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Demystifying Japanese Cuisine

April 24, 2008

6 Min Read
Demystifying Japanese Cuisine

Americans are dabbling more and more in the adventure of cooking ethnic cuisine at home. Japanese food in particular is attracting a fair share of new fans thanks to sushi bars popping up in unsuspecting places such as grocery stores, airport concourses and shopping malls. With more people sampling California rolls or even unagi (fresh-water eel), Japanese food simply isn't as foreign as it used to be. Words like edamame and tamari are becoming more familiar as a variety of Japanese foods beyond sushi tempt the palates of the uninitiated. It is easy to see why—Asian cuisine features health benefits, unique flavors and easy preparation.

Japanese cooking is influenced by Zen Buddhism, embracing nature, harmony and restraint. The principles of a macrobiotic diet are evident in many Japanese dishes and food is presented in a spare yet elegant way.

Traditional Japanese meals showcase simple, seasonal and local ingredients. Flavors are celebrated in their simplicity, unencumbered by heavy sauces or complex combinations. Many foods are served raw or only slightly cooked to highlight freshness, tracing to one of the same philosophies the natural foods industry embraces: to celebrate food as close to its natural state as possible.

"There's a lot of artistry to Japanese cuisine," says Bev Shaffer, cooking school director at Ohio's Mustard Seed Markets, "but the basic ingredients and preparations are very simple. Once people know that, they view it as something they want to try at home."

The Asian cooking classes often sell out at Mustard Seed Markets' two stores in Akron and Solon, a Cleveland suburb. "Our sushi class is more of an eye opener for customers to realize that sushi is more than raw fish wrapped in rice. There's a lot of other kinds of sushi, such as nigiri or maki or sashimi, that use many different fresh ingredients," Shaffer says. "So many people identify Japanese cuisine with soy products, like soy sauces and tofu, but there's an emphasis on fresh seafood and seasonal vegetables as well."

Whether they realize it or not, most natural products retailers are quite familiar with the Japanese diet's healthful staples. "Many of the ancient and traditional Japanese condiments have been a mainstay in the natural foods market," says Steve Petusevsky, former director of creative food development for Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Markets. Items such as rice vinegar, ume plum paste, gomashio, tofu, tempeh, tamari and miso are a few examples.

Many Japanese dishes are also macrobiotic by nature, says Jyoti Friedland of Talley's Green Grocer in Charlotte, N.C. "Instead of saying Japanese cuisine, I say macrobiotic," says Friedland, a practicing vegetarian for 29 years, who co-owns the store with husband, Mark. "All macrobiotic ingredients are Japanese. The Japanese don't use dairy, and they don't want eggs. Usually, they use tofu; so Japanese is more leaning to a vegetarian or vegan diet."

Friedland says the key to familiarizing customers with certain Japanese ingredients is to offer dishes in the café or deli that showcase their unique flavors. "We always do demos," Friedland says. "It's the only way we can educate the customer. If you taste this kind of food, you're going to like it. [Some] already like it, but they just don't know what they're eating. They might say, 'What's that black thing,' and we'll say, 'That's hijiki' and then tell them the many ways it can be used, like in soups or salads."

Talley's deli department cross-merchandises Japanese products. Preparing dishes that showcase ingredients, Friedland says, will move those items off grocery shelves. "Sometimes we'll put the product on top of the case, and that's how the conversation will start, 'How do you use that?' and we'll say, 'Like this ... ' " she says. "Next time they're going to say. 'I want to make that at home.' We share the recipes because we want to them to buy the [ingredients]. If a particular product is already popular, we'll make a recipe that uses the [ingredient]."

At Draeger's, a California specialty foods retailer, it's not uncommon to find confused-looking shoppers roaming the aisles with recipes for Japanese dishes in hand, says Sharon Grossetti, assistant buyer. "They have no idea what they're looking for, just what it's called," she says. Draeger's specializes in hard-to-find ethnic ingredients and caters to the upscale shopper who is interested in a specific cuisine but doesn't have any practical experience.

"I look all over for ingredients that are trendy, that people are looking for because they had it at a restaurant or read about it in a magazine," Grossetti says. Some of the best sellers at Draeger's include miso for making soups or sauces; wasabi for spicing up dishes; wasabi hot peas as a prepared snack; mirin, a Japanese wine used in cooking; crushed, fresh and pickled ginger; panko bread crumbs, which are flaked instead of crushed and make a light coating for fish or vegetables; and cellophane or bean thread noodles. Draeger's sells some Japanese products from a shelf strategically located next to the in-store sushi bar.

Shaffer says most of the Japanese staples can be found on the Asian/international aisle at Mustard Seed Markets, but some specialty items placed next to the sushi bar sell well. "The sushi trend might encourage people to venture into Japanese foods," she says. "Our regular sushi patrons are definitely picking up other items. Once someone tastes something they've had in a restaurant, they know what it is and what it tastes like, so making it at home is attractive."

The demand for sushi has inspired many retailers to outsource their sushi operations, taking a percentage of the profits and leaving the prep work to the masters. But at Talley's, Friedland says making their own sushi is a fun way to integrate an ethnic cuisine with Americanized health-food influences. By offering sushi made with hummus or pesto instead of raw fish, customers are exposed to two healthy cuisines rolled into one. "I get tired of the same filling used over and over in sushi," Friedland says. Some Japanese might be offended by her creative culinary offerings, she says, but when it's so easy to make, why not experiment with your favorite ingredients.

Petusevsky agrees. "I think our cultures influence each other in positive ways. The cross-cultural influence is evident and that's what we want. We're a creative society."

Petusevsky is passionate about expanding the offering of ethnic cuisine, but cautions retailers bringing Asian ingredients into their product mix. "Some products we can't quite use in our menu planning because there are a number of Japanese products that aren't clean. [The key is] finding purveyors that can supply you with Asian products that meet your guidelines. With many smaller Asian purveyors, there's a language barrier and many times the labeling is incomplete."

Petusevsky suggests establishing a trusting relationship with your purveyor and reading labels thoroughly to make sure products don't contain ingredients such as MSG or artificial flavors or colors.

As Freidland has seen through experimentation with Japanese products in Talley's café and deli and on grocery shelves, Japanese food tends to sell itself.

"Demo the food. It is the most important thing," says Friedland. "Give [customers] some recipes to start with, and if they can taste the food, then they will want to make their own."

Catherine S. Gregory is a Louisville, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 8/p. 20, 24

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