Monday, August 23, 2010

Street Food and Grocery Stores

I just spent two days eating street food so I haven’t been to the grocery stores for a while. The street food was exceptional though. I went to the Azubu-Judan Matsuri which is three day event in that section of Tokyo. My friend who worked for CDJapan has gone to this particular festival for a number of years and asked me if I wanted to tag along.

We arrived at noon, three hours early when there were very few people milling about and nothing was happening so we took off to run an errand and kill some time. When we came back at 3:00 the transformation was staggering. I’ve attached before and after pictures on the right side of the blog at if you are reading this on another site.

The previous Matsuri festival I went to was more about the traditional dances and music. This one was about food. There was a small stage with some kid style entertainment but the rest of the action seemed exclusively to be food stalls. My friend and I ate for the next three hours. There were unlimited numbers of food varieties through out the mile or so of elbow to elbow food stands. Yakitori, okonomiyaki, grilled fish, pancakes stuffed with jam or custard and the favorite street food in Japan, takoyaki. One food item that was very popular was potato and butter. I didn’t have one but saw plenty of people with a boiled yellow potato busted open and topped with butter. There were booths for them everywhere. The okonomiyaki was good but large and I didn’t want to fill up too soon so I only ate part of it.

There were a lot of Korean food stands as well. I had a savory pancake type item that had dough like a dumpling stuffed with a ground chicken and fried into a flat round patty. It was very tasty with the chicken and onion mixed and had a touch of soya flavor. Another Korean dish that looked good was a rice pasta dish. The pasta were shaped like penne but they were not hollow and they were cooked with vegetables and some kind of seafood it looked like, then a weak colored red sauce that looked and smelled spicy was added. We never got back to try that dish.

Chinese food was also very prevalent and I wanted to try the garlic shrimp at the one booth where I saw it. The shrimp were battered and cooked individually and stood up straight in a clear plastic cup like French fries. The serving looked plentiful but I forgot were we had seen the booth and we didn’t make it back.

The restaurants and stores that lined the streets also had booths on their sidewalks so you could also get candy, Italian food and beer. I’ve never seen so many beer kegs lined up on a street before.

My friend had more errands to run so we left after about three hours and when I got back to Mitaka I landed right in the middle of Mitaka’s two day Matsuri festival. This one was more like the one I’d been to in Naka-Meguro where the main street was a parade of dancing and music. I stayed and watched for an hour then spotted a takoyaki booth and bought a tray to take home for dinner.

The next night I went back out and ate the Mitaka Matsuri street food for about two hours. I had a Korean onion pancake, a tray of fried noodles, four sticks of various yakiniku (grilled meet on a stick) with a fried fish patty, a few glasses of beer and then walked by the India restaurant on my way home and had some tandori chicken grilled on the street.

After all the street food I decided to cook for myself the next day. I had some soba noodles but wanted some sashimi to go with them so I made a trip to the grocery store.

From the Mitaka train station if you walk less that a quarter mile you will pass four different grocery stores. This makes sense because so many people get off the train and buy their evening meal on the way home. The Japanese people work late in most of their jobs and many don’t want to cook when they get home so the previously prepared food section of the grocery stores takes up a lot of store space and there are a variety of food items to choose from.

Cutlets are fairly dominant in this area. Potato, pork, shrimp and some I can’t figure out are all available for 150 to 400 yen. I saw people with small plastic boxes filling them up with various cutlets to take home to the family. You can also get trays of vegetable mixes of various sizes from single person to family of four. Inside you find carrot, small creamy potatoes, konyaku (yam jelly), bamboo shoots, green beans and lotus root.

Next is tempura with a variety of vegetables and shrimp in batter. And as always, there are the complete meal boxes that have rice, vegetables and some protein for one person. They all look tempting and the ones I’ve tried have been great.

Last night on television there was a business documentary on some of the top grocery stores in Japan. They highlighted the most important features of the stores and with most of them it was the quality of the prepared food that they highlighted. The thing that contributes most to the excellent prepared food is the huge kitchen in the back of the store. Giant deep fryers and woks and stewing pots to prepare the food on site and to keep it fresh. The items are time stamped and it’s one person’s job to go out and check the time stamps. If the food is older that a specified time they place discount stickers on the boxes. I don’t know if the small stores I’ve been in have their own kitchens but the food looks like it was just prepared.

