Monday, April 21, 2008

The Supermarket Chronicles - Part 3 -

My hometown used to be a small fishing village, which merged into a city decades ago. When I was a kid, I played on the beach (actually more like a rocky seashore) every day, and at spring tide, the entire family spent a whole day picking shell fish and sea weeds there. When my grandma was young, according to dad, she would go to the local fishing port every morning to buy fresh fish, and serve sashimi (sliced raw fish) at breakfast. Yes, as you might know, Japanese traditional breakfast often includes grilled (dried) fish. But I don’t think eating raw fish first thing in the morning is a very popular custom in this country. Personally I don’t even want to give it a try. :P

So you think that my work in the fish section of the supermarket may make me homesick? Well... yes, sometimes. When we sold some fresh abalones there the other day, I couldn't help saying, "Gosh, I wanna go abalone picking right now!" as I was packing them. But most of the time I'm busy discovering and learning new things about the seafood diet here, which is a little different from what I was used to in my hometown, and that is really interesting.

First of all, I was amazed to see so many elderly people in the neighborhood being the regular visitors of the fish section of this supermarket. They usually come in as soon as the store opens. I mean, I knew that older folks love fish. But this town is quite far from the ocean-- compared to my hometown-- so I didn’t expect the older folks in a place like this to be THAT crazy about eating fresh and nicely fatty fish. The privilege of working at this "interactive" fish section is being able to observe or even be acquainted with such regular customers.

Although more and more fish and shellfish are farmed these days, still the items sold in the fish section are largely affected by the season and the weather here. There are regular items that we have on the shelves almost every day, but they don't always come from the same place, and they taste quite differently depending on where they are from. So I can see those daily visitors come to the store being pretty excited, wondering what goodies they are going to find that day.

A couple of dressed up elderly women usually come in as soon as the store opens... maybe every other day. They seem to be meeting up at the entrance and enjoying strolling around in the fish section together, trying to pick their "sashimi of the day." And there is a grandma who just loves our saba-zushi (mackerel sushi). We usually make and sell saba-zushi on Thursdays and Saturdays around lunch time, and she never misses those days. Every time she comes, she claims that she is a big fan of our saba-zushi. Sometimes we have to tell her that we can't make the sushi because we have no mackerels, then she gets so disappointed.

And in early April, the "bonito bones craze" has started. Every day a bunch of people come in -- as soon as we open -- almost frantically looking for bonito scraps, especially bones. For what? For simmering bamboo shoots. Maybe those who are familiar with traditional Japanese dishes have heard of “takenoko no Tosa-ni (simmered bamboo shoots, Tosa-style)?” The recipe calls for a bunch of bonito flakes, and the dish was named so because Tosa (former name of Kochi prefecture) is famous for bonito flakes. But I tell you what -- The hard-core bamboo shoot lovers in Tosa do not use bonito flakes for that dish; they use bonito bones. I didn’t know that because my mom simmers bamboo shoots a little differently, so I was surprised with their enthusiasm. At the supermarket, we usually put more than 10 packs of bonito scraps on the shelf, and in almost less than one hour, they are gone. And we keep hearing "Don't you have bonito bones today?" from the customers who came too late.

Curiosity made me try using bonito bones for this traditional dish, and yes, now I know why they make such a big deal out of the bones of this particular fish. Some people may find it too fishy, and the chefs of sophisticated kaiseki would frown, but using the bones does give more richness and more flavor to the dish with almost “sweet” aroma (at least while the dish is warm). And -- this may sound barbaric but -- the fish meat left around the bones tastes oh so good! ;P

So now I understand why bonito bones are so popular. But I couldn’t understand why the store sells so many different kinds of fish guts as well. I know some fish scrap is great for making stock and some fish egg taste great if cooked properly. But some fish guts seemed just useless and unprofitable because they were sold so cheap. Then one day an elderly woman asked me, “Oh, you don’t have XXXXX (<-- name of the particular fish organ) today?” and so sadly added, “Ah, nothing for my neko-chan (kitty) today!” Boy, all those fish guts and strings that made me think, “How the hell do they cook and eat this stuff?” were for beloved neko-chans in this community! I wonder how many other supermarkets in Japan pack and label foods for four-legged customers. No, I’m not being cynical. I like it. It makes me feel that this place is really like a good old, community-based store.

