Uwajimaya offered many Asian immigrants a taste of home back when authentic ingredients were hard to find. One Seattle Times reporter looks back at her family's relationship with the supermarket, now celebrating its 80th anniversary.
Time can be put in a bottle. I know it’s true because as a kid, a nearly empty bottle of Bull Dog brand tonkatsu sauce meant only one thing: Time for a trip to Uwajimaya.
This was cause for celebration. My family lived an hour’s drive from Seattle in the tiny and tranquil Kitsap County town of Olalla, where the closest thing to Japanese cuisine in the mid-1980s was instant noodles at Al’s grocery.
You couldn’t find much of what my mom hungered for beyond soy sauce, satsumas and the occasional block of tofu in nearby Gig Harbor or Port Orchard. Miso paste? Pickled daikon? Bonito flakes? Outta luck.
Mom hails from Kobe, Japan’s cosmopolitan port city, and though she now likes bacon, hamburgers and pancakes as much as the next American, there are some flavors from home she couldn’t replicate or replace since arriving stateside with Dad, then an Army master sergeant, back in the 1960s.
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She likes to remember how they cruised Route 66 in his white Camaro. All the fun times they had. All the sights they saw, like the lights of Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Palm Springs.
“But what did you eat?” I ask years later, newly conscious of the dearth of Japanese food then.
Hmm (a long pause as she thinks back).
“Bananas!” Mom pipes up.
But one can rely on the comfort of bananas for only so long. And after years of eating unfamiliar food in New England and the South, it’s fun to imagine Mom’s delight when they moved to the Northwest in the ’70s from Dad’s last Army post in Georgia, and she discovered a new link to home: Uwajimaya.
Growing up in a mostly white community, those initial trips every few months to the Asian supermarket threw me for a loop. Here, my English-speaking mom switched to Japanese, a language she only really spoke on the phone to my grandmother or to her three sisters back in the day when long distance cost as much as a car payment and kept international conversations painfully infrequent.
Here, most everyone resembled me and my brother, and paid us little notice as we wandered the store (he on the hunt for books and music; me assessing the Hello Kitty selection). Our “exotic” looks were no novelty here. For once, our dad was the odd man out.
But back to the shopping. Oh, the shopping! Produce unlike anything Dad and I grew in our vegetable garden back home. Origami paper in colors and patterns galore. A seafood counter alive with spurting shellfish that made me shriek. Aisles filled with dried seaweed, rice, snacks, sweets, sauces, noodles.
“Your dad would tell me to go wild,” Mom says.
And so she did. It was rare that we’d leave with less than $200 in groceries, the shopping cart crammed with mochi, yakisoba noodles, Panko flakes, senbei crackers, Chinese cabbage, beef sliced thin for sukiyaki, bean sprouts, omeboshi, giant sacks of sticky rice and shrink-wrapped packages of dried teeny tiny silvery fish whose eyeballs made me squirm but pleased Mom’s taste buds.
“You don’t know what you’re missing,” she’d tease between mouthfuls of fish and steamed rice.
“I can’t eat anything that’s looking at me!” I’d wail back.
Watching Mom shop was a window to the past. She’d eye the curves of a Ramune soda bottle with its trademark marble inside and tell how she and her sisters would buy them cold on walks home from Kobe’s city baths. The tofu section spurred memories of the tofu man singing his song as he rolled past their house with his early-morning deliveries. A new year’s display prompted tales of her mom cooking food enough for the three-day holiday back home, so much food the pots and boxes covered much of their tatami floor.
Though care packages arrived from our Japanese relatives on a fairly regular basis, they could not hold the multitude of everything Mom craved between the dinners of pot roast and corned beef and meatloaf and other tastes of Dad’s upbringing she deftly prepared. Uwajimaya was her chance to inhabit a space whose customs and language and ingredients were second nature, a second skin.
These days, as American cooks adopt and adapt many types of Asian cuisine, Mom can find most of her ingredients closer to home. She’ll drive to Poulsbo’s Central Market for sushi, to Tacoma’s Boohan or Pal-Do World Korean supermarkets for basics, to Maruta in Georgetown for futomaki and snacks.
But old habits die hard. We still step into Uwajimaya when she drives up for a visit, “just for a couple of things.”
Inevitably, we roll out the door an hour later with a shopping cart crammed with flavors of home.
And, almost always, a bottle of Bull Dog sauce.
Karen Gaudette: 206-515-5618
Note: Uwajimaya will offer an anniversary cookbook with recipes from local celebrities including King 5 anchor Lori Matsukawa, actor Tom Skerritt, former Gov. Gary Locke, Seattle chef and restaurateur Tom Douglas and more. “Arigato!” costs $9.95 and will be available at all three Uwajimaya locations Oct. 15.