The other area the stores wanted to highlight was their fish section. It is by far the largest section of each grocery store. The varieties and methods of preparation are amazing. Raw whole fish is available but the fish mongers have also prepared cuts of fish into different proportions. Here you find the sashimi boxes of various sizes, types of fish and price. Then there is a smoked fish section and always some sushi in boxes.

In the one store nearest the station they have two fish markets. One is part of the main grocery store and the other is a privately owned fish specialty store. The one that is owned by the store has an older fish monger behind the counter in a small work area who chants the whole time you are there. He punctuates the end of each chant with a chop of his blade on the fish he is working on.

In this one there is also a privately owned coffee store as well as a private rice and grain store.

My girlfriend and I like to go into grocery stores wherever we go just to see the quality of the local food and what’s available. We went into one in Himeji during our first trip to Japan and in the fish section we saw one of those wine cooler devices that used to be in grocery stores back home where you could put your wine in for a minute or two and have it chilled. We got over to this one and it was a swimming, slithering melee of live eels. There was a roll of plastic bags, a rack of twist ties and a scoop net hanging beside the cooler so you could fish out the eels and then pay for them by the kilogram.

In contrast to American stores the canned goods section is usually pretty small. You can find a few America products in these sections like Campbell’s Soup and other brand names. The Japanese canned foods are mostly, you guessed it, fish. Scallops, lobster, crab, salmon and so on. They also have canned pork that has been slow boiled in a soya broth. It looks like quiet a bit of fat is still on the meat so I haven’t tried the can my friend bought for me.

The snack food sections are also quite large, mostly rice cracker snacks which are basted in different flavors but in one store I saw a section dedicated to North American snack foods. They had salsa but no plain tortilla chips just flavored Doritos to dip in the salsa. The other thing they had that stood out was the Funyuns.

The meat counters are fairly limited. You don’t see a lot of steaks or roasts because the Japanese don’t eat their meat in large portions like we do in NA. There is a good selection of ground meats but the most dominant meat style is very thin cuts that can be used for Shabu-Shabu and Sukiyaki where you don’t cook the meat for a very long time. I’ve purchased pork and beef to add to stir-fries or curries but only twice. Since then it’s been all fish for me.

The last major section is the fruit and vegetable section. Every one of the stores had good quality fruit. The prices are a little high but the fruit is delicious. The peaches and nectarines are full of flavor and juicy. There are a lot of fruit and vegetable markets as well as what is available in the grocery stores so I’m surprised the prices are high.

Potatoes aren’t very popular but Japanese yams are everywhere. Not too many onions and the cucumbers are the small Persian style. Lots of tomatoes but they are also expensive. Quite a few Asian herbs that I’m not familiar with but chizo, sometimes called Japanese Basil, is sold in trays and is quite delicious. My friend and I had a yakatori that was ground chicken on a chizo leaf, wrapped around a stick, dipped in a thin batter and grilled, the chizo burst in your mouth with a fresh zesty flavor followed by the umami chicken. It was great.

When you check out you take your basket to the checker and they ring you through moving your goods from one basket to an identical one while they scan but, they don’t bag you goods. Instead they place empty bags in your basket and after you pay you go to the self pack stands to transfer your goods into the carry-out bags. Maybe it’s just the grocery stores near busy train stations that do this but I was surprised. The Japanese businesses pride themselves on service so I thought they may have had people bagging your goods then bowing as you leave to give you a pleasant sendoff.

The dairy section offers a good selection of milk but there is almost no cheese. I think I lose weight on these trips because of a lack of dairy. I can't remember seeing a frozen food section. If there is one I'm sure it's a small one. They like to keep it fresh in Japan.

I enjoy going to these stores and I go everyday. My refrigerator is so small I can’t keep much in it and I want to buy the freshest fish possible so I want to go everyday. My biggest problem is deciding which of the stores to go to and I never buy just what I went looking for.

Don’t forget to visit my publisher’s website at to read an excerpt from my novel, A Wind In Montana, and give me your contact information and I’ll send you an excerpt from my second novel due out in January of 2011.

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