Japan Food Report: Internet Fish Market Changed Japanese Home-Dining Scenes

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From top R: Chu-toro (pink), Paradise Prawn (blue), Kazunoko/Herring roe (yellow), Hotaru-ika/Firefly Squid (purplish brown), Tako/Squid (white with purple edge)

Every time I go back to Japan, I’m amazed by their obsessions with fresh and unique food.  It’s getting worse every year it seems.

Now with the internet, you can order practically anything from anywhere in the world. For the Japanese, probably the most prominent is that you can order the freshest seafood that used to be only available when you traveled to a specific area. It can be on your dining table the next day, without leaving your desk or home (order by 1pm today, you get it tomorrow for dinner.)

Yes, we have been able to get sashimi of many different kind of seafood for decades (or longer) at our local supermarket, but the internet really changed the way the Japanese eat seafood, direct from the port.

On our dinner table on the first two days of our visit, we had the following:

– Hotaru ika (Firefly Squid) from Toyama (on the photo above)
– Paradise Prawn from New Caledonia (ditto)
– Shiro baigai (White Ivory Shell)
– Extra Large Zuwai Gani (Snow Crab) legs (5 inches long) from Canada

All came through internet, fresh frozen except for Baigai (fresh).  My question is, why don’t we have the same service in the US?  Canada is much closer to us than in Japan.  And their ads stated these crabs are prepared and frozen at a USDA approved plant.

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Shiro-baigai

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Snow Crab legs

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My sister joyfully preparing these giant crab legs for the kani shabu/crab hot-pot.  She loves seafood, plus this was an excellent opportunity for her to impress my husband, the special guest at their household.

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(Besides the hot-pot, we had yakitori (bottom left), bonito sashimi (bottom middle), mounds of hotaru-ika (brownish mass on the bottom right), pickled nappa cabbage (center, cream-colored thing), and nameko mushrooms with baby anchovies (brown thing right next to it), etc.)

The Japanese doctors and nutritionists often say “eat 30 different food items per day”. This alone is close to that 30 in one meal!

It was not just the variety, but the amount was pretty generous as well. We don’t eat like this when we are in the US, so we got really full quickly. Both my mom and sister kept offering us to eat more: “We got all these for you, and we don’t want to spoil them.” I started to think, now I lost weight from eating smaller portions in the US, this is the first time I would gain weight by visiting Japan.

It seems to me that because of the economy, Japanese people are not eating this über fresh seafood at the five-star Japanese restaurants, but at home for a fraction of the price (or same price, 5 – 10 times of the amount.)  Plus preparing sashimi takes practally no time.  Once it’s thawed, all you do is place it on a plate.

We used to buy a few slices of assorted sashimi — about 1/4 – 1/3 lbs or so on a small tray for $20 or so.   Now these internet fish markets sells these by the kilo, and often have special bulk offers, such as “buy 3kg (6.6 lbs), you get shipping free”.  These internet offerings are definitely cheaper if you do the math (and they do that for you in their marketing copy).  It’s basically bulk sales, like buying at Costco. It’s a smart business model though, because people buy a larger amount, share with others, then they too get hooked with the fresh seafood.  The word of mouth spreads like a tsunami!

For example, my sister got 3kg of raw baby squid (hotaru ika) at once, because by buying two 1 kilo boxes, this company will give you another one free, plus free shipping.  Just like me, she loves variety, so as you see, she orders four kinds of seafood, anywhere between 1 – 3 kgs, totalling about 10 kgs (22 lbs!) for 3 adults in 40s and one 78 years old woman!  Way too much!  The Japanese traditionally hates wasting food, especially super fresh straight from the port kind, so she shares these seafood with other relatives.

My guess is that one of our relatives first ordered a lot, and shared with everyone else.  In any case, the circle of ordering and sharing keeps going.

