My family moved to Eugene, Oregon, from a small fishing town in Kanagawa, Japan, when I was 5 years old. In the following years, my mom’s new American friends would regularly ask her to accompany them to our local Asian market. My mom and I thought it was kind of weird at first, that people would need help with something as mundane as shopping. Others may even see it as tokenizing. But as I got older, became more interested in food, and began shopping at Chinese, Korean, and Mexican markets, I started to understand my mom’s friends’ dilemma: I’d wander through aisles stocked packets of unfamiliar chiles, refrigerators full of cuts of meat I’d never heard of, and freezers of fish and meat balls I’d never tasted, just wishing somebody would tell me what the hell I should buy.
Portland, whose population is about 8 percent Asian American, has plenty of great Asian markets; however, just as the continent of Asia is massive and diverse, these markets are varied in the products they offer and cuisines they represent. Along 82nd, large-scale markets like Hong Phat and SF Supermarket are the place for one-stop shopping, with selections representing a number of different countries. Throughout the greater Portland area, tiny specialized markets like Vieng Lao in North Portland or Lily Market in East Portland cover ingredients from specific regions, such as Southeast Asia. And then there are the online markets, like Fulamingo, that are even more niche in their offerings. Almost all of these markets, whether or not they’re Japanese, have selections of enough Japanese noodles, pickles, condiments and snacks to stock a well-rounded home cook’s pantry and refrigerator.
Here, we dig into how to build a Japanese pantry at your local Asian market, focusing on easy-to-use ingredients: ramen, udon, and soba noodles that can be combined with premade sauce and a pinch of chopped green onion to make a delicious meal in a few minutes; condiments and pickles like umeboshi, shibazuke, and kombu tsukudani that can be added to rice for late-night bite; snacks like senbei and mochi to eat anywhere, anytime. For information on where to find already prepared Japanese in Portland, read Eater’s maps of incredible izakayas, knockout sushi restaurants, and outstanding ramen in the Portland area.
Portland has at least 45 Asian markets, according to the Oregonian. North and Northeast Portland are packed with Indian, Pakistani, Vietnamese, Lao, Cambodian, and other South and Southeast Asian markets, as well as some great markets to buy Korean and Chinese ingredients. However, within Portland proper, the densest population of Asian markets can likely be found along or right off 82nd, from Saigon Market to the north and SF Supermarket to the south (or Food Depot, if you’ll drive to Clackamas). The Beaverton and Hillsboro area is also especially stacked with Asian supermarkets, stocked with comprehensive selections of Japanese, Korean, Indian, and Taiwanese ingredients. Long story short: there is likely an Asian market in your neighborhood, though if you can’t find one nearby, it won’t be a long drive to somewhere with a larger selection.
For the sake of this story, we’re focusing on three of the most popular Asian markets in the Portland area, which all have extensive selections of Japanese food and are also full-on supermarkets where you can buy all kinds of meat, seafood, and produce for your refrigerator.
Uwajimaya is a Japanese-American-owned Asian grocery store in Beaverton with a selection that’s comparable to a mid-sized supermarket in Tokyo. Its shelves are loaded with hard-to-find condiments, Japanese cuts of fish, and a huge selection of noodles and snacks. The deli sells prepared food like tempura, soba, unadon (grilled eel on rice), chirashi sushi, nigiri, and sashimi. And Uwajimaya even houses a complete Kinokinuya bookstore (a popular Japanese bookstore chain), a ramen shop, and a great selection of Asian face masks, Japanese hotpot equipment, and yukatas (a traditional Japanese garment similar to a kimono).
H Mart is an international Korean supermarket chain with locations in Tigard and on SE Belmont Street in Portland. The spacious market has a fantastic produce section, and even though it’s technically a Korean market, it has a good selection of ramen, udon, and soba noodles. Korean pickles and condiments overlap with Japanese ones, so H Mart has plenty of those too, even if ingredients might be sold under different names than the ones used in this list. The same goes for snacks like the Japanese daifuku mochi, which tastes the same even when it’s sold as the Korean chapssaltteok.
Fubonn Shopping Center on SE 82nd street is the closest thing Portland has to an Asian shopping mall; its website claims that it’s the largest Asian shopping center in Oregon. To get to the supermarket, shoppers walk past a beauty salon, a sewing and clothing alteration store, and a bubble-tea shop. While Fubonn’s focus is Chinese food, it’s a massive store and has a lot of Japanese noodles, condiments, and snacks, though there aren’t the number of brand options that H Mart and Uwajimaya carries.
