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Jul 1, 2008 01:10 PM

San Diego - Nijiya, Marukai, Mitsuwa markets - Favorite items?

Looking to add to my shopping list at these markets or any others in the Convoy area.
What do San Diego hounds like to buy at these markets?
Fish, veg, meat, seasonings, anything else!
Thanks hounds!

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  1. Let's see...

    *** fair warning - this post is long! ***

    I go every weekend, usually not knowing what I'll buy. Basically I'm looking for whatever looks good, is known to be in season, or is a special. Depending on what I find, I'll use it as soon as that night, or perhaps within the next two nights...

    I'm also always looking out for fresh fish to grill "shio-yaki" style, which is just simply over a dry heat and salt. My favorite for shio-yaki is Sanma.

    I'm even a bigger sucker for "himono", which are half-sun-dried fish. (These would already have been soaked in a brine or seawater after gutting/cleaning, so no added salt is needed. They're easily recognized by their looks, as they are opened up like a book...) I like almost any "himono", but in particular Aji - very good stuff!

    Also I do occasionally like to grill an "ama-jio sake", or a lightly salted salmon. These are also partly dried. This and the himono, being partly dried, intensifies the flavors.

    Other kinds of fish that's a good change of pace are the various "miso/kasu/sake-zuke" fish, marinated in miso or sake lees. Gindara (black cod) is my favorite amongst these.

    All of these I've mentioned needs no other seasoning other than cooking over a dry heat, except for the fresh Sanma which should be lightly salted on the outside.

    If you wish to do a lot of Japanese fish cookery, especially the dry heat cooking which is the simplest and most tasty, a very inexpensive investment is a fish grill called an ami. You can get these at all of the Japanese groceries and at the Marukai Living store.

    However most Japanese fish are on the oily side, so even the Japanese like to complain about the cooking smell as much as they like to eat them! So a good long-term investment would be in an electric fish grill, which can be had for under or over $100, depending on the brand. They're loosely sealed units, with a Smoke Reducer in their cover which works very well. They're a bit of a pain to clean, especially when compared to the ami, but you'll do a lot better smell wise!

    I probably shouldn't mention it, but hey, it's the truth! I also occasionally stock up on cans of Japanese tinned fish for the pantry. How do I use it? Invariably I always use it as a quick and savory late night snack, usually as a topping for white rice, and it's very healthy for you. (The canned fish that the Japanese eat are all incredibly high in Omega-3 fatty acids!) Think primarily Sanma and Saba.

    I can almost always find a use for Yamaimo, so even when I don't have a specific use in mind, I'll pick some up. Also very versatile is Daikon, which complements the taste of many items. I most often use it raw, grated as a garnish for grilled fish or for Yakiniku. Of course Takenoko I always get if it's in season - I just slice it up sashimi style...

    Also during the winter months I like to feature plenty of Nappa cabbage and at least 3 different varieties of mushrooms for a teppan-yaki.

    Things I look for are beef for Yakiniku, Shabu Shabu, or Teppan-yaki. I'll also look for beef tongue for Yakiniku or Teppan-yaki. I also like to get Chicken wings for Yakitori. Cubed beef I use for a Curry stew, along with beef tendon which I slice up thinly for texture. (For curry there's all sorts of "flavor boosters" sold in the curry section that one can simply add-in to the curry pot.)

    I'm a sucker for Kyoho grapes. If you've never had them, they're a must! (For best results, and it's worth it, peel each grape! Generally I find the fruits at the Japanese markets to be better than most stores, though you'll pay for the difference. I also go nuts for the persimons and lychees when they're in season.

    I always like to keep some Shichimi (7 spice pepper blend) in the pantry, along with Sansho (Japanese prickly ash pepper), and Hondashi (freeze-dried dashi). Also very good to have around it Aonori (seasoned seaweed sold in small glass jars), and various Furikake (dried toppings for rice, but good in creative cooking as well!)

    I always stock up on Natto (I keep many packs in the frig to use over a couple of weeks, the rest goes in the freezer), eggs or sometimes Uzura to eat raw with my morning natto over rice, Hondashi, a quick and dirty ingredient I use in a lot of improvised cooking (I like to make Japanese omelettes with it, as well as to spike my natto/raw egg mixture on rice), Venezuelan Bitters (i typically have 3 boxes at home - it's my "house chocolate"), and some very good, high quality Yakimochi/Senbei (rice crackers).

    BTW a fun (albeit expensive) ingredient to play around with is Matcha powder. One can use it creatively in all sorts of desserts or other creations, over and above its use as a luxurious tea.

    Tamanishiki rice is currently my favorite, which I'll buy in 15 pound bags when I'm low... I also started to cook on occasion Haiga rice, though I still prefer the regular white rice.

    The Markets
    Pros - Half the time I only go to Nijiya and nowhere else. It's the best by far. I find that it's a good store to browse slowly, as they carry many, many unique items that typically are stocked only one or two items wide, but as deep as the shelves. (Mitsuwa allows a wider display per item on the shelf, resulting in much less a selection in general despite its much larger format.)

    Also Nijiya carries a lot more of the exotic/expensive/rare items as well.

    If Nijiya has a specialty, it would be their organic produce, although I am not big on organic. (They're the only ones in the business to operate their own organic farm!)

    They also have a very competent selection of rice.

