Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Nijiya Market: Japanese Living on Convoy

I’ve long been a fan of Mitsuwa, formerly Yaohan, on Mercury, off of Balboa in Kearny Mesa. Okay, their produce department is modest, but I enjoy their wide variety of teas, sake, sashimi-grade fish, frozen delicacies and, most of all, the fresh sushi. I’d never really thought about shopping for Japanese products elsewhere until I decided to follow Mineko Takane Moreno around on her tour of Nijiya Market. Years ago, I’d taken a beginning sushi class from Mineko at Great News (alright, I promise to check out other cooking schools in town!) and learned more than the basics from this petite, elegant woman. She is extremely knowledgeable (she’s the co-author, with my old friend Judi Strada, of Sushi for Dummies) and could probably spend days in the market, explaining what’s in various mysterious jars, bottles and plastic bags and how they can be used. In fact, if she’s game, I’d do it again to hit all the things time constraints forced us to miss.

And, I’ll definitely be returning on my own to Nijiya Market. First of all, their produce department is a delight, especially because they sell what they grow on their own organic farm. Here were the standouts:

  • Enormous daikon radish, which I love to eat raw, but is perfect grated as a condiment to accompany fish or other protein (just don’t put the grated daikon in the refrigerator or everything inside will smell).
  • Lanky long onions—at least two feet in length—that can be thinly sliced and rinsed for use as a condiment for noodles and dipping sauces or simmered with beef, grilled with chicken or cooked with duck in udon noodle soup.
  • Mounds of gorgeous kabocha squash, ready for baking, grilling, roasting, deep frying as tempura or pureed as a substitute for chestnuts. Last night, I chopped one up and simmered it with sliced green onions in rice vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil and a little sugar. It took perhaps 20 minutes and was delicious with steamed rice sprinkled with Shichimi togarashi, a seven-spice chili seasoning combining chili flakes, black and white sesame seeds, poppy seeds, sancho (a Japanese pepper), aonori (a type of seaweed) and Mandarin orange peel.
  • Burdock, an earthy-looking long and slender brown root wrapped in cellophane, enjoyed in stir fries. Peel it and add to roast chicken with other root vegetables.
  • A variety of herbs and leaves, like Chrysanthemum leaves, used in one-pot dishes, tempura, sushi rolls and salad; Ooba, a mint-like herb with antisceptic powers, enjoyed with raw fish, on top of wasabi ice cream or with pasta instead of basil and Kinome, the leaf of Japanese peppers. This has a very strong flavor that can be released if you put it in one hand and smack it with the other.

Be sure to investigate the various mushrooms, taro root, lotus root and Naga-imo, or long mountain yam. Long, straight and a light beige color, they’re displayed surrounded by sawdust. It can be crunchy like jicama, but peel it and it’s a bit slimy. Eat it raw or cooked but just peel the skin first.

I didn’t even mention fruit, but there’s plenty—kumquats, fuji apples, satsuma oranges and amazingly huge and sweet grapes. I swear they tasted like apples.

Okay, moving on. If you enjoy pickled fruits and vegetables, Nijiya Market has a great selection (although Mitsuwa, with its own little room for their pickles, wins this competition). Alongside pickled plums (often placed on top of a mound of white rice to imitate the Japanese flag), there were bottles of Neriume, which Mineko explained is a paste made of Japanese apricot and used like mustard on salmon or in a vinaigrette.

There is a huge selection of different misos—white, dark, saikyo (sweet compared to regular white miso) and even an organic miso. Next to them is a variety of tofu and soy products. You’ll find bags upon bags of rice—avoid the mochi gome, or sweet rice if you’re looking for something for a daily meal. It’s simply too sticky. Mineko enjoys shorter grain Kagayaki California premium rice.

Like at 99 Ranch Market and Mitsuwa, I was overwhelmed by the selections of soy sauces, ponzu sauces, rice wines and rice vinegars (not to mention the various spices, noris and other packaged products). All I can say is take a tour with someone like Mineko to learn the distinctions. The choices here are amazing and picking just the right type, whether it's light or dark soy sauce or light or dark rice vinegar, can make a big difference in the dishes you prepare.

I was delighted to find a gorgeous display of meats and fish, although naively I was shocked at some of the prices. Sashimi-grade toro goes for $80 a pound as do geoduck clams; blue fin tuna for $70. They sell a long, iridescent fish called sanma, which I’ll try in the summer so I can grill it whole. The market has a wonderful display of freshly made sushi and bento boxes, as well as fish cakes, spring rolls, croquettes and tempura and they have an in-store bakery that sells large boxy loaves of white bread.

While my idea of the perfect day touring Nijiya would end with a return to someone’s home to go cook up our purchases, we did the next best thing—ate a homestyle lunch at nearby Sakura Restaurant. Our group of 20 enjoyed shrimp and assorted vegetable tempura, miso-marinated grilled salmon with grated dikon, tofu and wakame miso soup, sweet and salty root vegetables, a salad and mochi ice cream. I recommend Sakura so out of kindness, here’s how you find this unmarked eatery: It’s located on Convoy in the same strip mall as the Original Pancake House. Look for the doorway under the brown awning next to the Army recruiting office. That’s it. Why there’s no sign, I’ve no clue, but people know it’s there because it was packed on Sunday afternoon. I plan to return on an evening when owner and chef Kazuya Maeda serves sake with “tapas”-style treats.

Finally, at lunch I asked Mineko to recommend the best Japanese cookbooks around. She offered three, which I found available on Amazon.com:

  • Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen by Elizabeth Andoh
  • Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji
  • The Japanese Kitchen by Hiroko Shimbo

Nijiya Market is located at 3860 Convoy St. in Sunrise Towne Centre. It’s just north of Aero Drive.

Sakura Restaurant is located at 3904 Convoy St.

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