Fresh Focus: International View – Japan

April 7, 2007

Have you ever eaten octopus? How about cooked tofu dipped in raw eggs? Well, these foods and more were the focus of our scrutiny, occasional disdain but mostly eager nibbling on our trip to Japan in February. Our American food industry could take some tips from their fruit-and-vegetable-laden diet. We didn’t know what a treat this was going to be.

It was 5 p.m. on a Tuesday when we arrived in Osaka for a short vacation. We were visiting our daughter, Rachel, who is majoring in Japanese and attending the University of Hiroshima for her junior year. We scheduled this trip during her two-month break, which allowed her to act as our guide and interpreter so we could learn something about Japan. We wanted to experience the culture as regulars, not as barbarian Americans.

The first thing we did that night was jump on the subway to our hotel, which was the beginning of our daily romp through buses, streetcars, subways and bullet trains. We found most Japanese to be skinny and energetic. The only people we seemed able to keep up with were the aging women hunched over from years in the rice fields. All those hours in the gym meant nothing when it came to striding through the streets of Japan.

And speaking of running through the streets, this active nation loves to eat on the go. The vast majority of people use public transportation and walk many blocks to their destinations. In all that travel, they eat foods from vending machines, convenience stores and street vendors. We found the ubiquitous vending machines especially interesting. You can get cans of hot or cold drinks from the same machine. And green tea is everywhere – in cakes, ice cream cones and breakfast pastries-to-go, not to mention vending machine cans.

The country is crowded. We found the cities sprawled out toward each other so that there are no observable boundaries. Apartment buildings abutted the train tracks and office buildings alike. We spotted many one- or two-acre vegetable gardens on most of our trips. Our daughter explained that households with gardens were considered lucky to be able to grow fresh vegetables and fruits on their property.

On our many treks to temples and shrines, we ate on the go like the natives. In Nara, a town near Kyoto, where the deer are tame and hang out along the streets nudging visitors for handouts, we ate sweet potatoes cooked on a wood-fired grill from a street vendor’s cart. There was nothing better than that familiar flavor after all the fish and rice. We ate them whole, peel and all, without butter or other condiments. Delicious.

In one of Osaka’s shopping districts, Rachel couldn’t wait for us to try her favorite Japanese food, “takoyaki,” a grilled ball of dough containing small bits of octopus and some other stuff. We just couldn’t get past the texture of the dough in the middle, so she was disappointed that we were not too fond of it.

Another night we had “sukiyaki,” which sounded familiar but looked like an alien mixture when it was served. The dish was like onion soup, but there were huge blocks of tofu floating in it with a few pieces of pork beneath the onions. There was a saucer containing a raw egg beside the bowl, and Rachel said to dip our tofu and pork in the egg before eating each piece. Well, with my background in food safety, I just couldn’t make my hand do that. I tried one piece of the tofu and decided the texture was totally unappealing, but I enjoyed the rest of the soup. Fruits and vegetables figure prominently in many of their dishes, and we were glad we could recognize most of them.

The highlight of our trip, from a food standpoint, was a visit to the basement of the department store, Daimaru, their version of Nordstrom’s. That’s where the finest produce is sold, where fruits and vegetables are treated like gems. We were stunned at the displays and the multitude of glittery counters full of glazed strawberries, sugared fruits and chocolate-covered everything. Fruits and vegetables, especially large individual pieces, are coveted as special gifts for hosts when visiting someone or as gifts for co-workers and family members after a trip. These blemish-free, giant fruits and vegetables are packed with ribbons, in special foam cradles, and some are even placed in silk-wrapped boxes. We saw a $6 Jonagold apple, and it was beautiful. It’s all about presentation.

We couldn’t take enough pictures of their textures and colors, the packaging and the exotic forms. We were truly inspired. No one bothered us, either. We kept expecting the produce police to come up and tap us on the shoulder to ask us to stop taking photos. But nothing happened, so we snapped away.

One of the neatest things we found was “Strawberry Fair” in the local grocery store. Since we are die-hard foodies who have to visit grocery stores wherever we travel, we noticed there was a lot of signage and packaging devoted to strawberries. Rachel explained that this was the season to celebrate strawberries – hence “Strawberry Fair.” They put strawberries in everything. There are strawberry Kit-Kat bars, candies of all description, cakes crowned with fresh strawberries, strawberry chips and even strawberry sandwiches.

We were amazed that the food manufacturing industry could produce the new packaging, the specialty-flavored products and get the shelf space in the grocery stores for a temporary product. Apparently, this is how it works in Japan. Seasonal specialty foods come and go and everyone partakes. The limited availability spurs purchases on the spot because consumers know they can’t get these products again until next winter.

Food in Japan may be the ultimate convenience product, but we found many layers in their food preparation. On the last night of our trip, we sat in a restaurant in Saijo, located 45 minutes (by train) north of Hiroshima, and watched a woman tap her two spatulas on her immense grill as she made “okonomiyaki.” This is a specialty food that can only be described as a cross between a crepe, an omelet and a tostada. Everything was grilled individually and stacked between a crepe-like bottom and a scrambled, flattened egg topping. Shredded cabbage, sliced pork, bean sprouts, seasonings, Udon or Soba noodles, hoisin-like sauce and a generous topping of chopped green onions comprised the creation, and it tasted terrific.

There were ups and downs with our food experiences in Japan, but the high notes – like the okonomiyaki and the sweet potatoes – will always bring fond memories. Fruits and vegetables rank high in this culture and we could benefit from their example. We could create our own “fruit fairs” and new convenience products that can be easily sold from vending machines or street ovens. Consumers are looking for new food experiences, so let’s look to the East for ideas and create something new.

Edith Garrett is president of Edith Garrett & Associates, a consulting firm that helps the produce industry with third-party food safety audit preparation, fresh-cut product development, market research, marketing strategies and advertising plans. For more information, call (616) 784-2728 or visit www.edithgarrett.com.