Beyond the Pocky

Beyond the Pocky: Welcome to the Jungle, Don't Forget your Yen

Can't find good instant miso at ShopRite? Never spent an hour trying to get the marble out of a Ramune bottle? Never fear! The world of Japanese supermarket food awaits!

by Maria Lin

So you eat a box of gourmet Pocky a day, your cabinet is stuffed with ramen, oriental style, and you've even tried every flavor of those gummy candies that Suncoast stocks. When it comes to food, you're practically eating like the Japanese!

Or not.

Talk to anyone who shops at an Asian food market, and they'll tell you straight away, you ain't seen nothing yet. Hidden deep within grocery stores throughout the country there lives a veritable ecosystem of sodas, candies, snacks, vegetables and stuff, all but undiscovered by the typical anime fan, and I, your stalwart guide, shall lead you to them.

Our first task is to locate a store that sells Asian food. Chances are, if you have a large Asian population living near you, there will be a grocery store of some sort tailored to their needs. Where I live, there are so many Chinese that a supermarket has opened up and shut out of business the dozens of individual markets that I once frequented. In some places, there might be a total of two Japanese in the entire town, so finding a place to shop might be more difficult. In most areas, the Asian market is a small family-run affair, and although stock might be limited, the variety is endless.

Beyond the Pocky

If you are lucky enough to find such a store, the next step is preparing to shop there.

But Maria, you say, it's just a store like any other! I don't need cameos or rubber boots, do I?

There's nothing you have to equip to visit an Asian food market, but there are certain things that you should expect and be prepared for if you don't want to make a fool of yourself.

First, always remember that a store is a store is a store. An Asian grocery store is like every other grocery store, it just stocks different things. What it is not is a place for an otaku to run screaming down the aisles, gaping at the ducks on a spittle and the aisle of gourmet ramen. When shopping, and this is just common sense, don't make it obvious that you find the place to be absurdly foreign, but don't be intimidated if you end up as the only western person in the whole building. In a way, jumping into an Asian store, especially the supermarket, is like falling into another country, so it would be wise to act accordingly.

Next, be wary of practicing your language skills with the employees. As a student of Japanese, I know the urge to have a conversation with a native speaker is great, but I'd get nowhere, because everyone in my area is Chinese. I'm sure you are all very smart people, and can imagine just how horrible it would be if I went up to someone Korean with a konnichiwa. I know it's annoying, because people have done it to me! Even if your store is brimming with Japanese products, this doesn't mean that the people who shop there are Japanese. They may just as easily be Korean or Chinese, so it's best not to make any assumptions.

Beyond the Pocky

Finally, shop carefully. Since Asian food stores tailor to Asian people, very often you end up with absolutely no English to tell you whether the drink you hold in your hand is orange juice or lemon peanut soup. Do a little research before you go, and search labels for clues. Sometimes it's fun to buy something when you have no idea what it is, but if you shop like that, then be prepared for some interesting tastes.

These are the three rules when shopping for Asian food. Don't point and stare, or jump up and down and squeal; remember that Koreans, Chinese and Singaporeans are people too; and be prepared for some very strange food.

Once you've got those three things down, you're more than ready to grab your wallet, steel your stomach, and start shopping!

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