The “Nom” Culture of Asian Supermarkets

I have spent a lot of time within the endless, cheery aisles of Japanese and Thai supermarkets. This is on account of one obvious fact: I am a human who needs to eat, and cannot always afford the luxury of eating out. Sure, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper out there (in particular I continue to drool over the memory of a Thai green curry I consumed for a meagre three pounds, which I had in a seriously fancy place: I’m talking a personal waiter for each diner kind of place. I cry at the price of British living now). Still, be it grabbing a quick breakfast before school in Bangkok or having the midnight belly rumbles walking back to my hotel in Japan, there are just some situations in which supermarkets are the only place fit for purpose. This, my friends, is not really a bad thing.

There are many things in an Asian supermarket that can be translated to “deliciousness in a packet”. So long as you know what to get, you don’t have to worry that you’re “cheating” by not eating the country’s traditional food. As a matter of fact, one time I went to buy a sandwich in a department store, and on reading the ingredients discovered that all it contained was “the taste of the wind in the meadows”. Seriously. That, to my knowledge, certainly isn’t a Western flavour. Conclusion? Not “cheating”. And let’s be honest with ourselves: we all need a corner store substitute snack day from time to time. Half of the fun of holidaying is having the excuse to eat like a hobbit, with second, third and fourth breakfasts adopted haphazardly throughout each day.

Bearing that in mind, here’s my little guide of the top nine foods to buy within an Asian 7/11 or grocery store.

1. Edamame Chips

These are actually a bit of a surprising delight. Edamame chips are basically exactly what you think they are: fried edamame beans, covered in some sort of secret elixir which makes them weirdly incredible and moreish. I bought them en route on a bus to Chiang Mai and they were also a big hit with my travel-mates: I think I probably managed to steal three for myself before they were sucked out of my hands by their mouths which doubled in this moment as vacuums (a human eccentricity that often occurs in the presence of food). These little chips are not even horrendously bad for you (and no, I’m not just saying that because they’re green, which of course by Western logic means that it’s “healthy”), totalling a whole 209 calories, apparently (though I’m not sure how correct this is as I just dragged that fact off of myfitnesspal.com and I don’t know if  that is a myfitnesslie or a myfitnessmisinterpretation on my part).

2. Curry-pan

Curry-pan is undoubtedly the lushest derivent of curry I have ever found. It is not your standard curry. It is curry but so much more (not even a product of M&S). It is curry (yeah) in dough (yum) with breadcrumbs on it (wow). For all others who perceive carbohydrates to be a sort of consumable pornography, you will understand my hype. Sure, for those who don’t, on paper Curry-pan might sound kind of crap. But trust me, it is so good. These god-balls are basically the equivalent of 50p, too, so there is really no excuse to not try one (unless you loathe and detest curry and/or dough brings up a bad emotional response from you). My description of this fast-food delicacy is, I know, a lot less than flowery but you’re just going to have to take my word for it, or miss out on a potentially existential experience. You get me? You can get Curry-pan from all 7/11’s and grocery stores in Japan or, alternatively, you can just nip to Piccadilly Circus in London and get them from the Japan Centre. I mean, if you’re not planning on going to Asia, it’ll save you a flight ticket. Though that would be a worthy sacrifice for this snack.

karepan-14

3. Onigiri

Onigiri is an exquisite little Japanese snack that is immensely popular and to be found basically everywhere. It is basically a rice triangle wrapped in a strip of nori (edible seaweed) and traditionally filled with, amongst other options, pickled vegetables or fish. Japanese rice on its own is lovely in small quantities (only saying this because rice is basically a plate-substitute in Asian cuisine – completely unavoidable and with every meal, so you’re best off having it in small quantities where you can so that you don’t get sick of it), and the smack of flavour in the middle is complemented by the various spices and sauces that they mix into the fillings. The Japanese are so wonderful with the attention to detail that they place into many aspects of their lifestyles – food being a big one of them – and even this incredibly simple, really efficient snack has a powerful, thoughtfully crafted taste. It’s also healthy as fuck.

4. Bring in the sugared goods…

Okay, I’m cheating a bit by putting a whole food category as an option but there is a reason. Sadly, Asian countries are not really the best for cakes and candies – what’s good that you can find at a grocery store can really be contained to one bullet-point. But not to fret – the savoury and the seafood world is their shit, so even though your sweet-tooth will likely feel a little neglected, you should be pacified by all the other culinary beauties you can consume.

However, there are a couple of simple cake-things that can be found in Asia which are actually pretty nice. One of my favourites are “cake rolls”, which you can get in a variety of flavours (green tea being a popular choice, as green tea flavoured things are considered “sweet”): basically teeny tiny, colourful swiss rolls to satisfy your sugar cravings. They’re about 20p each.

On the green tea note, you can also get the lushest frozen Matcha drinks from stores (which you can also find at EAT in London)! I find hot green tea itself completely disgusting so if you are one of my kin, you needn’t worry about dabbling in frozen Matcha products and vomiting: they, surprisingly, taste lovely despite their point of inspiration – nothing like actual green tea. It’s difficult to describe but it’s really sweet and has a great, soft “tang”. Aren’t I delightfully vague?

