When I visited the Osaka supermarket last week, the store was resplendent with reminders that Chinese New Year was coming up. Staff wore shiny red Chinese jackets. Decorations festooned the front of the store; hanging red lanterns, ornaments of fish and other golden figures dripping with red tassels, bamboo plants of all sizes, many with tiny hanging red lanterns, filled pots on the floor, cherry blossoms everywhere. The counters were overflowing with products brought in especially for the new year: large boxes of chocolates, candies, cookies and cakes; toys, banks and serving dishes all wrapped in red; different types of rice cakes; fortune cookies. And, most curious of all, right at the entry to the store, was a huge pile of mandarin oranges each one wrapped in cellophane. They told me that the oranges are wrapped individually so that they, like the packaged candies and cakes, can be given away when visiting family and friends at the new year.
With all this visual stimulation, it struck me that a dinner party we planned for the old gang could be a Chinese New Year celebration. That would save my husband doing the cooking, and would be fun. It would also give me a purpose for exploring the Asian supermarket.
For appetizers, we choose a range of finger food: shrimp crackers which are light and crunchy and proved very popular, some seasoned seaweed (wasabi and kimchi) which is not exactly Chinese but at least it is Asian, some “Magic Chili” made of dried chili and peanuts which is remarkably tasty, some dried peas and some spicy kale. That and a taste of Yanjing Chinese beer, de-alcoholized or not, to whet the appetite.
The main course was a buffet that would appeal to people with a variety of tastes. We chose some standard Chinese favourites from Osaka. Then added a couple of platters of sushi and maki. This is not Chinese, but Osaka featured sushi as part of their Chinese New Year promotion so it must be okay, right? Then a tomato salad, a crispy Chinese salad, and a platter of barbecue.
For dessert, we had the oranges, some pineapple, figs and ginger, an assortment of Chinese cookies, and two types of rice cake. Heated and then cut into small pieces as the Osaka sampling lady had recommended, the rice cake was rich and tasty. We learned that a little goes a long way. And with long stems of curly-topped bamboo with their tiny red lanterns to take home, we were all set. The bamboo, by the way, was $2.92 for ten long stems.
Happy Year of the Horse everyone. May the year bring the speedy success the horse signifies.
Nothing is more fun than browsing in a huge Asian supermarket. In West Vancouver, we have the Osaka Market on the south side of the large Park Royal shopping centre. Osaka is part of the T & T chain, which originated in Burnaby and Richmond in 1993 and has now spread to 22 stores in B.C., Alberta and Ontario. It is the largest Asian supermarket chain in the country. T & T was set up initially to offer a modern and efficient shopping experience to allow Asian immigrants to find their favourite foods in Canada. Increasingly, the stores are attracting segments of the mainstream market, nowhere more so than in this particular Osaka store on Vancouver’s north shore. I have visited the T & T on Canary Street in downtown Toronto on occasion, but because I don’t speak any Asian languages, my experience was not the same. I also understand that the two Osaka stores were originally owned by Japanese interests so their style of operation is somewhat different. Whatever the difference, I like it.
Osaka has a range of departments which are outstanding. It has a huge bakery, produces its own fresh sushi, and a ready-made Chinese food counter offering dim sum, barbecue and other Chinese dishes. There is a fish counter with fresh fish, lobsters, crabs, shrimps, and clams in holding tanks. And a full range of western and oriental produce, plain and organic, which appears to change quickly. The aisles are stocked with an endless array of products I know nothing about. But all seem to be labelled as required by our laws, so you can check out the calorie counts, fat levels, cholesterol and sugar content. The flavoured milk tea I fancied had very high calorie counts and sugar levels, so I passed that up. But I found some seasoned seaweed (kimchi and wasabi flavours) which only had 15 calories per package; there are eight packages in the bag, all for under $2.00. I brought those home as a treat. We opened up a package and found inside several very thin, light slices of dried seaweed, highly spiced, which were quite tasty. It occurred to me that maybe Asians stay thin by having snacks which provide taste but no substance. Not a bad idea, that.
But it is the service at Osaka which delights. Lineups at the cash registers are non-existent. Back-up people seem to swoop in should there be any delays. The electronic equipment has the latest swipe technology. Staff routinely pack groceries. Such a contrast with many mainstream supermarkets at which “check out and pack your own” is increasingly the norm. I noticed a staffer carrying groceries out to a car. There is staff all over the place who answer questions. If someone does not speak English, they find someone who does.
In my visits to Osaka this week, I have had the most memorable experiences. When I asked a young man in the produce department how to eat persimmons, he took one he considered too overripe to sell, went off to wash it and came back offering me a half to eat. He said, with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his lips, “You shouldn’t eat more than three persimmons a day.” Another young man was stocking the bakery shelves with red bean, walnut, coconut and natural rice cakes produced by the bakery itself. I was carrying some prepackaged rice cakes I had found on another counter. When I asked him how to eat them, he told me I had to put a few drops of water and some parchment paper over the top to make sure the crust does not burn, and then cook them in the oven for about twenty minutes. Then he said, “But you might like to try these rice cakes baked in-house, they are already cooked.” I said I’d take one and try it out at home. We then learned that a rice cake sampling was scheduled for a little later. When I said I’d come back, he took the cake I had chosen and said I should buy one at the sampling: “That cake will be fresher still.” When I suggested that maybe I should buy one of the large cakes with fruit and cookies being offered as a Chinese New Year special, he seemed positively disappointed. “Inside it is only an ordinary sponge cake,” he said. “It’s rice cake that we eat at Chinese New Year which brings good luck.” How could I resist?
I left the store with the sensation that someone cared. What a treat!!!!!