer sell it at festivals."
"It took me a while to find a good mayonnaise in the United States. Kewpie: this is my mayonnaise, this is the shit, it's so good. It took me a while to like Hellman's and other American mayonnaise. Japanese mayo just isn't as sweet as American mayo; it has more umami to it. I put it on salad, I put it on yaki-soba, it's crazy. There are people who put mayonnaise on everything. A great veggie dip is mayonnaise mixed with sesame oil, lemon, and a little bit of pepper flakes. I highly recommend it."
"Kaki No Tane is a spicy rice cracker. I usually have it with a beer or some other type of alcohol. It usually comes with peanuts—a great drinking snack."
"The famous Pocky has been really popular in the States for years, but I also grew up eating these back home. I like the almond, green tea, and strawberry flavors. They even had a 'Men's Pocky' in a green package that was less sweet than regular Pocky, but they stopped making it. Now they make a 'grown-up milk' version."
"This is Kasugai gummy candy. They always have a new flavor coming out—yuzu, watermelon, peach, ramune now, which is a sugar water-like Japanese seltzer that always comes in a glass bottle with a marble stuck in the top instead of a cap. You press it down into the drink and the carbonation comes out. It's fun and traditional."
"One Cup sake is known for being in vending machines on train station platforms. Businessmen have started to drink this on their way home. Public drinking is allowed in Japan, so you'll see people drinking this on the platform after rush hour."
"Calpico is like a sweet, milky soft drink. I loved it growing up—having a bottle in a household is standard. It's often drank in the summer. It has a ton of different flavors and you can mix it with soda or shochu."
"We drink a lot of canned coffee. Vending machines dedicated to canned coffee are quite popular. Big Hollywood stars like Richard Gere and Tommy Lee Jones will star in these commercial campaigns for them."
The coffee vending machines were conveniently placed next to the checkout lines. We paid for our purchases and headed straight to the cafeteria section of Mitsuwa. It was crowded, with a number of fake-food displays on the wall for us to choose our meals with. There was ramen, tea-flavored ice creams, Japanese desserts, and an entire tempura section. I had a small spicy miso ramen and some matcha-flavored ice cream.
We finished and crossed the street to wait for the 158 bus back to Port Authority—another equally crowded and diverse break from reality.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in January, 2015.