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True Stories of Life in Japan, pt 6: Shopping Blind

It’s pretty much a tautology to say that the tastes of individuals are varied. Somehow, it was still a surprise to learn that entire societies have tastes, and they vary even more widely. Japanese food peculiarities go way beyond sushi; that’s just the part that gets exported to the world. In a Japanese grocery store, though, you can find Tentacle Jerky, with original suckers proudly displayed. You can find the canned meat of horses, deer, bear, and more–my vocabulary ran out before the canned-food section did. You can buy chicken cartilege to fry, or pig skin which has been pre-fried for you. There are displays in the greengrocer’s section showcasing the many varieties of seaweed available. Curry bread–a dense pastry cooked around some sort of vegetable curry, eaten cold–is both popular and tasty. All sorts of things get put into the center of little triangles of rice with seaweed; I personally had fish (both cooked and not), a few types of vegetables, and pickled plum.

I can’t give a full listing of the odd foods available simply because of the state of my vocabulary. Kanji are essentially heiroglyphics: they represent concepts instead of sounds, they were derived from simplified drawings of the item in question, and they can be combined to form more complex ideas. At my best, I knew less than 10% of the 2000 which the Japanese government considers the minimum standard of literacy. In most areas, I could make do without, but grocery shopping was the one area where illiteracy really hurt. Given the assortment of foods I knew were available, just buying things without knowing what exactly they were seemed a risky proposition. I spent hours in the grocery store the first time I went, just identifying what I could, and I tried to get something new each subsequent time I visited. Despite that, there were entire sections of the store I never bought anything from.

Foods from outside Japan tend to be either very easy to find, or nearly impossible. I had ready access to naan, which is an indian bread, but I had trouble getting green apples. Ham and cheese sandwiches were easy; reubens were impossible. It was very easy to order a pizza topped with onions, corn, octopus, peppers, and tofu, but I never did see one with nothing but cheese and pepperoni. Iced tea was trivial, particularly varieties made with a green-tea base, but lemonade was nowhere to be found.

Lemonade was something of a quest of mine, actually. The first time I wanted some, I just headed to the nearest convenience store, and was kind of startled when there wasn’t any. I checked at the convenience store across the street; they didn’t have any either. At that point, I bought something else, but my curiosity was piqued. I headed out to a grocery store the next day and systematically bought one of every type of container of fluid with a lemon on it. I carefully tested them: I took a teaspoonful, sniffed it, and then sipped it to figure out what I had. I had bought one soda, three beers, and two kinds of liqour, but no lemonade. There was another store in my town; I went there the day after. The results of that expedition brought back a similar-looking assortment of things. By the end of that night’s tests, the procedure had devolved into just pouring a large shot into a cup and downing it, and scribbling the results on the container with a sharpie. Naturally, the last container I tried turned out to be concentrated lemon juice.

How to make lemonade in a Nalgene bottle: Start with a dry bottle. Add granulated sugar to the 4oz line or just above. Add concentrated lemon juice until the 200ml line–as the sugar dissolves, its volume reduces, so the porportions are approximately equal. Fill the container to the 1000ml line with water. Shake until homogenous; chill if desired. It was a measure of desperation, but I had my lemonade; that recipe lasted me the rest of my time in Japan.

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1 Comment

Comment by alchemeron
2007-12-20 21:57:05

Great entry.


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