Meal planning and grocery shopping were already demanding enough tasks without throwing the outbreak of COVID-19 into the mix. Since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a national state of emergency on April 16, many across the country have been heeding calls to cut human contact by 80 percent; Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike also requested residents to limit trips to the grocery store to once every three days. Since most Japanese kitchens and pantries are quite compact, it’s more important than ever to make pantry storage space count.
The Japan Times talked to three experts — Nami Chen, the chef and recipe developer behind the Just One Cookbook Japanese recipe blog; Katheryn Gronauer, an Institute for Integrative Nutrition-certified health coach and Tokyo-based cross-cultural corporate trainer; and Shihoko Ura, the Australia-based cook behind Chopstick Chronicles — about how to stock (but not hoard!) your pantry with nutritious, multipurpose ingredients that are easy to find in your local Japanese supermarket.
How much food should you have?
In earthquake- and typhoon-prone Japan, it was already a good idea to have some long-lasting food in stock in the event of a natural disaster. But given the average quarantine period for COVID-19 is two weeks, Gronauer and Ura both recommend keeping about that much food on hand. Note that this doesn’t mean you need to be preparing three gourmet meals a day — plan to stock ingredients for several meals you can prepare in bulk and portion to eat or repurpose throughout the week. Ura recommends following the Japanese concept of ichijū sansai (one soup, three sides) for both variety and portion control.
“It will take time to cook three different side dishes, but what many Japanese do is to cook side dishes in bulk and keep them in the fridge, a bit like a Japanese way of meal prep,” she says.
However, there’s no need to keep items in stock simply because you know they keep well: Chen, Gronauer and Ura all stress that the idea is to buy foods you’d actually want to eat. “In this stressful time, keeping your good spirit is rather important and eating food that you don’t like will probably not help,” Chen says. “If you don’t like lentils, canned beans or frozen vegetables, don’t force yourself to buy them. There are plenty of other food choices to keep you healthy and happy.”
To that end, particularly when storage space is limited, Chen recommends planning meals for the next week ahead of time and organizing your shopping list by category to minimize wasteful purchases.
And don’t worry if you can’t find all the ingredients for a particular recipe: COVID-19 is your culinary blessing to experiment and substitute with what’s available.
What to keep in stock
As stated above, take these categories as rough guides and ideas, not proscriptions, and only purchase what you need.
Fruits and vegetables: Fresh produce in Japan already costs a premium, but there are ways to get around that. Long-lasting fruit like bananas, apples and oranges are generally available year-round, as are vegetables like broccoli, carrots, cabbage and bell peppers. But don’t turn up your nose at frozen produce, which is just as nutritious as its fresh counterpart. Wholesale grocers like Gyomu Super have a wide selection of affordable frozen items. Or you can just order vegetable delivery boxes straight to your door.
Protein: Chicken, shrimp and fish all freeze well for long-term use, or you could invest in Japan’s many canned fish options. If you buy fresh meat, you can remove it from the styrofoam and re-freeze in a fresh container as long as it’s not kaitō (defrosted). Milk and eggs are also good sources of protein; the latter keep in the fridge much longer than their sell-by date would suggest. A block of Parmesan or other hard cheese will also keep well, and is an easy way to add a punch of flavor to pastas and salads. Tofu, chickpeas and other beans are good vegetarian or vegan bases for many meals.
Grains and starches: Rice, pasta, potatoes, bread, and other grains and cereals are go-to comfort carbs. Gronauer also recommends dry mochi rice cakes, which last for a long time and can be toasted or boiled and tossed into soup or curry, and soba noodles as a healthier, gluten-free (if you get 100 percent buckwheat) alternative to pasta. You can also freeze sliced bread, where it will keep for months, and thaw it in a microwave or toaster. If you’re lucky enough to have an oven, flour, yeast and other baking products remain in stock (unlike the rest of the world). For those concerned about overeating on the carb front, Chen says to “aim for a well-balanced diet by accompanying a bowl of rice or pasta with heaps of vegetables, protein and healthy fat.”
Dried foods: Japanese supermarkets really shine in the dried food department. Konbu (kelp), shiitake mushrooms and katsuobushi (skipjack tuna flakes) are fundamental when it comes to making dashi, flavoring or as add-on ingredients in many Japanese dishes. Furikake (rice seasoning) and nori are easy ways to perk up plain rice or noodles.
Condiments: Foundational Japanese condiments include soy sauce, mirin (sweet fermented cooking alcohol), sake, miso, rice vinegar, tsuyu (noodle dipping sauce) and sesame oil. Yuzu koshō (a spicy-salty yuzu citrus-chili paste), chili garlic sauce or hot sauce add pep to curries, vinaigrettes, marinades and stir-fries. The country’s huge variety of tsukemono pickles and kimchi also allow you to add flavor while promoting gut health. And don’t forget about cans of diced tomatoes and coconut milk, peanut butter or neutral-flavored oil, like canola.
What about dessert? Like betsubara (“second stomach”), you should always make room in the pantry for that occasional chocolate, ice cream or treat of choice to keep your spirit up.
For more information, visit justonecookbook.com; thrivetokyo.com; and chopstickchronicles.com. The Japan Times has also made the entire archive of Makiko Itoh’s recipe column, “Japanese Kitchen,” available online for free at jtimes.jp/kitchen.
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