I’ve been eating instant ramen — dressed up with a boiled egg, green onion, and chile oil — as a late-night snack since my freshman year of college, often to soak up cheap whiskey after a night of drinking. But I discovered the true diverse and fabulous world of Japanese instant noodles when I lived in a dorm in the outskirts of Tokyo for a summer, studying Japanese at Senshu University. There, my Japanese dormmates lived off instant ramen, but also udon, soba, and somen, all made in minutes during study breaks. The shelves and freezers of Japanese markets are stacked with noodles like ramen, udon, and soba. I learned to quickly boil these noodles in the dorm kitchen, cover them in premade sauce or broth, and sprinkle them with chopped green onion for a quick lunch after class before I’d get on the train to explore Tokyo.
Most grocery and convenience stores in the U.S. sell some form of dried instant ramen, but the selections at these stores don’t compare to the variety at places like Uwajimaya. Many Portland Asian markets offer options like tonkotsu (pork bone broth), shoyu (soy sauce), and miso ramen, which is absolutely packed with umami and my personal favorite for instant ramen. The Sapporo Ichiban brand makes a soul-satisfying dried miso ramen, whose flavor really pops with a dash of toasted sesame chile oil.
Instant ramen with frozen, not dehydrated, broth and noodles is a step up in quality, and Uwajimaya has a freezer full of options. The cost is a little higher ($2 or $3 dollars for a serving of ramen instead of $1), but it’s well worth it: The noodles are silkier, and the broth generally has a more complex flavor. There are a lot of great brands of frozen ramen; buy a bunch on the first go around, and come back for the ones that stand out.
All instant ramen is easy to dress up into a satisfying meal with the addition of a boiled egg, sliced green onions, vegetables like cabbage and mushrooms, and chile oil.
From there, if you can graduate from just-add-water instant noodles to semi-instant noodles where you buy broth and noodles separately, a whole joyful world of noodle-making will open up to you.
Udon noodles are thick, silky wheat noodles that can be eaten hot or cold in a sweet and salty broth called tsuyu or, more specifically, mentsuyu, made with soy sauce, mirin (sweet cooking sake), katsuobushi (dried, fermented bonito flakes), and kombu (a type of kelp). Dried and frozen instant udon with broth in packets can be found at Uwajimaya and H Mart, but it’s also easy to make the noodles separately, then add the tsuyu, which can be bought in bottles at any Portland Asian market with a decent Japanese food selection.
Soba noodles, on the other hand, are thin noodles made with buckwheat and wheat that have a slightly sweet, nutty, earthy taste. They can be served hot and cold with tsuyu like udon. Different types of soba have varying ratios of buckwheat and wheat; Uwajimaya sells a 100-percent-buckwheat soba that’s completely gluten free.
Good additions to hot udon and soba are green onions; fish cakes, normally found frozen in the freezers of Asian groceries; and tempura — make it at home, or buy frozen tempura to throw in an air fryer. Cold udon and soba are best served simply with chilled or room-temperature tsuyu, with things like green onion, wasabi, or grated ginger. Wasabi, a Japanese horseradish, is the primary source of spiciness in Japanese cuisine (chile pepper is used sparingly), and it can be found as a paste at Fubonn, H Mart, and Uwajimaya. The S&B brand’s tubes of wasabi are my go-to, though you can find Oregon-grown wasabi online and at Uwajimaya.
The ingredients in tsuyu (basically soy sauce, cooking sakes, and a broth called dashi) make up the base for most Japanese stocks and sauces. Growing up, my mom would have dashi or some kind of tsuyu in the fridge most of the time, and I didn’t have to worry about how to make it or buy it until I moved out. Since then, instant dashis and tsuyus have been my best friends, though I take the time to make my own when I have the time.
Most Asian markets in Portland have a good selection of Japanese soy sauce, called shoyu, which can normally be found near oils and vinegars in stores. In Japan, people use different types of shoyu for different dishes, but the important thing is to have at least one all-purpose shoyu in the pantry. The Yamasa brand’s regular soy sauce is a solid option, and it’s brewed in a factory in Salem, Oregon; Fubonn, H Mart, and Uwajimaya all sell Yamasa products. From there, you can look into buying specific types of shoyu for different uses: the umami-packed tamari for sushi and grilled meat, the double-fermented saishikomi to add even more umami to raw fish dishes, the lighter-flavored usukuchi shoyu for vegetable dishes that shouldn’t be overpowered by strong shoyu flavors, and the translucent (white) shiro for delicate dishes that are complemented by the lightest shoyu flavor, like chawanmushi (savory egg custard).