Despite her effort, my husband wasn’t too excited about them.  After all, he’s a white boy from the Midwest.  He freaked out with these “big shiny eyes”.  Me?  I enjoyed them a lot.  They were so rich and sweet, I loved them…  until after about 20, and still a mound of them left.  Too bad you weren’t there with us! (My sister probably still has majority of them left in the freezer.  If you are willing to visit her in Tokyo and eat some baby squid, let me know!)  Now I’ve been away from them for a while, these photos makes me long for this seafood…  (drool….)

Maybe some of you don’t agree with this national obsession with fresh seafood, and the gluttony of Japanese ordinary (middle-class) gourmands.

And excessive fishing.  I haven’t watched the Cove yet, but I can see that the same thing could happen with other kinds of seafood.

What do you think?  Is it good that Japanese can order so many varieties of fresh seafood so easily?

Japan Food Report 1 – Amazing Food Choices at the Train Station

Food is everywhere in Japan.

A lot more than I thought, or specifically, a lot more than I remembered.

Even at the train station. I mean inside of the actual station, after you pay, and go though the ticket booth.

When we went to Kyoto, we got some bento — pre-made boxed lunches before we went through the actual ticket gate at the station. Since we started our day a bit late, I thought we should eat lunch in the train and save time in Kyoto for sight-seeing. I knew that in Japan, all these long-distance trains have vendor girls who go through the entire train to sell bento, snacks, and drinks. There are also some bento sold at platforms of the major stations of long distance lines. But in my memory, the choices were pretty limited. We had time there till our train would arrive, so I thought we should buy our bento where there was the most selection.

There were quite a bit of choices at Kamata, which is medium sized train station near my mom’s house, even without going into the adjacent department stores’ food floor. Most of the Japanese department stores have at least one, sometimes two floors dedicated to everything food for home-consumption, in addition to one or two more "restaurant floors".

We took the JR (Japan Rail) Keihin Tohoku Line to Shinagawa, to get on to the bullet train.

I was in awe when we got there!

This medium sized station changed so much! I used to get off at this station, every single day from spring of 1967 till spring of ‘77 for my elementary and junior high school. Even later, I either passed through or changed trains at that station practically every day until I left Japan in early September, 1988. Now not only Shinkansen, but Narita Express stops there. The biggest surprise was that they have something called Ecute, which is the concourse food mall, much more elaborate (when it comes to food) than those in the major airports in the world. On one floor that opens right up to the major station corridor, they have 13 food shops called "Traveler’s Kitchen", 13 sweet shops, and 7 other food related stores.

The first thing that caught my eyes…

Only in Japan, you see individually wrapped sushi. The choices are pretty impressive, far better than the typical sushi joint (at least to those who just arrived from the US!) This is a branch of a Numazu Uogashi Sushi, in English, Numazu Fish Market sushi. Numazu is a well-known fish port in a few hour South of Tokyo. No wonder they have amazing choices even for "wrapped sushi".

Another pretty and appetizing choice from Numazu Uogashi Sushi. These look prettier than desserts! I love the color contrasts, not only from the top, but from the side too. When I make chirashi zushi like this next time, I might put it in a glass container.

Traditional Japanese traveler’s lunch, onigiri. A seasonal item, the pink one on the left feature salted cherry blossoms. Looking at these choices inspires me to incorporate more colors and varieties in my cooking.

Not only Japanese, but they also have Chinese dim sum. We Japanese LOVE these, and often make them at home as well. these are giant "log gyoza", probably about 3-4 times bigger than regular gyoza.

Shrimp Chive Dumplings. They are my favorite! I bet they are pretty warm, or they will heat it up for you. We had our 3rd breakfast one hour before (we were jetlagged!), and it was only at 10 am, meaning they wouldn’t be eaten for another 2 hours, so we had to pass on them.

Japanese love foreign names, and often it sounds funny to those who speak English. (Same can be said about American stores and products with Japanese names.) Buzz Search for a fancy bakery. I wonder where the name came from???

