Osaka's crazed, cheap and cheerful supermarket chain

by Nick Currie

Special To The Japan Times

This is a column about cheap food, and it doesn’t come much cheaper than Osaka’s Super Tamade supermarket chain. When I first arrived in the city I lived almost exclusively on precooked nikku jagga, a shrink-wrapped beef, carrot and potato bowl retailing at around ¥100. Haute cuisine it isn’t, but it keeps you alive.

You don’t just go to Tamade for rock-bottom prices; it’s also a fascinatingly colorful trip in its own right. There are 54 branches in greater Osaka, most of them open 24 hours. They illuminate some of the city’s greyest, most downtrodden districts like thunderbolts: yellow facades, flashing neon signs, sparkling LEDs in the shape of fireworks. The interior decor is surprisingly lavish for a discount emporium: Neon rainbows, birds and animals hang overhead, evoking a pachinko parlor with a Noah’s Ark theme.

Part of the pleasure of a trip to Tamade — go at 3 a.m., if you want even more weirdness — is to mingle with those who shop there. Men shuffle along the aisles in Crocs and pajamas, and ancient hunched ladies mumble to themselves. If Tom Waits lived in Japan he’d have written a song or two about this place. The Chinese checkout women, all dressed in a lurid shade of pink, fling the change into your hand brusquely.

And the change is what it’s all about. For this piece I decided to buy and taste a selection of Tamade’s precooked side dishes. I grabbed a dozen polystyrene containers from the relevant shelves, then discovered that I only had ¥2,500 in my wallet. In most supermarkets these purchases — a big chunk of sauteed duck breast, several beef and pork dishes, chop suey, assorted vegetable sides, sliced bean curd, peanuts, a fruit dessert — would have taken me well over that figure, but at the Tamade checkout the cashier took ¥1,500 and flung me a handful of coins.

So how did my Tamade feast fare as food? Before we get to the quality, let’s note the quantity: This haul was enough to keep me alive for two days. And actually, the tastes and textures weren’t bad. The aigamo rosu, or roast duck (¥248) — the most expensive item I purchased — was rather delicious: a cold, chewy, juicy slab of high-calorie comfort food weirdly reminiscent of boneless kippers.

My next selection was sweet-and-sour pork. Although rather overstocked with onions that became soggy in their glutinous sauce after microwaving, the dish was saved by the quality of the pork, which was tender and tasty, set off by fibrous lumps of bamboo root. The second Chinese dish was “eight treasure vegetable.” Here, refrigeration and microwaving began to take their toll; the vegetable dishes stored without sauce fared better. Orange pumpkin lumps dissolved in my mouth — not cloying, with a friendly, buttery taste — and daikon slices were soft, fibrous and sweet.

My Tamade dish of reference, nikku jagga, was let down by stringy and tasteless beef, although the carrots and potatoes were good

Nobody expects Michelin-star quality cooking from a discount supermarket chain. All shoppers want is something edible that will keep them alive for another day on Earth, and leave them with a little cash for other expenses and, hopefully, other experiences.

They might spend that extra few yen on something not food-related at all: perhaps a trip to the observation deck at the top of Abeno Harukas, Japan’s tallest building, from which all of Osaka’s Tamade branches can be seen at night, sparkling across the city like tiny fireworks.

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