Pocky is also a common favourite with tourists and locals alike: biscuit sticks with different yoghurt coatings on them. You’ve probably seen their Western derivent, Mikado, in a store in England somewhere. Or, if you’re into that kind of thing, stalls at Hyper Japan or Comicon. Personally, I love them: they are the perfect snack on-the-go. Remember those embarrassing email addresses you set up for yourself when you’re thirteen? Yeah – mine was something like “choconanapocky@blah.com”. I liked Pocky so much, I was willing to make it my virtual I.D. Now that’s love. My boyfriend came back from Japan after a trip there in October with the gift of 20 boxes of the stuff (he is nice like that, but also he won’t let that gesture go and uses it to blackmail me where possible… I’m such a lucky girl) and we ate all of them: discovering  that the purple Pocky of questionable origin and the green tea Pocky were our favourites. Hazelnut Pocky is also a gem – but I’m just a big fan of nuts. Chocolate-banana, regular chocolate and strawberry are popular flavours in Britain, so if you want to try and develop a taste for it before going abroad, you can find those options quite easily from home.

Similarly, if you’re really into your yoghurt-coated oddities I would recommend that you buy a pack of Asian KitKats. You can get green tea, strawberry and sesame seed coated KitKats which are super popular office gifts if you want to surprise your employees with a gift, or brag about how hipster you are with your original Western chocolate (“all the cool kids are only having BLUE KitKats these days, didn’t you know”)? The strawberry ones are awesome – in fact, I advise that you buy several packs: every one KitKat you give out can mean three for you, or something like that…

One more thing I should really quickly mention is Daifuku. I’m not really sure how to categorise this snack: it’s not exactly sweet, but it’s sort of considered to be so in Japan. Daifuku are balls of mochi with different fillings, like red bean paste or sesame seed paste. They are an acquired taste, in most instances, but can get hideously addictive if you persevere with them.

5. Canned coffee

Canned coffee is as commonly found in Japan as complaints are found in the British public. I’m pretty sure that they have a vending machine at the top of Mt. Fuji selling the stuff. We’ve started to do it in the UK too, actually, but I don’t believe that ours packs the same punch – you’ve likely seen them – little Starbucks cups that cost roughly three quid a pop. Not one to adhere to the capitalist regime of reaaaallly overpriced stuff, these have not struck as too popular with me.

However, canned coffee transforms into something of a blessing in Asia. When I stayed with my sister on my first visit to Japan, there was a coffee vending machine at the foot of her apartment building, an absolute necessity for us to grab pre-adventuring. There is no adventure without caffeine. Interestingly, the Japanese also have a very real, very noticeable obsession with Tommy Lee Jones. You know, that guy from the Men In Black. The old, grumpy one who was probably pretty sexy back in his day but you can’t tell for sure. In fact, his probably-previously-fit face is THE face of one of their most popular coffees – Boss coffee. And do you know what else? Tommy Lee Jones didn’t even know. I can’t quite recall how he discovered it, but I really hope that he just went to Japan one day for a holiday or something and saw that his face was everywhere with no explanation. He probably felt like he was in the middle of some strange sci-fi biopic.

Thailand also have their range of delicious canned coffees – one of my favourites is the Birdy hazelnut coffee, which I would often get before trudging into school to scream at my English-learning prodigies (I am not the most patient of people, but Birdy helped). There was also a lovely little coffee stand on the street just outside which was so good – a lot of people would warn you not to buy from street vendor’s when in Asia, which I do partially agree with (expect an article on this later), but if the stall is heavily populated with a lot of screaming foodies and the smells emanating from it are damn good – there’s a very high chance that you’ll be safe. This coffee stand was one of those places and further it was not one-of-a-kind, which is great to bear in mind when you’re trudging around in the blistering heat and need something more like a litre of frozen coffee as opposed to a tiny (albeit nom-tastic) can. Recognizing when you need the iced coffee stall – a.k.a. when you’re beginning to die from the fury of the sun – is something of a sixth sense in Asia. You just know.

like-a-boss-coffee-gakuranman

6. Vending machine ice cream

I felt like I couldn’t write this article without mentioning this one, blissful thing: and I can already hear your echoed cries of “and why don’t we have these in England!?” At least, why don’t we have a just-as-affordable version. I can’t imagine a cheapish ice cream vending machine not being a massive hit with our Ben & Jerry’s loving, Magnum guzzling society. They are certainly a hit in Japan, as these futuristic machines prostitute themselves behind the doors of every grocery store and on many street corners. I can’t really expand too much on this point as there is no more descriptive way to talk about the greatness that is an ice cream vending machine (is it just me or does ‘Ice Cream Vending Machine’ sound like the ideal name for an experimental indie band…): you put your money in, an ice cream falls out. A snack quickie. There’s none of the faff of freezing your arm off reaching into a freezer, then running through the store like you’re being pursued by hellhounds to buy your Cornetto before it melts. Japan tries to avoid making you feel such panicked emotions. They are nice like that.

