You can always expect a cheerful Japanese greeting, often more than one, when walking through the door of Minnano Japanese Grocery on Callaghan Road. But speaking Japanese isn’t a prerequisite for a visit to the small shop. In fact, Minnano does an especially good job of creating an environment that is easy for English speakers to navigate, as demonstrated by the handwritten English notes scattered throughout the shelves. Besides, most of the products feature English and Japanese descriptions, which is welcoming to the average American as well as the Japanese expat customer base.
Upon entering, to your right will be mostly dry groceries (and a selection of electric rice cookers available for purchase), whereas the left side of the store features home goods since Minnano carries Japanese toiletries and makeup, stationery, as well as kitchen appliances, cooking utensils and specialty cookware. In the back, you’ll find books in English and the clearance shelf sitting in front of a wall lined with refrigerators and freezers. But the shop is fairly small albeit packed so it’s easy to wander back and forth between sections.
Minnano regularly updates their Facebook page on new product arrivals, whether it’s a new flavor of sweet snack favorite Pocky, sushi-grade fish, green tea or red bean ice cream, variety of rice, batch of frozen ramen noodles or even a shipment of hair dye. It only takes a quick glance at their reviews to realize they are known for great customer service and that the staff will welcome any inquiries about Minnano’s offerings.
In addition to the cold beverages at the back of the shop, more drink choices are stocked on the left wall by the packaged groceries. The section includes a whole shelf of green tea that includes canned and bottled varieties of ready to drink tea, dried leaves (sencha) both loose and in teabags for brewing and a few choices for ceremonial and culinary matcha — a type of powdered green tea. The hand-packaged matcha under Minnano’s own label tends to be the most cost effective of the powdered tea choices. While ceremonial grade matcha is intended to be prepared warm in a very specific type of Japanese traditional ceremony, the culinary grade tea is used for everything from lattes to ice cream, to flavoring green tea Kit-Kats (which you can occasionally buy in the store).
But if you want to be a little more hands-on than buying one of the many prepackaged dessert and sweet snack options that the grocer carries, it’s easy to make mushipan, steamed cake, using the matcha and bamboo steamers available at Minnano.
Green Tea Mushipan
Recipe makes about three 4-inch inch round size cakes, or about 10 muffin size mushipan
Special equipment needed:
Vessel for batter (I used creme brulee ramekins, but any baking vessel that fits into the steamer should work. Minnano carries some cookware so ask the staff for the mushipan advice if you have concerns).
3 teaspoons matcha green tea powder
¾ cup steamed bun or bao flour (can be substituted with cake flour)
¼ teaspoon baking powder
½ cup sugar
¾ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon water
Begin by sifting together the matcha, flour and baking powder.
Afterwards, separate the yolks and whites of the eggs. Be especially careful not to get any yolk in the whites, as it will prevent the whites from whipping properly.
Put the yolks in a large bowl along with the vanilla, water and sugar. Beat the ingredients until they take on a pastel yellow hue, then fold in the flour mixture.
In a new separate bowl (this is important as you want to avoid any trace of yolk), beat the whites with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form. Fold the egg whites into the other mixture carefully so that the batter is fluffy and full of air.
Put a pot of water on the stove to be the base under the bamboo steamer, and set the heat to medium-high. I used the 6 mark on a knob that goes up to 10 as the hottest. Make sure to put enough water so that it won’t need to be refilled while the mushipan is cooking.
Pour the batter into your ramekin, cake pan, silicone bakeware or whichever vessel you will be using. Bamboo steamers have multiple levels, so I had a ramekin on each of the two levels.
Set the vessel in the steamer and put the lid on top. My cakes were fluffy with a toothpick coming out clean after 20 minutes, but cook time may vary depending on the size of your bakeware.
The cakes can be cooled on a wire rack but are best served while warm. Their subtle sweetness pairs well with coffee or milk.
Use your new bamboo steamer for quick savory treats as well. Minnano stocks frozen dumplings that are best when prepared in a bamboo steamer. Package directions will vary, but dumplings cook directly on the bamboo wood slats in the steamer. Bao, or savory steamed buns, from other Asian markets are another common frozen food that is easy to prepare quickly in a bamboo steamer.
Minnano Japanese Grocery is located at 7460 Callaghan Road, Suite 310, (210) 612-3626.