The Bay Area store winning over fans of Japanese pop culture
Photo: The staff of Umami Mart. Owner Yoko Kumano is at center left, with Kayoko Akabori at center right.
Japanese culinary culture is hugely popular in Northern California’s Bay Area including San Francisco and Oakland. For the past 10 years since opening the store, Japanese-American owners Yoko Kumano and Kayoko Akabori have carefully selected a wide variety of unique Japanese food products, alcoholic beverages, kitchen- and barwares, household goods and gifts, making the store a gathering place for the neighborhood community, especially Japanese food curious and fans of J-pop culture. This bright space popping with Japanese design is often crowded with customers looking for new discoveries and products they can only find here.
Oakland, overlooking San Francisco across the Bay Bridge, is a multicultural area with an ethnically diverse local community. In addition to local and regional foods of the U.S., one can experience culinary cultures from all over the world, including Asia, Africa, and Latin America, right at hand. In the hope that the local community would enjoy discovering everyday Japanese sundries and Japanese foods beyond well-known classics such as sushi and tempura, Yoko and Kayoko opened Umami Mart in Oakland in 2012 to encourage people to enjoy discovering new things about Japan. The two owners, both Japanese culinary culture aficionados, curate unique products and share their stories, ideas for incorporating products into daily life, and recipes on their blog and social media, for curious local and online communities. Above all, the duo's desire to help create a community is what brings people to the store.
The joy of fresh appreciation of Japanese culinary culture is shared everyday through conversations with the store owners, blogs, and social media. The Umami Mart website, which also hosts an online store, offers seasonal sake selections, recipes that pair well with sake and other drinks, ideas for cooking with recommended merchandise, and notes on visits to Japanese breweries and makers, with a focus on providing information to inspire people to cook with Japanese ingredients at home or try their hand at making cocktails using beautiful and functional Japanese barware. "We’ve been blogging for the past 10 years, ever since the store opened. Every day, I look forward to seeing familiar and new faces at the store and talking to them. It’s the sense of community we come to love" says Yoko.
To meet Umami Mart's selection criteria, products must be "exciting and one of the owners personally loves and feels good recommending to friends and customers" or "items that reflect the producers’ craft and philosophy." Japanese pantry items include tonburi seeds, also known as "field caviar," canned mackerel and azuki beans, dashi soup stock packets, smoked soy sauce, yuzu pepper, curry powder, and other seasonings, as well as a large selection of snack items. It is fascinating to see a mix of products that can be purchased at Japanese convenience stores or supermarkets alongside small-batch handmade products.
Gluten-free, vegan Tonburi Field Caviar, a specialty of Akita Prefecture, has been attracting attention among locals. Umami Mart offers various serving suggestions, such as putting it on soba, mixing it with natto beans, or serving it on crackers with Gouda cheese.
Canned Yude Azuki Red Beans, made from 100% Hokkaido azuki beans and seasoned only with sugar and a pinch of salt. They’re also great as a topping for vanilla ice cream or for making homemade Japanese sweets such as mizuyokan.
Ito Shoten Tamari 200 ml, a superb tamari soy sauce made only with Japanese soybeans and natural sea salt and aged slowly for three years in cedar barrels. Its rich, umami flavor goes well with diverse dishes ranging from sashimi to steak.
Hachi Wari Soba is made with 80% buckwheat flour and 20% wheat flour (hachi wari means 80% in Japanese). It has a distinctive, fragrant flavor and is rich in protein and dietary fiber. Umami Mart suggests enjoying the water used to boil the soba as "sobayu" (buckwheat water) after the meal like soup, following the Japanese custom.
Kurosu Rinkosan Uchibori Black Vinegar, produced in Yaotsu-cho, Gifu Prefecture, where the product's namesake, the￼ Rinkosan temple, is located. It has the distinctive sweetness of rice, with a gentle acidity. Umami Mart suggests diluting it with three times the amount of water, adding honey, and drinking it as a beverage beyond the usual cooking use.
Yuzu Kosho Green, a flavorful, spicy paste made by fermenting a mixture of green yuzu citrus peel, green chilies, and salt. In recent years, more chefs have been using this seasoning, which has long been a strong seller at Umami Mart. The owners love to mix it with avocado and spread it on toast.
The colorful assortment of Japanese sake on the walls is another unique feature of this store owned by Yoko, a certified sake sommelier, and Kayoko, who has bartending experiences. Having established relationships with Japanese brewers and distillers, they carefully select sake and Japanese whiskey and other spirits, which are gaining interest in the Bay Area, and are in unique position to offer hard-to-find brands and limited editions that are unlikely to be found in other stores or restaurants. Many customers also visit for the craft shochu, gin, and beers produced in Japan. For these fans of Japanese liquor, the store also holds tasting events. The "Sake Gumi" and "Shochu Gumi" membership programs are both popular, with over 250 and 70 members respectively. For example, for November, Yoko shared recipes for steamed pumpkin and baked mushroom parcels along with a selection of Japanese sake. "A rich, deep, earthy sake served hot, or a full-bodied junmai sake served in a wine glass, is an irresistible way to enjoy the bounty of fall."
At the in-store bar, patrons can enjoy sake, Japanese craft beer, rare whiskeys, and other beverages accompanied by Japanese snacks arrayed in baskets on the counter, even on non-event days. The bar was full when I visited, and Yoko and Kayoko were celebrating a birthday with beautiful cocktails inspired by the Japanese fall season. "Recently, I’ve been loving the combination of California cheese with sake. Tonburi 'field caviar' marinated in soy sauce and sweet mirin seasoning is also delicious on crackers with cheese," says Yoko. Keep an eye out for more fascinating suggestions from Umami Mart for enjoying Japanese ingredients, California-style.
Photos courtesy of Umami Mart.
Text & photography: Chinami Inaishi
4027 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94611 USA
510 Embarcadero West, Oakland, CA 94607, USA
2311 Magnolia St Ste A Oakland, CA 94607 USA
362 17th St Oakland, CA 94612 USA