You can buy this beautiful fruit tart at the train station, while connecting to another train. Especially because it was a station I used every day since I was 6 years old, it felt very strange. I wish train stations in the Bay Area were like this….

Japanese love seasonal items. These are Sakura (cherry blossom) Roll Cakes. I didn’t eat any, but they probably have cherry petals ground into the cake outside, and the leaf on top is cherry. We also enjoy cherry blossom tea & cherry blossom mochi (Sakura mochi) in spring as well. One time, I even bought cherry blossom udon. Pretty pink udon with a subtle scent of cherry blossoms.

Japanese often buy food or cakes for others, or when they travel somewhere, they buy something to share (and eat) for work. So they are probably for that purpose, not to eat the whole thing in the Shinkansen train. The entire show case was filled with these cakes. Who buys all these cakes? The Japanese are getting even more picky about freshness, I bet they will throw them out if they don’t sell in one day.

There was only one non-food store on the first floor…

It’s pretty amazing they have such a fancy florist inside of a train station. These tall branches are cherry blossoms.

Noticing us taking photos, this guy at the florist gave us a peace sign. : )

A traveler or a commuter can buy these foods (and flowers) with a Suica Card, a chargeable card for any train or bus line tickets in Greater Tokyo and Kanto area, which can be also used at vending machines, Kiosks, and other stores inside of the train stations in the Suica covered area. The Wikipedia says that you can use this in Kansai Area, but when we were in Kyoto and Kobe, I didn’t see any Suica readers. The greatest thing about this card is that you don’t even need to take it out of your wallet or even a purse. You just need to strategically place your suica card facing outside of the bag or wallet, and tap that area with the reader when you are going through the booth. A perfect solution for ever crowded stations in Japan!

So, of course, there were Suica readers at these food shops within ECute.

Suica is a charge card mainly for all public transportation within Kanto area, but also for other purchases at the vendors inside of train stations as well as other stores outside of the train station. I loved that card — I can get on to all the trains, subway, bus, and buy things like bento box, sushi and flowers.

Given that in the Bay Area (and many other US cities), we need different cards for different things, or have to buy a ticket each time you use public transportation, I really want Suica to be introduced to the US!!!

You could pass HOURS at ECute, but (un)fortunately, these bullet train comes every 5 minutes or so. Even Hikari, which is free for JR Pass holders comes every 30 minutes, so we couldn’t piddle there too long. The good thing is, is just right down the hallway! How convenient!

Our train is coming into Shinagawa station. I’m surprised that the gate is left open before the train comes to stop.

You can buy things like several choices of bento boxes, canned beer, soft drinks, green tea and sake in most long-distance train in Japan. Next time we go somewhere, I’ll definitely buy my bento at ECute at Shinagawa Station!

I wish there were these stores when I was at school. Then I would be buying these tasty snacks and more every day after school, since I was always hungry.

The thing is, it was good that there weren’t. I would have gone broke easily, and if there were Suica at that time, I would have been in trouble with my parents why my card needs to be charged more often than needed for commuting.

So do you think it’s good to have fancy food stores like these inside the train station? Would you like to have a few at your station? Or for drivers, would you like fancier choices than McDs and other typical first food drive-throughs?

Sneak Preview — Food in Japan Report

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Happy April!
As with the most wizards, a Kitchen Wizard also disappears from time to time.

This time, I wasn’t sick, and not being able to eat.  (Thank god!)

As a matter of fact, I was in Japan, visiting family and eating lots of good food for 2 weeks.

During the fast week, my husband joined, and we travelled to Kyoto and such.
On my second week, he went home becoming a mini-kitchen wizard back home during my absence, while I taught my mom how to do Kitchen Wizarding, and she made some things from the base I made.

I will start more detailed reports with photos next week.

In the meantime, here is a sneak preview — the highlights from my trip, to whet your appetite over the weekend.  : )
(The slide show of all these photos on top.)

Which photo/food do you find most intriguing?

Have a great weekend!