For cooking sake, any regular sake (not nigori or other specialty sake) works and isn’t worth spending a lot of money on. I normally buy the big green bottles of Gekkeikan brand sake, which are affordable and have a good flavor for cooking. The same goes for mirin, a sweeter sake with a lower alcohol content. I prefer Yaegaki-brand mirin, but the only truly bad mirin I’ve had is the stuff that comes in plastic bottles; stick to the mirin and sake in green glass bottles and you should be in the clear. Yaegeki and Gekkeikan brands of mirin and sake, among many others, are sold at Fubonn, H Mart, Uwajimaya, and many other Asian markets in Portland. Normally, cooking sakes are kept with other sakes and wines in stores, though sometimes they’re placed separately near the soy sauce and vinegar.
For making Japanese stir-fries, all that’s needed is a combination of shoyu and sake or mirin with maybe a little salt and sugar.
For Japanese broths, including tsuyu, the key is dashi, a broth usually made from one or more of the following ingredients: kombu, shiitake mushrooms, bonito flakes, dried sardines, and dried anchovies. It’s not too difficult to make from scratch, but instant powdered dashi packets make a decent dashi in a pinch. Fubonn, H Mart, and Uwajimaya all sell instant dashi packets. The two main types are kombu-based dashi packets, which have a mild ocean flavor, and bonito-based dashi packets, which pack a fishier funk. The Riken-brand kombu dashi packets are my go-to; they add a lot of umami but don’t have any funkiness that might distract from the flavor of whatever I’m cooking.
Dashi is used to make all kinds of broths; for instance, dashi and miso are the only two ingredients in a miso soup broth. An array of different varieties of miso are widely available at Asian markets in Portland, as well as more general supermarkets across the city. The most versatile kind is awase miso, a blend of the milder white miso and the sharper red miso. While most store-bought miso is pasteurized and has no live microbes, Jorinji Miso, a Portland-based company, sells unpasteurized probiotic red and white miso at Uwajimaya and other stores like New Seasons Market and Market of Choice. Outside of its use for broths, miso can be combined with sake or mirin instead of soy sauce to flavor cooked meat, fish, and vegetables. Milder misos can also be used as a dip for raw cucumbers or carrots.
Condiments and Pickles
Japanese food has a whole class of condiments and pickles meant to be eaten with rice, and many Japanese cities have generations-old pickle stores that serve regional pickles. When I travel in Japan, I try to pop into as many of these stores as possible, and I eat the pickles with the warm rice I always keep in my rice cooker any time of the day as a snack or as part of a meal.
Umeboshi is a salted Japanese plum that’s bitingly salty and sour and sometimes a little bit sweet. Fubonn, H Mart, and Uwajimaya all have a few brands of umeboshi. Brands vary on levels of salt, sugar, and acid, and it might take a few tries to find your favorite. I like my umeboshi to have a mouth-puckering acidity and salinity, like the Eden Foods-brand umeboshi. The flavor of umeboshi is so strong that one plum can be enough to flavor a small bowl of rice or an onigiri (a rice ball covered in nori).
Shibazuke is a mix of sliced fermented pickled cucumber, eggplant, red shiso leaf, and myoga (a kind of mild Japanese ginger) that’s traditionally made in Kyoto. It’s sharply salty and tangy. Uwajimaya carries a few different brands, but as long as you get shibazuke made in Kyoto, it should work well.
Kombu tsukudani is kombu, the same type of kelp used to make dashi, that’s been simmered in shoyu, cooking sakes, bonito flakes, sugar, and a little bit of rice vinegar. It normally also has some sesame seeds and sometimes some chile pepper. Kombu tsukudani blasts the palate with salt, sugar, and umami. It’s available at Uwajimaya.
These condiments and pickles can normally be found in refrigerated sections of Asian markets, probably near the kimchi, the miso, and other refrigerated pickles and pastes. All of these ingredients can be eaten on a bowl of rice. Pouring dashi or hot green tea over the rice and toppings creates the Japanese comfort food ochazuke. Ochazuke can be spiced up with some wasabi or a dash of shichimi togarashi (seven-flavored chile pepper), which is a spicy and citrusy blend of red chili pepper, sansho (the Japanese version of Sichuan peppercorn), roasted orange peel, sesame seeds, and other ingredients. Shichimi togarashi is available at Fubonn, H Mart, Uwajimaya, and most other Portland Asian markets. The S&B brand’s shichimi togarashi hits all the right flavor notes, and is also great in hot soba and udon, in Japanese soups and stews, and on grilled meat and fish.