Some of the regular customers of the supermarket deserve to be called "fish experts," I think. They always ask my boss detailed questions directly over the display case. (As I wrote before, the refrigerating display case is tall enough to hide the filleting process behind it, but to show the boss’s cap to let customers know that he is there to answer questions.) Maybe the experts are ex-owners of fish stores or those who moved into this town from fishing villages or chefs at local eating places and bento shops. Some of them often buy many (or all) packs of certain items at once, so I need to be careful when I see them. I’m supposed to check the display case once in a while and tell boss before certain items are completely sold out. But when such customers come, the part of the shelf which was full a minute ago can be totally empty when I came back from checking on the neighboring frozen seafood section. :O

Among the “expert” customers, there is an elderly woman who loves sayori (Japanese needlefish) so much and always buys a few kilograms of them at once. Inspired by her, I once bought some real fresh ones in late March and made sashimi at home. Yes, it was my PF (preparing fish) 103: filleting Japanese needlefish. But I wasn't taught how to do it at work; I found a how-to website on the net and practiced at home. (These photos were taken before I filleted them, but I must say that the fish looked much, much more beautiful than these photos.) The fresh sayori sashimi was oh so heavenly good! No wonder she buys THAT many of them for herself and her neighbors.



Anonymous said...

oh joy! obachan, i am so delighted about reading all these details of your life there. i wish you wrote more of these chronicles. i loooove them, i'd pay to read about them.
all those old ladies, their routines and their neko-chan melt my heart...

Anonymous said...

oba-chan, thanks for sharing a bit of your childhood and daily life with us =) you sometimes seem lonely but i hope the blog helps! i'm visiting japan at the end of this year- i wish i could go to places like your town kochi! will be confined to kyoto, nara, tokyo and osaka, i think! maybe one day i can return =)

Donna said...

Whenever you write these stories I think of the movie Supaa no Onna!

Anonymous said...

I love reading these insights into other peoples lives - they're so interesting!

Unfortunately, I don't enjoy fish too much. Maybe because all the ones I get here are not fresh? :(

Anyway, I prefer watching them swim around - haha. If there's a restaurant with a fish tank, you're sure to find me staring into it. :)

Allison said...

reading this post made me feel so happy!
Jobs like that, where you interact with a community of people, are really wonderful; thank you for sharing! And it's great that you've learned to try new things by observing the habits of your customers.
Now I want to eat fish...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing. That was really nice. Looks like you did a "full circle" and now am enjoying what you enjoyed as a child on an adult level. -lance

yamo said...

Reading about your childhood make me wonder how my parents grew up in Kochi. My mother swears by buying the best katsuobushi.

Hollywood Tai Tai said...

Oh Obachan! I love that you write about your day at work in such interesting details. You are a keen learner with a sharp eye for observation!

Anonymous said...

Obachan, reading your post made me remember shopping with my mom at the fishmarket in Hong Kong, where the gutted fish were so fresh I could see their hearts still beating! I hope that is not too disgusting!

Talking about saba-zushi makes me crave saba shioyaki. I tried to order it today, but the waitress thought I said salmon shioyaki and gave me the wrong thing, so my saba craving wasn't satisfied :(

Anonymous said...

I enjoy reading about you, your work and Kochi/Tosa. You have a generous and delightful way of sharing your life with us. Thank you!

Obachan no blog wa totemo omoshiroii to tanoshikatta desu.

Even here in Seattle we have heard of famous Kochi bonito! There are 2 runs (I think) young Spring running-out and mature fattened returning. Please set me straight if I've forgotten the details, but I do know Kochi is famous for katsuo though!

Dewa Obachan no chronicles o matte imasu.

OkiHwn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
OkiHwn said...

In Hawaii a favorite is aku (katsuo) bones grilled over a hibachi. Also well loved is grilled ahi (yellowfin tuna) bones. By bones I mean the spinal bones of the body left after removing the fillets. Enjoyed with some shoyu dribbled over.

Anonymous said...

Good post. I especially like fish and seafood and now that you are working in the seafood section, perhaps we will see more such postings. Are other non-general seafood items items popular in your store? Like Mentaiko, shokada, kazunoko/kazunoko konbu? Just wondering -- I love that kind of stuff.

