One thing about coming to a country where the main language is not English, you’re either tied to the food that you can read or recognize, or you have to learn to read a certain amount of packaging to avoid sugaring your coffee with baking soda!
For instance, did you know the kanji for “use by date” (消費期限) which is used for perishable food like meat and packaged lunches, is different from the one that is better translated as “best before” (賞味期限) used for canned or frozen goods which last a longer time without deterioration? However, both share the last two kanji, 期限 meaning limit, and so this is one that you should absolutely be looking for when you buy your food.
But how does this help you when you just want to buy cooking oil but you come home with mirin (rice wine)? Here are some common supermarket brain-teasers and how to solve them – print out the relevant kanji or write them on word cards for handy reference as you are shopping. If you are feeling modern, you could also use your smart-phone to take pictures of the products or kanji you want to remember for later use.
This is a common quandary, especially when much of the minced meat you see at the supermarket is a mix of both. However, if you can read the labels, you’ll see that the percentage of each is clearly labeled. This has come into question lately in the news, but it was just an isolated incident and it has focused the authorities back on strict quality checks, so you can pretty much believe what you read.
These are kanji that you will see often, on the backs of products where they list the ingredients (原料). The most common ingredient is listed first, so you can tell whether something will be salty or sweet from the main ingredient listed on the back of any snack package. Sometimes you will not see the whole word for sugar, but other sugars will be used. In this case the second kanji (糖) will be used somewhere.
The kanji for powder (粉) is used in both these products, the powder sugar and the corn flour. In fact, all flour has this kanji in it somewhere – for example regular flour for making cakes is メリケン粉 (Meriken-ko – it originally meant “American flour”) and rye flour is ライ麦粉. You’ll notice that the second two kanji of the icing sugar just mean “sugar”, and then the powder kanji makes it icing sugar. Other forms of powder include curry powder (カレー粉) and talcum powder (滑石粉)
A trip to the sauce section is either a great adventure or a big headache, depending on whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist, or whether or not you have children in tow!
You will find these in slightly different sections of the supermarket, so look around you. Do you see soy sauce and other sauces also lined up? You’re probably holding mirin, sweet rice wine used in Japanese cooking. By the way, you can buy 100% mirin, or mirin taste (みりん風味) so if you’re looking for the pure stuff, avoid those last two kanji.
If you’re in the cooking oil section, not only will you see the vegetable oil but you’ll also see olive oil and all the other types of cooking oil with their attractive labels (many in English) on the shelf. The above kanji might be used in conjunction with other kanji, such as 食用油 (cooking oil), or サラダ油 (salad oil), or if you’re looking for something healthier, look for the kanji 健康 (healthy).
Is Sea Chicken (シーチキン) really the Japanese word for tuna? Well no, not really. What you see in the supermarket as “Sea Chicken” is actually a brand name of Hagoromo Foods and is really a tinned tuna (まぐろ) or bonito (かつお) mix. It’s either canned in oil (油漬け) or in water (水煮) which is more often referred to as having no oil (オイル無添加) or as being “ingredients just as they are” (素材をそのまま), or as having 1/3 of the calories (look for the 1/3 on the tin).
One of the most successful expatriate shoppers I ever met, carried little word cards from the 100 yen shop wherever she went. She started with the basics for the words, and every time she found a product she liked she took cuttings from the labels to make more cards as she went along. With a little help from her Japanese friends, she was able to refine the cuttings from the labels specific to her own dietary and taste needs (low salt, gluten-free etc), and her vocabulary just kept growing and growing. Again, this could be done with a smartphone as well!
When she was unable to find what she wanted, she always had something to show the staff in the shop.
There is a nifty little website by TetraPak about Japanese milk, but it doesn’t tell you how to pick which kind of milk you like best. Of course it’s just a matter of buy and try, but there are a few words that will help you on your way if you’re looking for certain qualities in your milk. For a start, the Japanese word for milk is gyuunyuu (牛乳) and so when you are seeing something called “Miruku” (ミルク) it may or may not be real milk. If something is 100% milk, it will always be labeled 牛乳, and anything else is most likely labeled with 乳製品 (milk product) or 乳飲料 (milk-drink).
Next, you will want to look at fat content. A regular Japanese brand of milk is about 3.6% fat, so you will see this number somewhere on the carton (if only in the details section on the back). A really creamy version might be for example 4.4%, and then a low fat version might be something like 1.8%. Low fat milk is most often labeled like this: 低脂肪牛乳. You can also find milk fortified with extra calcium (カルシウム) and iron (鉄).
Here is a link to an article on “Surviving in Japan” that is absolutely fantastic. We recommend you take a look for some really great information posted there.