Tofu and other soybean products are an essential part of Japanese food. In Japan, tofu men go around slinging the fresh-made stuff door to door out of a truck, and people eat jiggly blocks of soft tofu nearly plain, with just a bit of shoyu, green onion, grated ginger, and some bonito flakes.
While, tragically, tofu men don’t roam Portland neighborhoods selling their wares, Oregonians are blessed to have Ota Tofu — a Portland shop that’s the oldest tofu manufacturer in the U.S. — available at many stores, like Uwajimaya, H Mart, G Mart, New Seasons, and Market of Choice, in the Portland area. Ota Tofu is my favorite tofu brand in the U.S., and its flavor and texture is a serious step up from brands like House Tofu that you can get at American grocery chains such as Albertsons and Safeway. Tacoma Tofu, produced in Tacoma, Washington, is slightly more widely available than Ota Tofu — Fubonn carries Tacoma Tofu but not Ota Tofu; it’s also a better bet than House Tofu or the Trader Joe’s brand tofu. Tofu generally lives in the refrigerated sections of stores, where you can find grab-and-go meals and fresh noodles.
While firm or medium-firm tofu seems to be the most commonly available tofu in the U.S., the most popular tofu in Japan is soft tofu, also known as silken tofu, which is smooth and nearly melts in the mouth. Soft tofu can be eaten on its own with soy sauce, green onion, and grated ginger. It can also be cubed and dropped in miso soup.
Aburaage, deep-fried tofu pouches, are also great sliced and added to miso soup or as a topping to hot udon or soba. Aburaage has a fluffy, chewy texture, and is best boiled briefly before adding to dishes to rinse of excess oil. Ota Tofu makes a good aburaage that’s available at Uwajimaya.
The word senbei refers to a wide variety of crunchy baked or grilled rice crackers that Japanese people eat as snacks, often with green tea. When I was a kid in Japan, my aunt would buy senbei for me on shopping trips; I ate them while they were still hot from charcoal grills where street vendors would cook them to a crispy, nearly burnt perfection. When my family moved to Oregon, that same aunt would send us care packages every few months — boxes full of senbei straight from supermarkets in Kanagawa. But after we’d lived here for a few years, we realized we could buy most of the senbei we wanted from our local Asian market, Sunrise Asian Food Market in Eugene, and every type of senbei we could hope for from Uwajimaya. We asked my aunt to stop sending the packages.
Most senbei are savory, flavored with salt or shoyu and mirin, but some are sweet. They come in a huge number of shapes. Some are wrapped in nori, others are flavored with shrimp or squid, and others are filled with things like sesame seeds or black soybeans. Arare senbei are smaller senbei of different shapes that are often mixed with wasabi-coated peas. Kaki no tane is a blend of small, spicy crescent-shaped senbei mixed with peanuts that makes a great bar snack. But my favorite senbei by far is the sweet-savory kabuki age senbei, which is puffy and deep-fried, unlike most senbei, which is grilled or toasted. Almost all Asian markets in Portland sell senbei, but Uwajimaya’s selection is the best by far. A lot of the senbei at Uwajimaya don’t have English packaging, so asking store staff for senbei advice is probably the best bet. Senbei are normally found on shelves with other snacks.
I ate mochi as a kid in Japan, but I got really into it when I was studying abroad there. Almost every day after dinner, I’d walk to the nearest supermarket and buy mochi to eat for dessert. On other days, I’d splurge and go to the local mochi store, where the storeowner made dozens of types of mochi by hand every day.
Mochi in the U.S. often gets associated with ice cream, but real mochi is pretty far from mochi ice cream. Mochi is the word for all kinds of chewy, bouncy dough made from pounded glutinous rice, whether sweet or savory. Kibun brand’s daifuku mochi, sweet mochi filled with sweet bean paste, is available at Fubonn, H Mart, Uwajimaya, and many other Asian markets in Portland. Kibun makes a few types of daifuku mochi, but I always buy either the daifuku kuro goma, covered in wonderfully toasty black sesame seeds, or the daifuku kusa, made with yogomi, a Japanese leaf similar to mugwort that has a mild grassy flavor. Fubonn, H Mart, and Uwajimaya also carry matcha-flavored mochi, another one of my favorite types of mochi.
Though this piece is just a short introduction to Japanese ingredients, I hope it helps open the door for you to explore Japanese cooking. Eventually, I hope you can stride through Japanese markets and learn to research and buy unfamiliar ingredients instead of leaving them ignored on the shelves. By googling ingredients I’ve found at ethnic markets and talking to the people who work there, I’ve learned fascinating facts about food, history, and culture that have widened my mind to new perspectives. Markets have opened worlds for me. I hope they do the same for you.