Mama Mia said...

Japanese people can get quite serious about their fish... including myself. We had hamachi no kama for dinner last night. check it out! :)

Anonymous said...

Obachan, you have a gift for storytelling. I hope someday to be able to read a book that you wrote about your life!!!!!!!! Please, if you are a book agent, sign up Obachan to write a book!!!!!!!

obachan said...

Oh, my! I never expected that this post would receive this many comments. I thought a long post like this in my “Engrish” must be boring or rather painful for you to read, but you guys are just so nice!

Anonymous commenter
I’m so glad to hear that you liked what I wrote. Reg. neko-chans, I think their status is definitely higher here than in my hometown. (In my hometown, many moms and grannies see cats as enemies that steel the fish they have in the kitchen or dry in the backyard.)

Another anonymous commenter
I never feel lonely as long as I can have access to the internet, but without it, yeah, I would be terribly lonely.
You’re coming to Japan? I’m sure there’s a lot to see in Japan at the end of the year. Have fun!

Yeah! I saw that movie on TV a while ago. I liked it.

Anonymous commenter
I think there’s something healing about the way fish swims. I could watch them swim for hours. But seeing them in the fish tank at sushi restaurants make me feel sad... you know... ;)

I’m so happy to hear that my post made you feel happy. I really wish I could show you the happy face of our saba-zushi granny. She's so cute.

Oh, Hi! So nice to hear from you! :D
It is as if the older I get, the more I miss the ocean. (Packing seafood at the supermarket is not as enjoyable as actually catching them, though.)

Well, your parents might have had the similar childhood experiences as mine. Isn’t it amazing how persistent a taste acquired in childhood is? I’m sure I would love your mom’s seafood dishes.

Hollywood tai tai
Oh, thank you. I guess I get inspired so easily, or jump on a bandwagon easily. Hahaha…

I always think that fish market in any country is a very interesting place to visit –- at least, to me it is. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to go to a fish market when I visited Hong Kong, but I can imagine how good fresh fish/seafood looked there.

Yeah, I have saba craving once in a while, too! Nice, juiciy saba, fresh grated daikon and soy sauce ... and nicely cooked rice…!! Mmmmmm….!!

Arigato gozaimasu.
Wow, you are a Katsuo expert! I’m so happy to hear that Kochi bonito is famous over there. But, to tell you the truth, even for Kochi natives, real good, fresh katsuo is hard to buy.

OMG, So we are not the only weirdos who are crazy about the spinal bones! LOL

You know, when I started this blog several years ago, I thought that, in order to be accepted by the readers abroad, I should only post about the dishes and sweets widely accepted by the Westerners, or they would think that the Japanese are barbarians who eat raw fish and fish scraps. But gradually I became shameless and started posting about the local seafood diet here, then I – quite unexpectedly -- started hearing about the similar seafood diet overseas. You know how good it makes me feel? I feel close to those seafood lovers and it frees me from the strange inferiority that I made up. Gosh, I love blogging!

Oh, I L-O-V-E those stuff, too. Yep, we do have mentaiko and kazunoko. But they are all frozen ones from other prefectures.

What a coincidence! I just had grilled buri no kama two days ago! Your kama dinner looks so good. And for the reason I just wrote above in my response to Okihwn, I’m glad to find that there are people who love to eat kama even outside Japan. Thanks for sharing. :D

Anonymous commenter
Wow, thanks for the (almost overwhelming) compliment. I don’t think my writing is that good, but I appreciate your kindness. TKS. :)

Anonymous said...

Obachan, I LOVE fish. I miss being in Kyotango city - we don't have fish markets in the US like you have in Japan. And I miss shirasu - we have NONE in America, except in the Japanese shops. :D And I'm making shrimp tempura next week! ^_______^

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
obachan said...

Hi Tindy,
Glad to know that someone in the U.S. is having a shirasu craving. ;) So I guess not all Westerners are afraid of being stared at by thousands of tiny fish eyes, huh?
Enjoy your shrimp tempura!

Anonymous said...

hi hi! have been reading your blog for a while. I love your lovely photos and detailed descriptions. love the supermarket chronicles!!! btw food in japan is very diverse yes? there are so many things that you blog about that is so interesting and as usually so pretty / presentable (yes... even the fishy photos!
take care,