At Mitsuwa Marketplace, Explore Japan With a Shopping Cart

Mitsuwa Marketplace in Edgewater, overwhelming in its range of high-quality Japanese food and drink, is exhilarating for exactly that reason.

Chef and dietitian Atsuko Sasaki on one of her 80-mile round-trips to Mitsuwa Marketplace in Edgewater.
Chef and dietitian Atsuko Sasaki on one of her 80-mile round-trips to Mitsuwa Marketplace in Edgewater.
Photo by Daria Amato

Entering Mitsuwa Marketplace, the Japanese superstore in Edgewater, is not exactly like Alice falling through the looking glass or Dorothy awakening in Oz, but close enough that I am glad I have come with a guide.

She is Atsuko Sasaki, a skilled chef and staff dietitian at HerSpace, a breast-imaging and women’s wellness center in Eatontown. She shops here almost every Saturday, driving about 40 miles from her home in Matawan.

While it’s true that she comes with her husband, Takashi, to bring their two sons to attend Saturday classes at a Japanese school in Bergen County, Sasaki would likely make the trip on her own just to take advantage of the freshness, quality and vast range of Japanese products available at Mitsuwa.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed just past the entrance because that’s where vendors offering specials set up. Today, a gentleman is  hawking dried shrimp and dried scallops, some prepackaged, more piled high in bins. “You use the dried shrimp in cooked foods or as a snack,” Sasaki explains. “It has lots of calcium. For the dried scallops, you can place them on top of rice as it steams. That will soften the scallops.”

Mitsuwa Marketplace is a California-based 10-store chain. Edgewater, the only Mitsuwa east of the Mississippi, stocks 80,000 items: fish, meat, produce, seasonings, prepared foods, Japanese books, videos, kitchenware, and health and beauty aids. Many people come just to dine in the wide-ranging food court.

The sake selection alone is staggering, about 150 labels. For the highest level of award-winning brands such as Ichishima and Kyokusen, they top out at $160 a bottle (a good price, actually).

The seafood department features hard-to-find, sushi-grade imports from Japan such as uni (sea urchin), kanpachi (amberjack) and madai (sea bream).

“Look at the Spanish mackerel,” Sasaki says admiringly. “No browning in the flesh.” She snaps up some pristine albacore. “Just slice and eat it. Maybe with a little ponzu or yuzu dressing.” Seasoned dried mackerel catches her eye (“Just steam it and eat”), as do dried salmon flakes (“Good [with] bones to make broth for a hot pot”).

Moving to meats, we are dazzled by refrigerated cases of richly marbled beef from Miyazaki Prefecture, famed for its Wagyu cattle. Prices for the highest-grade marblings can reach $45.99 to $69.99 a pound.

Sasaki points to packets of  Wagyu presliced super thin. They’re $49.99 a pound, but she loves the convenience for use in quick stir-fries and also the ease of managing nutritionally appropriate portions.

We segue to produce, where Sasaki looks for vegetables from Ken Suzuki’s Suzuki Farm in Delmar, Delaware, which has grown chemical-free Japanese vegetables since 1983.

“Suzuki has the best produce,” Sasaki says. “Even their cabbage. It’s sweeter and slightly salty. If I make a dish with produce from Suzuki, it tastes more delicious.”

Next, she stakes out burdock, a root she adds to soups, stews and stir-fries. “It adds texture,” she says. “When I make meatballs, I add chopped burdock. It adds nutrients and fiber.”

In another aisle, she hands me a jar of koji, a “seasoning you can use as a marinade for meat and poultry instead of salt. It is lower in sodium, and it’s fermented. It offers so many layers of flavor.”

The same can be said of Mitsuwa itself.

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