Ever felt (or think you may soon feel) completely bewildered by the Japanese supermarket? Start looking for soy sauce and realize you’re knee deep in the nori section with no memory of getting there? Well wander no more! Here are 5 tips for helping you navigate your grocery like the experienced obaachan we know you can be.
1. Remember Sa, Shi, Su, Se, So
The most common ingredients found in Japanese cooking can be summed up by the 5 S syllables: Sa, Shi, Su, Se, So. With these ingredients on hand, you can conquer a wide range of Japanese dishes.
Sa: Sato, or sugar
Shi: Shio, or salt
Su: vinegar, particularly mirin (rice wine vinegar)
Se: Seiyu, or soy sauce
In most dishes, you add these ingredients in this order, because their taste is affected by heat and cooking time. Always start here!
2. Understand The Store Layout
Take a half hour with a friend in your area to wander around your local store, noting where go-to items are kept. Fresh fruits, veggies, meat, and dairy are laid out along the perimeter, with dry goods like rice in the inner isles. Make note of the fresh bento areas, clearance racks and where to stock up on essentials like soy sauce.
3. Start Small: Make A List
This may seem self-explanatory, but it can be all too easy to pop into Nishimuta and walk out with 9 things whose names you can’t pronounce. The easiest way to avoid confusion in the store is to have a list of what you need. To start, look up some easy Japanese recipes like donburi, soba, or fried rice and work from there. Google Searches like “cake in a rice cooker” have literally changed my life in the inaka, and they can change yours too.
4. Ask for help
So you find the tomatoes, here’s the lettuce, but where are the damn potatoes again?
Hail down a nice and friendly Japanese worker with a simple
“______ wa doko desu ka?” (Where is…?)
Or a “______ wa arimasu ka?” (Do you have…?)
Pull up a picture on your phone for quick reference in times of need.
5. Use A Kanji App
Once you find the soy sauce, how will you know which is which?
To avoid much confusion, download a Japanese dictionary like JEDict with a kanji drawing option, so you can quickly reference unknown characters. Google Translate also has a fairly accurate picture to text option- just snap a photo and bam!
Bonus Tip- Cheap Shopping: Keep an eye out for seasonally cheap items like mikans and biwa and watermelon. Most grocery stores discount their bentos and meat after 8pm on weekdays, and your area probably have additional sale days. Ask your coworkers where/when they shop for extra points.
For additional tips, including ingredient lists and allergy warnings, check out this Gaijinpot Beginners Guide to Japanese Supermarkets.
Happy Meal Hunting!