Turning Japanese...

Although I am generally no fan of the suburbs, I am quite a fan of a certain gentleman who lives there, so this weekend I made the trek to the North Shore to spend some time with him. Our plan was to keep things fairly low-key, so we slept in gloriously late (seriously, sleeping in never gets old -- so much for adapting to a 9-5 schedule), and in the afternoon we headed out to Mitsuwa, a massive Japanese supermarket in Arlington Heights. Though many of the activities that Justin and I partake in come from either my 2011 to-do list or something that caught my eye in the numerous free papers that circulate around the city, Justin has been suggesting an excursion to Mitsuwa for months now. With so many time-sensitive things on our agenda, however, Mitsuwa kept getting pushed back until we were finally able to make time for it today.

Mitsuwa is kind of like a Japanese version of Walmart, a superstore peddling food, books, cosmetics, household goods, its own travel agency specializing in travel to Japan, and a food court. Justin and I started off our visit with lunch at the food court, which offers a noodle stand, an immense cooler full of pre-made sushi, a "green tea cafe" featuring tea-based beverages and desserts, a Japanese burger stand, and a restaurant offering typical Japanese dishes.

We both opted to go traditional, and I had tonkatsu, a breaded and fried pork cutlet served on a bed of cabbage with one of my all-time favorite sauces (apple-based tonkatsu sauce rivals only ketchup in my affections, and that's saying something), a bowl of miso soup, and naturally, some rice on the side. It didn't look like a ton of food at first glance, but it was surprisingly filling, and therefore a pretty good deal for $10. Plus, it was surprisingly good for any food obtained in a food court setting. I treated Justin to some green tea ice cream for dessert, since it's one of my very favorite things, and I was surprised to learn that he had never had it before. Luckily for me, he seemed to enjoy it, so I suspect there may be a batch of the homemade stuff in the future...

Although the principle reason for our trip to Mitsuwa was to check out the food court, we would have been remiss had we not trolled the aisles of the grocery department and beheld the unfamiliar sights there. There were entire aisles dedicated to dried seafood products, refrigerated cases full of grey, gelatinous cubes packed in water, and more types of noodles than you could shake a stick at, much less hope to identify, very little of it labeled for non-Japanese speakers. Walking the aisles was simultaneously fascinating and slightly terrifying. It was no small wonder that we were able to assemble sufficient ingredients to make ourselves a basic noodle stir fry for dinner.

I did recognize this atrocity of a vegetable: gobo or burdock root, is a Japanese root vegetable that looks like a stick, smells like a stick, and tastes like a stick, yet somehow, according to my Japanese-major friends from college, it manages to be delicious. Sorry, but I'm just not open-minded enough to enjoy food that looks like something a dog ought to be chasing in the yard.

For all of their technological advances, the Japanese can be stunningly eco-unfriendly at times. At least in my experience, they seem obsessed with maximizing their use of packaging, even with small items. One of my favorite Japanese treats, for instance, is Kasugai Peach Gummies, a soft, chewy jelly candy in which each quarter-size piece is individually wrapped. They might be delicious, but I have visions of overflowing landfills each time I consume one. The groceries at Mitsuwa were no exception -- each vegetable was either individually wrapped or packaged in pairs. Presumably all this wrapping is done for hygienic reasons so that nobody will get their germ-laden hands all over the produce by rifling through a bulk bin, but it also increased the prices. The produce was noticeably more expensive than comparable items elsewhere.

Justin himself said that for his usual Asian grocery needs, he prefers to go somewhere that is both cheaper and closer, but I agree with him that Mitsuwa is still worth the trek just for the experience and the food court. If you like Japanese food, and you don't mind the suburbs, definitely give it a whirl.