7. Massive fruit

Your 5-a-day (which is a load of bullshit, by the way, but let’s pretend that 5-a-day is actually a thing) is not at all hard to achieve in Asia, because their fruit is bloody massive. As in, you’ll buy a standard apple in Japan and it’ll be the equivalent of seven British apples. I’m not kidding. Asia kills it when it comes to badass, big fruits. Their fruit-growers could come over and win every biggest produce competition we host with completely minimal effort. I cannot stress this enough – their fruit is of mad proportions. Another thing that might’ve convinced Tommy Lee Jones that he was in a sci-fi biopic.

Fruit, also, tastes better, probably because it is not pumped full of a medley of chemicals that, yeah, make them look brighter and last for longer, but take away the authentic, rich taste that a more natural fruit has to offer. So you get pretty much every benefit when buying some – you feel healthy, they taste good and you can take loads of typical tourist shots next to them, comparing your head-size to pineapples and your hands to kiwis e.t.c e.t.c.

They probably think that we are idiots. The fruit and the people.

Note: Do avoid Durian fruit like the worst of terrible plagues. I do not think that there is a person alive who likes Durian fruit. Myself and my brother-in-law last year had a “who can buy the shittest food for under a tenner” competition at Christmas, in which he bought me Durian sweets which smelled so bad – remember that these were merely SWEETS and not even the real deal – we had to put them outside, thus ending our relationship with the outside world for many days as people fled from the gates of our house wondering if there had been a gas explosion (probably).

8. Sushi

Many of us believe in the huge myth that Japanese people largely and exclusively eat reams and reams of sushi. This is not true, and the Japanese are baffled by the assumption – sushi to them is a fast-food, something you can pick up and take to work and think not much of, like a tuna mayo sandwich but with genuine fish that tastes like it came from nature. Real nature. Not canned nature, which is a dubious nature that some guy probably cooked up in his home-lab and sold to Tescos for a shiny dime.

Cliche as it is, though, Japanese sushi really is lovely and worth a strong look on your visit there. Like Curry-pan, despite the fact that it is ridiculously common and easy to find, there is great attention to detail within each packet and a real “fresh” taste that pervades all ingredients, making sushi the creme-de-la-creme of supermarket buying.

Actually no. That’s a lie. Curry-pan is the jewel The one and only curry-de-la-curry (at this moment I am looking at my plain American bagel with a heavy heart, almost tempted to cry a single tear).

Note: Restaurant sushi is also a must on your more prosperous days out. My favourite type of sushi restaurant are the ones which are like Yo! Sushi, but infinitely better. For those of  you who are not familiar with Yo! Sushi, all sushi dishes come careering around on a conveyor belt, you pick what you want to eat from there, pile up your plates and tot up the total at the end. A seemingly dangerous practice that will blow your budget, but sushi is really cheap if you know where to go. In Japan, however, there is the additional rule that you must eat everything that you pick off the conveyer. I picked up a “sweet potato” dish once which was gross (not the lovely sweet potato that you are probably envisioning – this sweet potato tasted like sweet play dough. Minus the sweet. Just chemical putty). As we couldn’t throw it away, my granny’s badass friend stuffed the abhorrent consumable into an empty cigarette box in her bag. Like a legend.

9. Toasties

No, I have not converted to Westernism by including toasties. Well, maybe a tad, but only to a tiny degree. Because Asian toasties are, of course, nothing like Western toasties.

One of the funniest things to examine when travelling in Asia is to observe how Asian people perceive British things. For instance, once I went to an “English pub” in Kobe and ordered a “traditional” English sundae: which ended up being layers of cereal, layers of coffee jelly and layers of bizarrely tinted ice cream.

This oddness translates perfectly to 7/11 toasties. For instance, there was the “Carbonara Toastie” – lovingly crafted chicken carbonara within bread. Not a far cry from the noodle toasties myself and my friend used to make in college, a perfect example of the extent to which we could fend for ourselves at the time. Not only was a sense of kudos invoked on discovering this miraculous snack, then, it also triggered a great sense of nostalgia. You can also find spicy sausage toasties, regular ham and cheeses and pepperoni pizza toasties – all of which, you’re right, sound like bloody great ideas. Much better than those ‘Hustler’ burgers they sell at our convenience stores, which I think are stuck together with a little PVA glue. They were also a lot better a choice for breakfast than, say, an entire curry, which a lot of my fellow staff were inclined to eat for their dawning meal when I worked in Thailand. This is standard part of Asian lifestyle: no cereal (gasp) or toast for them, it’s noodles, curries and sushi for brekkers. A little too much for me to stomach, I would often turn to the trusty toastie. It tasted of home.

To find out more about Japanese cuisine in particular, keep your eye on japanyoutheman.tumblr.com, in which a new food post is posted weekly.

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