Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Cooking/Baking in Japan

Back when I was in college I could barely make Jello or mac and cheese. Over the years I have grown to be pretty decent in the kitchen. I love to cook and bake. However since moving here I feel like I have had a whole new learning curve.

First, no matter how hard you try, there are just some items that you cannot find here.  Fresh jalapenos, spices like celery seed and cream of tarter, noodles, buttermilk, most cereals, rotel tomatoes, most cheeses, most salad dressings, biscuits, wheat and multigrain breads, and cool whip to just name a few.  Some of the items we can bring back in our suitcases after homeleave, and a few we can have shipped from the states (for a hefty cost), but mostly we just have to set some recipes aside until we return stateside.

Many of the Japanese brand items are just different than what we have in the states. For example, butter, flour, brown sugar, powdered sugar, sour cream, and yogurt all are a different consistency and taste than what we are used to. Sometimes it is trial and error to get our recipes to work with these items.  Other items may have the same name as a US product, but upon opening we find out it is something totally different. Italian salad dressing is one example.

As I have mentioned before, there are import stores we can get some items not typically found in a Japanese store, such as canned vegetables, pasta sauces, brownie and cake mix, chocolate chips, nuts and other baking items. However, all these items come at a price. I have not been able to figure Japanese flour out for baking so I buy a bag of Gold Medal flour –– for $10 USD a bag. Occasionally the import stores will have a loaf of frozen multigrain bread –– for $8. And when we can get items at the import store, many times they are not the brand we want. For example, you cannot find Nestle chocolate chips here, only Hershey's.

I have to say, in some ways the challenges have been good. I have been forced to try new recipes, expand our menus, experience some different international foods, and cook more from scratch. Prepackaged, low fat and processed foods are not common here. And even though I have lived here almost two years now, there are still days I find myself banging my head on the kitchen counter because I just spent $30 for something that totally flopped and is uneatable. Or I really want to make a certain recipe to realize there is just no way to find all the ingredients.

So the next time you are walking through a grocery store take time to stop and "smell the groceries".  Then email me so I can live vicariously through you ––  just for a few moments.


Anonymous said...

I visit Japan once a year in the spring and always bring a small suitcase FULL of cooking/baking supplies for my friend who lives in Hamamatsu. Even silly things like baked beans are hard for her to find and super expensive if she does find them! Other things I pack for her: olives, oreo cookie crumbs and graham cracker crumbs (for pie shells), corn syrup, brown sugar, Kraft dinner (her kid loves it), fruit pie filling, peacan halves, PC muffin mixes, etc

Ashley said...

I understand your pain, from my first year here, but I've been able to track down most of the things you listed here, and without too much difficulty. Some items cost a bit more, but overall if you know where to look, not too bad.

I haven't experienced a difference in yogurt, sour cream, etc., perhaps just buying a different kind? I guess I just haven't had too much trouble cooking like I did back home (US) with maybe a few small exceptions. (and I agree, import stores are often too expensive, but occasionally I find better deals on things, such as cheese or certain kinds of pasta.

Anonymous said...

I really understand how you feel, although for me the problem is more a case of a lack of kitchen. What I would give for an oven right now! Having almost no kitchen to speak of really cuts down on my baking issues. ;)

Foreign food stores are great but, as you say, too expensive. I often get really excited when I find the item I'm looking for and then realise I can't spend THAT much on it. Shopping in Japan is a whole new experience, and a challenging one even after more than two years here.

Good luck! ;)

Ashley said...

I remember the first time I found out that there's a foreign import version of corn starch stashed away in the baking section for 300 yen for a measly 50g and a whole 500g bag for almost the same price under a Japanese name tucked under the flour in the Japanese flour section. Or how about the fact that Japan does indeed carry corn flour NOT sold in a foreign goods store for a ridiculous price?

Sometimes if you're really craving a certain something you just have to try your best to find it in Japanese but other things are surprisingly easy to make by themselves: soy/regular milk + apple or any other kind of vinegar = buttermilk for example. One of my friends even makes his own cheese at home to save on cost.

I don't feel like I miss out on ingredients to cook with as much as treats to bake with... and an oven that's bigger than a microwave so cookies don't take 3 hours to make.

One last note: look at your farmer's markets! They're seasonal, local, and sometimes can surprise you with that huge bag of almonds for 200 yen.