One of the pleasures of liking things that aren’t readily obtainable in your own neck of the woods is having to go hunting for them. Allium and I live in a pizza and chicken wings kind of place, but generally prefer to consume fare that is, shall we say, a bit more interesting. In our world, re-stocking the kitchen requires a bit of travel. When the pantry began to look like Mother Hubbard’s recently, we struck out for a nearby state and a favorite Asian market — in this case, a Korean Market, stocked with goods from Japan and China as well.
We quickly picked up the 50 lb. sack of rice and the gallon of shoyu, and then the fun began. We always shop with a specific list, but these infrequent trips are also an opportunity to discover new things. We meander up and down the aisles while gathering the necessities, keeping a sharp eye out for new flavors or items we haven’t seen elsewhere. The shops we favor tend to be small, and sometimes the stock doesn’t vary a lot, but we usually come home with at least one interesting new find. This time we were a bit luckier and came home with two new kitchen implements, and two new comestibles.
Buried in a bin filled with tissue soap packets I found the rather battered empty box you see at the top (left) of this post. A few minute’s scrabbling produced the gloriously decorative thing you see to the right. Inserted into one side is a series of thin stainless steel blades, which produce beautifully sliced garlic from whole cloves. This is not your ubiquitous garlic press — this device makes garlic wafers. Garlic you can see! Garlic you can bite! And yet . . . garlic thin enough to brown all around each perfect piece. Why haven’t I seen this anywhere before? I’d have snatched it up in a minute. As I did, this go-round, without any hesitation.
Is it easy to figure out what these three plastic pieces are (to the left)? I found them packaged up and hanging on a peg. The two pieces with the half-cicle cutouts were packed inside the rectangle, so the whole thing looked rather like a child’s building block. There weren’t many clues on the label (OK, there may have been, but I don’t read Chinese ideographs), however, I’d been reading about miniature rice rolls on bento blogs, and this looked as if it might be useful for making them. Into the cart it went.
Once we got home, I discovered that there were instructions for the language-impaired after all — minuscule illustrations demonstrating how to place one of the half-circle pieces into the frame with the indentations facing up, how to fill the rectangular frame with rice, and then press the other half-circle into the rectangle. Once the last piece is aligned with the top of the frame, you push the whole thing out and then pop the rice out of the mold. It’s incredibly easy, and the rolls are absolutely uniform and ready to play with. I’ll be doing that when making future bentos.
We’re always on the lookout for new furikake. Nothing enlivens a bowl of plain steamed rice better than a tasty blend of dried seaweed and seasonings. When we can find them, though, the variations we see are almost always made with sugar, which we’ve discovered neither of us likes much. Of the dozen or so types we found on this excursion, all but this one had the despised sweetener. Allium made out the
kanji hiragana on the front of the bottle — nori, wasabi, egg and sesame — but I was happy to confirm his translation by reading the tiny nutrition label — your FDA at work. This one turned out to be every bit as good as our favorite shirasu furikake.
We filled our cart to overflowing and navigated past the cartons and merchandise surrounding the counter at the front of the store. Checking out in a small store owned by someone who is proud of it is such a different experience to the miserable one at the local chain grocery. The register at this particular store is not much more than a glorified adding machine; the owner does most of the calculating his head and he picks each item up as he does the tally. You can tell what he’s thinking; he’s figuring the price for multiple items even as he’s planning how he’ll pack the bags — a process with which we’d never dream of interfering. Unlike at the local grocery, each one of these bags ends up packed to the very top and nothing at all comes home even slightly squashed.
I know enough to hand the funds over a bit ceremoniously, and that I will be handed the receipt in the same way. There’s a slight formality to our departure which is pleasing to everyone. With many smiles, almost bowing to each other, we make our way out the door.
This time, though, before we’ve crossed the sidewalk, the proprietor comes through the door after us. He’s got two green bottles in his hands which he hands to Allium, smiling and nodding his head. Here’s a truly unexpected discovery — it’s aloe vera juice, something we’ve never heard of. We’re tempted to open one in the car, but decide that we might want to refrigerate it first. We’re touched by the gift, but Asian beverages, other than tea and sake, have mostly been a little frightening in the past. We think trying it cold may help.
Later, after the leisurely drive home, after we’ve unpacked everything, after the aloe vera juice is icy, Allium pours each of us an ounce or so to try. We smell first, but there’s almost no odor — the fluid just smells clean, maybe a bit like cucumber. We take a closer look; there appear to be bits of ice — no, it’s gel — floating in the glasses. We’re dubious, but we drink. It’s different, light, delicious. The bits of gel — aloe vera, we assume — taste curiously clean. We’re glad the drink’s not too sweet — we’ve noticed that the label says “no sugar added”, but the ingredients list makes it clear that this doesn’t mean that they left the corn syrup out!
The next day, I am curious and do some research. There are two types of aloe vera juice, it seems — one of which is used to treat constipation. With caution — ingesting very little can apparently cause cramps and much gastrointestinal distress. I’m relieved that neither one of us has noticed any discomfort. The other version, aloe vera juice without aloin — juice squeezed from the inner parts of the aloe vera leaf, not from the external skin — appears to cure just about everything without any digestive side effects. We’ll be drinking it one refreshing ounce at a time, just in case — and toasting the health of our generous grocer each time we raise our glasses.