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Friday, Sept. 29, 2006
Finding the finest foods from afar
Special to The Japan Times
Tokyo is not just one of the world's great restaurant cities, it's equally good for those who prefer to cook at home. Name the country or cuisine: Chances are you can find whatever ingredients you need, if not at your local supermarket, then certainly without having to leave the metropolis.
It hasn't always been that way. Back in the dark years of the 1980s, before the yen appreciated, the bubble inflated and imports were liberalized, food choices were severely limited. Anything not grown or raised in Japan was exotic, pricey and hard to find -- unless, that is, you lived close to one of the international supermarkets: Kinokuniya, National Azabu or to a lesser extent the various branches of Peacock and Meidiya.
Once these were only places in eastern Japan to buy American and European staples. Now even convenience stores stock corn chips, spaghetti sauce, super premium ice cream and wine from at least four continents.
Meanwhile, enterprising merchants are introducing specialties of Africa, South America and other parts of Asia.
Whatever you fancy, the ingredients are just a subway ride away. And best of all, for those who don't live in the city or don't like lugging groceries across town, most of these retailers have online stores as well.
A lifeline for generations of expats in the Hiroo vicinity, National Azabu is starting to show its age. The aisles are cramped and shelf space is limited (they don't even bother with fresh fish), and the wine range no longer seems that adventurous. But at least they speak English -- plus they have parking.
National Azabu, 4-5-2 Minami-Azabu, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 3442-3181; store.yahoo.co.jp/national; Open daily 9 a.m.-8 p.m.
Kinokuniya International started as a produce store, and their bakery was one of the first to offer German and Finnish bread varieties. Alongside the quality packaged goods (both Japanese and imported), they also have a strong meat section and plenty of good, fresh deli foods. Currently housed in a temporary "interim" store, they will move back to their permanent premises near Kotto-dori in 2008. They also have a number of smaller branches around Kanto.
Kinokuniya International, 3-11-13 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 3409-1231; www.e-kinokuniya.com; Open daily 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Once staid bastions purveying Japanese regional specialties and imported gift items, the basements of Tokyo's department stores have become such foodie meccas that a special term -- depachika -- had to be coined for them. Any of them are worth a visit, to feast your eyes and stomach, but two of the best are Takashimaya Times Square, just south of Shinjuku JR Station, and Isetan, above Shinjuku-Sanchome subway station. Each features discrete boutiques and stalls offering a wonderful range of fresh and packaged foods, ready-to-eat sozai side dishes and an extensive range of liquors. Don't fail to check out the small eat-in counters operated by noted restaurants, serving sushi, tempura, noodles and more.
Takashimaya Times Square B1, 5-24-2 Sendagaya, Shinjuku-ku; tel: (03) 5361-1111; www.takashimaya.co.jp/shinjuku
Isetan B1, 3-14-1 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; tel: (03) 3352-1111; www.isetan.co.jp Open daily from 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
The arrival of New York deli divas Dean & Deluca has raised the ante for gourmet foods even higher. Despite being limited in scale, a walk around their store at Shinagawa Station illustrates what the fuss is about. We drop in for espresso and muffins, and for take-home deli foods, charcuterie and cheese (a small but brilliant selection), and their super premium ice cream. Divine and decadent, indeed.
Dean & Deluca, Atre Shinagawa 2F, 2-18-1, Konan, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 6717-0935; www.deandeluca.co.jp; Open daily 10 a.m.-11 p.m. (cafe 7 a.m.-11 p.m.).
The meat of the matter
If you're planning a barbecue, there are two places to check out. Nissin, close to Azabu-Juban, has one of the widest meat sections in the city. Besides all the common meats and cuts, you will find duck, quail, boar and kangaroo, plus a great selection of sausages. There's an extensive wine section on the top floor, and everything is marked in English.
For value, though, nowhere beats Hanamasa. Not only are prices close to wholesale, they stock the organ meats and extremities (pigs' trotters, chicken feet) so rarely found at regular butchers. Other products (including wine) are also well discounted. There's no attempt at finesse or English signs, but who cares? The formula works so well they now have stores all over Kanto. We still drop by the original Ginza store looking for bargains.
Nissin World Delicatessen, 2-34-2 Higashi-Azabu, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 3583-4586; www.nissinham.co.jp/nwd; Open daily 9 a.m.- 9 p.m.
Hanamasa, 8-5 Ginza, Chuo-ku; tel: 03-3571-1571; www.hanamasa.co.jp/company/sm/ginza/index.html Open 9 a.m.-10 p.m.
Not so long ago, all bread was pure, white and pulpy igirisu pan (blame the British). Now even the commercial chains are producing baguettes and pain de campagne. Better still, there's been a boom in small scale, high-quality, artisan-style bakeries. Here are a few places where we buy our daily loaf.
At Paul, the shelves groan under the weight of wholesome French bread, all freshly baked in-house, filling the air with tantalizing aromas. The store in Yotsuya is great, but we prefer the ambience in their Yaesu branch, with its spacious, casual cafe.
Paul, Century Place 1F, 1-11 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku; tel: (03) 5208-8414; r.gnavi.co.jp/a077202; Open: 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
You need good flour to make fine bread. Viron has some of the best, as the awards in France for its flutes and baguettes attest. Both branches (Shibuya and Marunouchi) have excellent bistros attached, but we love their great range of sandwiches, in various forms of French bread.
