Thursday, May 04, 2006
Mitsuwa Japanese Market
Near the coast, here in southern California, we are experiencing weather of the "premature" variety. The infamous "June Gloom" typically brings cloudy-and-damp-and-foggy conditions to locations within several miles of the ocean -- during June. If lucky, the phenomenon gives way to our usual sunny conditions by late morning or early afternoon. If not so lucky, the gloominess -- what my Aunt Cathryn would call a "dumpy day" in the Midwest -- hangs in there all day.
The all-day variety of June Gloom has been in evidence here for a couple of weeks now. Of course, it is still far from June, but the weather calendar here and in many parts of the world seems confused of late! In times of dumpy weather, my thoughts inevitably turn to comfort food. The tried-and-true meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, sauerkraut and dumplings (my Germanic heritage coming to bear), baked potatoes and chicken. Steaming soups and stews warm heart, soul and body.
For a bit different take on that approach, I like to keep some nifty Japanese ingredients at-the-ready in my pantry. On a moment's notice, those quick-serve noodle bowls are ready to warm up the chilliest of gloomy glumness. The automatic rice cooker gets into the act and sends the fragrance of light-and-white or brown-and-nutty rice throughout the house. The curry-mix packets turn my mundane protein leftovers into a stomach-warming trip to the other side of the world!
My favorite location at which to restock my Japanese ingredients is Mitsuwa Marketplace (http://www.mitsuwa.com/). Locations are sprinkled near major metropolitan areas throughout the U.S. For me, the nearest store is in Costa Mesa. That location, at just a stone's throw from the popular South Coast Plaza shopping mall, is a special type of shopping complex all its own.
In addition to a large grocery store, the complex features a Japanese book/video/music shop, cosmetics counter, Japanese health goods and vitamin shop, appliance shop and a baked confections counter. From time to time, temporary counters are set up to allow vendors to offer clothing, jewelry and sometimes even those terrific slip-on sandals with dozens of little bumps all over the inside of the sole to allow the do-it-yourself approach to foot massage!
On top of all that, I have had the pleasure of spending countless happy moments at the pottery and dishware shop, admiring (which all too often has turned to purchasing) a huge array of small-and-colorful dishware, teapots, lacquerware and chopsticks. The delicate Japanese designs of that dishware seem to amplify the flavors of every food they grace. Steaming miso soup just tastes better, somehow, when sipped from a gleaming, lacquerware bowl.
Right across the aisle from all of these dazzling retail offerings, a mini food court of Japanese restaurants beckons. The requisite display of those kitschy, plastic, look-alike foods helps Japanese-heritage and other customers make their selections for a tasty meal. Though one needs to order and pick up one's meal at a counter, the ever-careful pairing of food with serving ware is maintained by these restaurants. Pretty dishware makes the meal seem tastier -- and MUCH more Japanese -- than it ever would on a plasticized paper plate!
In most cases, eating before grocery shopping always seems to damp down my spending a bit. At the Mitsuwa Marketplace, my reaction is the exact opposite! Inspired by all the good, Japanese food that I have just eaten -- and all of the delicious items that I have just seen at tables all around me -- I hit the grocery aisles ready to load up on everything I can to enable myself to recreate the same dishes at home!
As if I weren't inspired enough already, weekends at the Mitsuwa grocery feature lots of samples to introduce new products and special offers. How CAN they taste so delectable when I am already SO stuffed from my lunch?
In addition to the huge variety of staple products, the produce, fresh fish and meats, prepared sushi, bakery and liquor departments offer tasty specialties. A charming little alcove houses a mini teahouse counter, staffed with a knowledgeable expert to help with any questions about Japanese teas or the formal Japanese tea service.
As I emerge from this treasure trove of Japanese culture, loaded down with plastic bags filled to the brim with more new flavors to try, I always marvel at what a great, small world our planet has become. Comfort -- and comfort food -- has shown up virtually on my doorstep from around the world. That's enough to drive an Ingredient Sleuth's June Gloom packing!