Things I’ve learned about food while in Japan

Posted on 28.12.2016


There are things you don’t think about when you move away. When you leave the country. I tell my students this all the time: we all have an idea in our heads of how the next place will be, of what life will be like in that new place.

It is hardly ever what we imagine or expect. Sure, the things we pictured might be there, but there are so many other, tiny things that you might not notice as a tourist. The things you don’t know until you live there.

When I moved to Germany, I knew there would be sausage. That was obvious. What I didn’t expect was the ‘American Shelf’ in the grocery store which only had Kraft’s Mac ‘n Cheese, Marshmallow Fluff, and Strawberry Pop Tarts. I wasn’t expecting Mexican things like tortillas or salsa to be expensive. Or hard to find. Or to be land-locked (which would have been obvious to anyone looking at a map), and what that would mean for my sushi habit.

So by the time I left Germany, I thought I had a handle on this whole living abroad thing.

As it turns out, I do not.

I’ve learned a whole slew of new things living here in Japan. Maybe in another post I’ll be able to talk solely about Japanese cuisine, but today I want to talk about 2 things, that are actually connected:

  1. Limited Quantities/Seasonal things
  2. Being precious with food

Limited Quantities and Seasonal Things:
Japan is ALL ABOUT seasonal shit. Seasonal drinks, foods, and Kit Kat flavors. Everything is only available for a limited time. It’s an amazing way to keep demand up. We all know that supply will be GONE in 3 weeks, or maybe even NEXT WEEK, so you definitely need to buy that bag of oddly-flavored Kit Kats now. Because the chances are that you’re not going to see it the next time you come to the store. It will be totally sold out and won’t be restocked until 52 weeks from now.

This leads me to do something I’ve learned to do here, specifically: you see it, YOU BUY IT (for other examples of this, see the great Ewok-gate post I wrote earlier). There is no ‘coming back next week’, because whatever you want will always be sold out. Unless you shop at Costco. Which is a 2-hour hike from my house by train. Costco is excluded from this conversation.

Example: Halloumi cheese.

Disclaimer: some of you may recall that I am lactose intolerant, and don’t really ingest milk products. That is, of course, still the case, but I do reserve the right to eat cheese and cheese products sometimes: in smaller doses. These smaller doses are manageable and less lethal to those around me. 

There is a chain of stores here called Kaldi Coffee. They specialize in import goods from other countries and are basically the only place I go shopping when I need anything not Japanese. This is where I buy my pesto, my lasagna sheets, Tortilla shells, Cherry coke cans (sold single, never in a 6-pack as the great creator intended), and individually plastic-wrapped boxes of Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese, at the astronomical price of about $2.50 per box.

There are about 3 different branches of this shop that I can pass in my week or month: one is near my office, one is near my hospital, and one is near the ‘other’ train station we use. They are all close enough, but enough of a hike that I won’t be popping off to the shop if I’ve forgotten something.

One time, ONE of them (the hospital branch) had Halloumi cheese. And it wasn’t this 50-gram bs that most of the shops will package it in, this was a beautiful 25o grams of perfect Halloumi, and it was only $5. This is literally a bargain in Japan when it comes to cheese. Trust me. The first time I saw it, I jumped on it and bought it. Just one package. Because what am I gonna do with all that cheese? I went back to get more the next week and it was gone.

I then proceeded to go to the other two, closer branches (office and station) to see if they had any. They didn’t. I THEN proceeded to check out all of the other import stores to see if they had it. They didn’t. This was a HUGE waste of time, although it was probably good exercise.

I then proceeded to look online to see how much it costs, because that cheese had me feening for more and I never get enough of it here. Prices online were ridiculous.

So I gave up on it. Stopped looking. Resigned myself to the equivalent of Kraft Singles for grilled cheese sandwiches.

And then 3 months later, the next time I went to the doctor again, it was there. In huge quantities. I bought like 5 of them for the house. I bought some for coworkers. I filled our crisper with Halloumi cheese. And I was happy, so ridiculously happy. About the cheese.

This is what living in Japan has reduced me to.

And the cheese (among many other things, like opened boxes of Cheez-Its) is what leads me to #2: Being Precious about food:
I kept that Halloumi. For weeks. Maybe even months.

I was smart enough to just toss some of it in the freezer, and I left some in the refrigerator. But we didn’t eat it, not nearly fast enough. As I disclaimed above, I need to eat cheese in smaller amounts, so it doesn’t turn deadly for people in a room with me.

I’m really good about packing things tightly and correctly in my refrigerator. But I underestimated the Japanese summer’s effect on my fridge. Energy efficiency has a downside, and it is spoiled food. Well, spoiled faster than normal or expected.

The cheese in the fridge expired. I had unintentionally contributed to food waste. It didn’t expire because I didn’t open it fast enough: it expired because I opened it and then proceeded to try to save it for special meals or recipes. It spoiled because I was being precious with it, trying to make it last. Eating it as slowly as possible. We both were.

51krrpiqrlThe same way an opened (and tightly wrapped) box of Cheez-Its goes stale if I leave them for more than 3 days. The same way the last package of vegan sausages from Germany went bad sitting in the fridge, because we were waiting to use those last two for a nice, leisurely breakfast together.

Things spoil. Things expire. Things can’t be opened for too long. You have to eat them.

This is never something I had to deal with in the US. I’m not sure why that is, to be honest. I don’t even really remember it happening in Germany. I think it never happened because there was always more to be bought at the store, so I could eat as much of whatever it was as I wanted.

While this might be the reason I weighed about 20 pounds more in the states, it was also a mental habit. I could just go to the store and buy more Cheetos. I could buy more cheese. So I could totally eat like half of this 1-pound block right now, sitting in front of the TV.

And here I can’t do that, unless it’s Japanese snacks. And Japanese snacks are much healthier than American or British snacks, for certain, but they’re not the ones I’m craving. I want my Beef-flavored Maruchan ramen that is apparently only made in the states. I want the salt of Cheez-Its and Goldfish crackers on my tongue once in a while.

But once I open that container, I need to eat them, quickly. And that is the hard part.

My eating habits have changed. Unless I’m bleeding, I don’t do emotional eating or overeating all that often. And this is what I’m learning here in Japan: I still have the cravings for my terribly unhealthy American junk food, but I can’t eat it the way I used to. Maybe I’m growing up. But I think I might just be growing away.

And I think that’s a good thing. I went pescetarian this year, and intend to keep that up. It’s only a matter of time before I go full veg or vegan, and drop stuff like cheese and cheese-flavoured products altogether. Maybe living here was a good step on that path.

Posted in: diet, food, Japan, life