Stepping into the newly renovated Mitsuwa Marketplace is like stepping onto a small island of Japan. You can speak Japanese, read Japanese and enjoy Japanese treats at the gift shops, grocery store and food court.
But chances are — unless you are Japanese — you probably won’t know how to get the most out of a visit to this Arlington Heights mall — especially when it comes to food.
We recently toured the Mitsuwa grocery store and food court with Kimiyo Naka. The Japan native works with Mitsuwa’s communications team, and she walked us through the mall sharing shopping and dining tips that we’ve included below.
We started by shopping for 15 Japanese kitchen staples and finding out how to choose and use them at home.
Miso: The grocery store offers more than a dozen versions of this paste made with fermented soybeans and grains. Naka said white shiro miso is sweeter than the saltier red aka miso. Other versions include awase miso, which is a mix of white and red, and dashi miso which already has a dashi soup stock (made with fish and kelp) mixed in. “You can use miso for making soup or to marinate meat for grilling,” said Naka. “Personally I like white miso from the Kansai region.”
Natto: These stinky, slimy, fermented soybeans come in single-serving packages under many brands in the refrigerated and frozen sections. And while millions of Japanese enjoy natto regularly, it can be a tough sell for Americans. “This is a common breakfast dish that you mix up until it gets sticky and eat with a bowl of rice,” Naka said. “But many non-Japanese don’t like it because they think it doesn’t taste good. But it is very healthy.”
Umeboshi: These pickled plums are popular side dish at breakfast with a bowl of rice and miso soup. You can also tuck them in triangular rice snacks called onigiri. Naka said, “Some are very sour and some are made with honey, which makes them a little sweeter. I eat umeboshi almost every morning.”
Sake: “There are endless options here whether you like dry, sweet or unfiltered sake,” Naka said. “If you are having meat or fish, you tend to choose more flavorful sakes but more delicate sakes are good to drink with appetizers or on their own.” As a rule, junmai “pure” sake (which contains no other added alcohol) is often paired with food. Ginjo sake uses more polished rice and imparts fruitier flavors and aromas. And daiginjo sake uses rice that’s even more polished and is seen as a premium product with lighter more complex flavor. Naka noted that a company called Kurosawa has a junmai sake with a flavor profile that is designed “to be a perfect sake for the American market.”
Mirin: “This a sweet rice cooking wine that you use in almost everything — soup, stir fried dishes or to season meat and fish. It’s a must-have in the Japanese kitchen,” said Naka. Mirin adds the slight sweetness in your tempura dipping sauce, teriyaki marinades, shoyu ramen broths and more.
Ponzu soy sauce: Soy sauce flavored with a citrus fruit called yuzu. “I use this for many things like soup and salad. I mix it with some sesame oil and it makes a great dressing,” Naka said. “You can even use it for fish for grilling.”
Dashi: “This is a Japanese soup stock using bonito (dried tuna) flakes and kelp that you can use in soups or in a stir fry with fish or chicken,” Naka said. “And you can use it as a base for your miso soup.”
Seaweed: In the seaweed aisle, you find “wakame that you can put in miso soup or salad but also nori (seaweed laver sheets) that you would use to wrap around a rice ball,” Naka said. “Some are seasoned with a little salt or seasoning depending on the flavor you like.”
Candy: “One of the most popular candies are Pocky that are like a cracker stick dipped in chocolate. All ages of people eat them.” But more traditional snacks include yokan, sweet paste made from beans, chestnuts and more that is formed into blocks, sliced, and can be served with green tea.
Sushi-grade fish: “Here you can see fresh salmon, tuna in different grades, salmon roll, octopus, tamago (scrambled egg cakes), sea urchin and you can take them home and makes ‘scatter’ sushi with a bowl of sushi rice topped by slices of this sashimi.”
Mentaiko: A spicy pollack roe encased in its membrane. “You can eat it with a bowl of rice,” Naka said. “And spaghetti [in a mentaiko sauce] is super popular in Japan. If you go to Italian restaurants in Japan or izakaya (pub style) restaurants you will almost always find it there.”
Naruto: Your kids might know this as a popular cartoon or emojii, but Naka noted, “it’s also a fish cake made with cooked fish paste that gets sliced into round pieces and plopped on top of noodle soups.”
Takuan: These daikon radish pickles are a staple of the Japanese table. “Some are pickled in miso or vinegar, but most are just supposed to be kind of sweet and crunchy,” Naka said. “Like natto and umeboshi it would be eaten as a side dish in the morning or for dinner.”
Japanese mayonnaise: American foodies are wild about this tasty Hellmann’s-like mayonnaise often sold in a squishy clear plastic bottles. The leading brand is Kewpie, but Mitsuwa carries several others also in similar soft bottles. Chefs praise the mayonnaise for its particular richness that comes from extra egg yolks and, sometimes, monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Snacks: The snack section of Mitsuwa features plenty of crunchy fried items like shrimp chips and potato chips — in nori, mentaiko and butter and soy sauce flavors. But Naka said when it comes to “getting together with friends and drinking beer and watching sports on TV, the Japanese like to eat dried squid. It’s like the equivalent of popcorn.”
THE FOOD COURT GOING AROUND THE COURT COUNTER-CLOCKWISE
Yakitori Toritetsu: This brand new addition to the food court is a Japanese chain that features dozens of proteins on a grilled skewer including chicken thighs, chicken wings, chicken organs, meatloaf, beef, pork, quail eggs, fish cakes, mini sausages, shishito peppers and more. It also specializes in freshly made octopus fritters called takoyaki. This is the only place that makes them fresh in the Chicago area. Naka’s pick: Classic chicken thigh skewers and takoyaki.
Japanese Crepe Stand: “If you go to places like Harajuku in Tokyo you find tons of these stands serving sweet crepes filled with ice cream and fruit. But here they also have them filled with cheese.” Naka’s pick: “A simple Nutella crepe with whipped cream because it reminds of of Harajuku.”
MaMa House: A Korean comfort food stand with classics such as bibimbap (rice topped with seasoned vegetables, egg and grilled meat) and kimchi stew. “These are very popular in Japan,” Naka explains, “because we have a very big Korean immigrant population.” Naka’s pick: Bibimbap because I love bibimbap.
Tokyo Shokudo: This is a new stand that basically translates to “Tokyo Diner.” “You see the traditional comfort foods here,” Naka said. The selection of main dishes includes grilled salmon or mackerel, pork cutlet, fried chicken and curry (above) served with rice, pickles and a side dish. Naka’s pick: Fried oyster plate. “I get this every time I come here because I can’t make it at home.”
Santouka Ramen: This ramen chain hails from Hokkaido in Northern Japan, which is known for its food culture. It offers ramen in three sizes using four broths tonkotsu (pork), miso, shoyu (soy sauce) and shio (salt). Naka’s pick: “I personally like the miso ramen here because it is so flavorful and it is topped with menma (marinated bamboo shoots), chashu (pork belly), naruto (fish cake), Tokyo onions and mushrooms.”
Sanuki Seimen Mugimaru: The soups at this stand feature udon, the thick white noodles made with flour. Diners can order the noodles in butter or broths, and with various toppings, including a wide array of tempura items on sticks. Naka’s pick: Kitsune udon, “it’s classic japanese noodles and the topping is seasoned fried tofu.”
Sutadon-Ya: This stand also specializes in Japanese set lunches featuring comfort foods like garlic pork rice bowls, yakisoba, fried chicken and curry. Naka’s pick: Karaage teishoku or Japanse fried chicken. “They usually marinate the chicken in soy sauce and mirin then they coat it with cornstarch and deep fry it.
Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at email@example.com.