Batch and fridge: Sautéed Mirepoix Tomato and Meat Mixture — Stuffed Cabbage

Stuffed Cabbage

Stuffed Cabbage

It’s getting dark, cold, and RAINY in the Bay Area.  Yes, this fall is exceptionally rainy, and it rains cats and dogs, and that’s not enough, as if all the animals are falling from the sky. And I heard that those people in Colorado, Nebraska etc. already had 6 inches on snow, in early October?  Not just global warming, the weather is strange lately.

On an evening like that, and especially when I’m recovering from sickness, one thing I crave for is stuffed cabbage.

Believe it or not (I might have said that before), 99% of Japanese housewives cook Japanese, other Asian, as well as European origin food as normal repertoire. At least the last 50 years, that has been the norm.  Japanese are known to adopt great things from other countries and improve it to make it more efficient, like cars and electronics. And maybe not as well known fact outside of Japan, but food is definitely one of them.  We Japanize it with the ingredients that are available in Japan, and make it our own.

So, when I was little, and get sick, one of the things I craved for was “Rolled Cabbage” which is stuffed cabbage. Not just at my house, but ask 100 Japanese, whether they live in Japan or elsewhere, I can guarantee majority will say “I make them once in a while.”  We even have Japanese version, which often is found in oden, Japanese pot-au-feu.

The problem with Stuffed cabbage is it takes quite a long time to make it from scratch. But through my Kitchen Wizarding Process, I found a very easy way, that only takes about half or less time, and as tasty!

Plus my version uses mirepoix as its base, and not much meat, so it’s super healthy.  If you are vegetarian, or vegan, omit meat.

To make it even healthier, you can use other kinds of grains and even more vegetables, instead of rice. If the stuffing is too loose, add a beaten egg, so that it’ll serve as a binding agent.

So here’s Kitchen Wizard’s stuffed cabbage recipe!

Stuffed Cabbage

Ingredients:

  • Sautéed Mirepoix, Meat and Tomato Mixture – about 1 cup
  • Cooked rice – about 1 cup
  • Grated cheese – about 1/4 cup (optional)
  • Salt and Pepper
  • A head of cabbage
  • 1/3 –1/4 Can of tomatoes or 2 large tomatoes, chopped
  • Chicken or vegetable broth
  • Cream

Directions:

  1. Remove the core of the cabbage, and stuff the hole with a moist paper-towel.  Wrap it with plastic wrap, and microwave it until cooked through, turning once in the middle. (about 5 min for small head cabbage, about 1 lb.  About 8-9 min for a 2 pounder.) This will allow the leaves to come out easily.
  2. Mix cooked rice and sautéed mirepoix, meat and tomato mixture about 50/50. Add cheese if preferred. Mix and season well.  Sprinkle some salt on the cabbage. Wrap a few tablespoons of the rice mixture with the cabbage leaves tightly.  Secure the end with tooth pick or broken spaghetti.
  3. Arrange the cabbage rolls into a pan as tightly as possible, trying not to leave any space.  If there’s any space, stuff with leftover cabbage.
  4. Add broth to barely cover the cabbage rolls.  Top with chopped tomatoes, and place a lid or plate that is one size smaller than the opening, so that the rolls will not float up. Cook for about 20-30 min.  (If you are short with time, cook in microwave, in several minute increments.  Be careful not boil over the broth.)
  5. Serve immediately with cream on top.

Note: Do you have any cooked cabbage leftover?  Great!  Because it’s really handy!  You can shred it and add to miso soup, other kind of soup, mix with vinaigrette to make simple salad as a side dish, sauté lightly with salt and pepper, with tomatoes, curry powder, bacon, etc. etc.

They were so yummy, they made the last bit of my sickness go away…

Never forget, nourish your soul with good, whole food, not just body…  It’ll thank you and give back 100 times! And the best way to do that is through home-cooking.  Treat yourself with your childhood favorite from time to time!