Viron, 33-8 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 5458-1770; Open daily 9 a.m.-10 p.m.; also Tokyo Bldg. 1F, 2-7-3 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku; tel: (03) 5220-7289; Open daily 10 a.m.-midnight.
Only three years has passed since Maison Kayser touched down in Takanawa, bringing the famous Parisian name and croissant recipes, but it's already become one of the top boulangeries in town, and has several branches.
Maison Kayser, 1-4-21 Takanawa, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 5420-9683; www.maisonkayser.co.jp; Open daily 8 a.m.-8 p.m.
Maybe because Philippe Bigot is based in Kobe, his bread remains underrated in the capital. But there are many fans of his traditional baguettes a l'ancien, his excellent country-style pain au levain (naturally leavened loaves) and his chaussons aux pommes (apple turnovers).
Bigot Douce France, Printemps B1, 3-2-1 Ginza, Chuo-ku; tel: 03) 3561-5205; www.bigot.co.jp; Open 10 a.m.-8:30 p.m. (Saturday and Sunday till 7:30 p.m.).
For 22 years now, Levain has been turning out dark, wholesome, hand-crafted loaves that are the polar opposite of refined white igirisu pan. Owner Mikio Koda has inspired a generation of young Japanese to get kneading and baking. His homey bakery and cafe near Yoyogi is always a pleasure to visit.
Levain, 2-43-13 Tomigaya, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 3468-9669; ruvann.hp.infoseek.co.jp; Open: 8 a.m.-7:30 p.m. (8 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday and holidays). Closed Monday and 3rd Tuesday.
The grand fromage
When it comes to cheese, there's only one name you need to know. Fromagerie Fermier not only imports a brilliant range of mostly European artisan farmhouse cheese, it also oversees the affinage, carefully maturing each item till it's at the peak of ripeness. Besides supplying most of the top restaurants, they also do over-the-counter sales from their headquarters next to Atago Jinja shrine. The atmosphere is permeated with the wonderful, heady aroma of cheese, and they have a little cafe where you can sip on wine as you nibble their offerings.
Fromagerie Fermier, 1-5-3 Atago, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 5776-7720; shopping.fermier.fm/ Open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Mon-Sat, closed Sun and holidays.
They also have a branch in Food Show, Tokyu Toyoko Store B1, 2-24-1 Shibuya, Shibuya; tel: (03) 3477-4602; Open 10 a.m.-9 p.m. daily (except occasional department store holidays).
From all continents
Only in the past 10 years has Japan really discovered and embraced the flavors of its Asian neighbors. Chinese ingredients have always been available, not least in Yokohama, but these days it's not hard to find Korean, Thai and Phillipine staples, especially in Shinjuku, Ueno and Ikebukuro.
Namdaemun Ichiba just north of Shinjuku, is a full supermarket of Korean imported foods and drinks, noodles, spicy sauces, and a good selection of genuine kimchi -- the imported Kin Obasan (Auntie Kim) brand. We are close to addicted to the kakuteki (spicy pickled cubes of daikon).
Further down Shokuan-dori is Asia Superstore, the best place in town for Thai foods, produce and spices. They even sell those sticky desserts of coconut and glutinous rice.
For Chinese foods, we shop where the local Chinese go, at the ever-reliable Chion chain of stores -- we drop by their Kabukicho branch -- or in Murachin, tucked away in a basement off the bustling Ameyoko-cho market south of Ueno.
Opposite the Grand Hyatt Hotel (albeit in a rather dingier setting), Tokyo Halal Foods is a friendly emporium crammed with a huge array of packaged foods from India, Pakistan, Malaysia and North Africa.
And when we crave feijoada (cooked canned black beans), frozen Inca potatoes or the wonderful Tropical Maria concentrated fruit purees from Colombia, we head to Mundo Latino in Gotanda.
Namdaemun Ichiba, 1-1-3 Hyakunin-cho, Shinjuku-ku; tel: (03) 5292-5828; Open daily 8:30 a.m.- 1 a.m.
Asia Superstore, Kontowaru-Shinjuku Bldg. 212, 1-1-11 Okubo, Shinjuku-ku; tel: (03) 3208-9199; www.asia-superstore.com Open 9 a.m.-6 a.m.
Chion Mart, 2-38-8 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku; www.zhiyinjp.com/Web/m_gewuji.asp; tel: (03) 3200-1188; Open: 1 p.m.- 5 a.m. (Saturday and holidays till midnight).
Murachin, Ameyoko Center Building B1F. 4-7-8 Ueno, Taito-ku; tel: (03) 3834-6666; www.murachin.com/; Open 10 a.m.-8 p.m. (closed third Wednesday).
Tokyo Halal Foods, Azabu Sakuradai Haitsu #209, 3-2-7 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 3470-3484; www.spicehome.jp; Open daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Mundo Latino, Ochiai Bld. 3F 1-12-12 Higashi-Gotanda, Shinagawa-ku; tel: (03) 6408-0748; www.musilatina.com/nambei; Open daily 10 a.m.-7 p.m.