    Particularly nice - Nijiya is the place to shop for exotic salts, exotic soy sauces, and exotic rice. Of course they're also the only ones to carry the whole katsuoboshi loin. (And I only mention it to stress their uniqueness, they even regularly stock the celebratory ?culinary? gold leaf, as well as the exotic Japanese traditional charcoal Binchotan. Really these guys have so many unique things it's always fun!

    Cons - They don't have a license for hard liquor, so you may notice that they won't carry shochu, though that's never a problem with me! Also their dry goods section is minimal.

    Pros - A good complement to Nijiya, I usually follow a trip to Nijiya with a trip here to pick up whatever I couldn't find. Even though I find Nijiya to be better stocked, their smaller format allows for some holes which a trip to Mitsuwa often fills.

    Mitsuwa also has good prices on specials, and their biggest asset is that they like to have food festivals! Many of them throughout the year, and at least a few times a year it's a pretty major festival. Their size and reach allows them to bring in absolutely fresh items air flighted from Japan, and each time it creates quite a spectacle.

    They also like to have Yatais on the weekends outside, selling all sorts of seasonal food items. And of course they have the food court as well as their various independent concessions inside the store.

    Although in someways supplanted by the new Daiso/Marukai, a must visit is the Utsunowa no Yakata. Of course due to the low price point of the new Daiso/Marukai, the place to go for higher end items but still at a steal is at Utsunowa.

    The cons? I like Nijiiya better in general!

    Pros - By far the Marukai, even San Diego's modest sized one, still is the best by far in terms of beef quality. This is THE place to get Kobe beef, or its close cousins of Wagyu beef.

    Though the S.D. store is not very compelling, one must go to their Costa Mesa, and especially their Gardena, stores, They're truly destination stores, especially Gardena!

    For the islanders, Marukai has a long-standing reputation for stocking Hawaiian goods, though honestly I find displaced islanders will settle for almost anything, including ready made or frozen items, to be happy! They'll also stock many Hawaiian pantry items as well. This part would make them unique amongst the Japanese markets.

    Cons - The format's much too small to be very convincing as a market, and my biggest criticism, especially for a Japanese market, is that too many of their fish items are frozen. That's a crime!

    And their fresh fish section, mostly geared towards sashimi or sushi at home, I find to be of generally low quality, though they do, I suspect, lead in terms of price.

    Marukai Living
    This store needs to be twice as large. As it is it's got some uneasy overlaps with the Daiso next door, but the Marukai dried goods stores in O.C. and L.A. are really fun to look through. I suspect, though, as time goes on that they'll improve their selection and focus. It is interesting to look through their kitchen electronics, though, as well as their kitchen gadgets.

    They have some interesting looking, and well-priced, Vanadium/Molybdenum knives, but also they tend to carry one, two, or three traditionally Japanese Shichirins/Konros, or traditional tabletop charcoal barbeques. (I use them for tabletop yakiniku or yakitori - the Japanese charcoal is smokeless and is often used indoors.)

    They also have some great prices on Japanese Donabe, or earthenware pots, used primarily for shabu shabu.

    And where else can you buy a ?30 gallon? pickling container?

    One of my favorite stores to "hack". I've bought so many things here to "repurpose" for my espresso hobby. Just like going to eBay for any Internet shopping, if there are any dry goods needs I have I first stop to think if Daiso might have it. It's a very fun store to look through and just simply explore.

    TIp - Almost everything there is priced to sell for $1.50. When you check out make sure that the clerks knows what constitutes a set, such as a cup and saucer. So many times I've not bothered, only to realize that I paid $1.50 for a cup and another $1.50 for a saucer. Not a big deal, but it's still something that shouldn't happen...

    Hope this helps!

    Marukai Corporation.
    8111 Balboa Ave, San Diego, CA

    Nijiya Market
    3860 Convoy St # 109, San Diego, CA

    Mitsuwa Marketplace
    4240 Kearny Mesa Rd # 119, San Diego, CA

    7 Replies
    1. re: cgfan

      Wow - great, informative post - thanks for sharing your favorites.

      1. re: cgfan

        Wow, I think I just hit the mother lode! Thanks cgfan!

        1. re: cgfan

          dude, you need to start a blog!

            1. re: phee

              Menu, Pabs, AQ, & Phee: Thanks all for the kind words... And AQ & Phee: As time goes on I think about it more and more... It means a lot to hear it...

              Anyway in addition to the OP, I'm really curious where everyone is on the ranking of our three K.M. Japanese markets? Mine is clearly 1) Nijiya, 2) Mitsuwa, & 3) Marukai. What's yours?

              And just as in the OP, I'm curious to also hear your favorite Nijiya/Mitsuwa/Marukai picks... Anyone else out there crazy about those Venezuela Bitters by Morinaga?

          1. re: cgfan

            Wow...thank you for the very informative insight. I'll be in the area in April and was considering whether to hit one, two or all three. This helps me narrow it down to Nijiya when I'm chowing in the area. Thank you!

            1. re: OCAnn

              The three are less than a mile apart total. In fact if you take the exit off of 163 at Balboa, you will pass Mitsuwa and Marukai before you get to Nijiya.

          2. Resurrection to ask which green teas you guys prefer from these markets. I am open to loose or bag. Ive been drinking the special occasion Green Tea from Yamomotoyama and its wonderful.

            I am just looking for a richer, fuller flavor.

            1 Reply
            1. re: kare_raisu

              Yamamotoyama's Special Occasion Green Tea is my current choice as well. Nothing else on the shelves at these stores seem to compare...and I've tried most. I'm curious too if there's anything better out there.