Kanji Clinic #38, The Japan Times, June 5, 2003
gSavvy shoppers tote kanji knowhow to the supermarketh

Itfs easy for an English speaker to survive in Japan without ever learning to read a haiku in the original or even a Japanese newspaper headline. Food shopping is a different story: For kanji-clueless consumers, Japanese supermarket shelves hold a number of potential misunderstandings.

The first time I bought that ubiquitous marvel of Japanese cookery, a box of instant curry roux, I was unable to read the directions on the package, so I asked a Japanese friend how to prepare the stuff. Eagerly spooning homemade curry into my mouth, I gagged. I had inadvertently purchased the h (spicy-mouth karakuchi) variety instead of the Ì (sweet-mouth, amakuchi) or h (middle-spicy, chuukara).

If you happen to have a palate like mine, you can avoid hot curry, sauces, snack foods and the like that set your gullet on fire by remembering this simple story: gSpicy hh food makes you gstand up h from the table gten \h times to run to drink water.

Speaking of culinary misfortunes, during my first week in Japan I ruined my morning coffee by dumping salt into it. Thatfs right, I had purchased a clear bag of (salt) instead of a virtually identical bag sitting next to it marked (sugar).

The ground meat section may also prove baffling to the uninitiated. Typically four varieties are sold: chicken, beef, pork, and a beef/pork mixture. Ground chicken is easy to distinguish because of its lighter color. To successfully choose between the other three types, however, you will need to spot the characters (pig) and (cow). When the characters for these two barnyard animals stand side by side on the package, you are holding the mixed version (؋ғ, pig-cow-ground-meat).

Japan is a nation of tea lovers and its supermarkets display a bewildering array of prepared tea-- generally sold in clear plastic containers--as well as packages of dried tea leaves. These teas are frustratingly similar shades of brown or green, nearly indistinguishable save for the kanji identifying them: (wheat-tea, mugicha), g (crimson-tea-- koucha, translated as gblack tea," your basic Earl Grey variety), G (crow-dragon-tea, uuroncha, oolong tea,), Ē (brown-rice tea, genmaicha), \Z (16-herb tea, juurokucha), V (new-tea, shincha), (raw-tea, namacha), and finally Β (green-tea, ryokucha), which may also be labeled simply ghonorable teah (ocha). It took me a long time to suss out the intricacies of the tea aisle--Good luck!

If you want to purchase the smooth variety of tofu eaten chilled and raw with soy sauce, be sure to look for gsilkh () as opposed to gcottonh (). (Both have of these gclothh kanji have gthreadsh as their left-hand component). The two tofus look virtually identical through their clear packages, but the latter is tougher and more suited for cooking.

Should you want to know where your fresh fruits, vegetables, fish, etc. have been harvested, look for the kanji meaning gproduced,h Y. The area of production is followed by Y (e.g.: Chilean grapes, `Y; Hokkaido potatoes, kCY; Vietnamese squid, xgiY). Y (country-inside-produced) indicates items made somewhere in Japan.

If you favor organic foods, knowing the kanji L@͔| (possess-organic-plant-cultivate, "organically grown") should enable you to locate them on the shelf. Y (no-attachments-added) means that a product contains no additives. Fruits and vegetables produced with reduced pesticides are labeled _ (reduced-agricultural-chemical). The expiration date on perishables is artfully dubbed the gprize-taste-term-limith (ܖ) in Japanese.

Our last stop on todayfs Japanese supermarket kanji tour is the dairy section. The relatively few low-fat products available there--including milk, yogurt, and coffee creamer--are marked ᎉb (low-fat-animal fat). Sometimes you can find b(nothing-fat-animal fat-milk), or you might want to chugalug some ice-cold soymilk (, bean-milk) on a hot summer day if you are cholesterol-conscious.

Taking a hit-and-miss approach, most foreigners living in Japan develop the ability to correctly purchase all the items on their shopping list--eventually. To get your own Japan adventure off to a running start, place yourself one step ahead of the pack and commit to memory the shapes and meanings of vital supermarket kanji now.


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