Browsing city’super on a rainy afternoon

The rain hasn’t stopped in Hong Kong during these final weeks of summer. So it was the perfect time to cook comfort food at home with friends. This week, I found myself browsing through city’super, an upscale supermarket in Hong Kong, and admiring the packaging on the thousands of Japanese grocery items that it stocks.

City’super was founded in 1996 by a number of former Japanese managers at Seibu department store’s Hong Kong operations, according to this South China Morning Post article with a terrible headline:

In the 1980s high-end retail fashion and food markets were dominated by those Japanese operators. In 1990 Seibu department stores under a group management led by Masashi Ishikawa established its flagship store in the Admiralty district.

Japan’s economic downturn during that decade, however, led Seibu to leave Hong Kong and its other overseas markets. Ishikawa, though, had fallen in love with Hong Kong and did not want to leave.

He and other Japanese management, along with 14 local senior staff decided to create start-ups of their own in the city.

They considered too many other stores were selling luxury-brand clothes and too few were selling good food and wine. So the City’super concept was born.

In a 2009 interview with President magazine, Ishikawa said that city’super’s location in Times Square, Causeway Bay (now a major shopping mall), had at first struggled:

「場所も良くないし、そもそも香港の人間は誰もシティスーパーのことを知らない。広告するお金もなかったですからね。それでも、1度利用したお客さんは店にいい印象を持ってくれて、口コミで評判が広がっていった。だんだんと、シティスーパーを目的にタイムズスクエアを訪れる客が増えていきました」

“The location was terrible, and in any case no one in Hong Kong knew what city’super was. We didn’t even have the money to put out advertisements. However, word spread about our store because our store left an impression on first-time customers. Gradually, people came to Times Square just to visit city’super.”

So city’super was less so a “Japanese” business in the pseudo-ethnocentric sense of the word and more of just a supermarket that just so happened to have Japanese individuals and Japanese investors, albeit all based in Hong Kong and acting autonomously, involved in the beginning.

A walk around the store shows how deeply and broadly connected city’super is with various suppliers from all around Japan.

And while other real estate developer-backed supermarkets may stock similar items, but I’ve been told that Hong Kong people with money, or at least credit card debt, are about to discern the difference—especially for all things Japanese.

For example, consider this pack of sencha loose leaf green tea. This one comes from Uji, Kyoto, perhaps the green tea capital of the world, and from an upscale company named Ito Kyuemon, which also sells matcha soba, parfaits, and umeshu in its store in Uji.

There was also a beautiful pack of “summer green tea” from Kagoshima which reminded me of the banners hung outside shops that sell kakigori shaved ice.

Ringowork (ringo meaning apple) is a brand from Itayanagimachi, Aomori selling delicious apple juices and jams.

I loved eating this garlic toast spread during my unhealthy years. You simply squeezed out the good stuff onto a piece of bread, popped it in a small convection oven for a couple of minutes, and witnessed the sweet garlic, buttery goodness melt. The spread was also made of heart-stopping, literally, ingredients, like margarine and a bunch of nasty preservatives. My hands would also smell like garlic.

If you’ve ever fancied putting uni (sea urchin) sauce on your salad, 卵かけご飯 or noodles, this bottle is the way to go. The sauce is made from fermenting fresh sea urchin and salt for at least three months and is mixed by hand during the fermentation process each day. The company behind the sauce, Obama Seafood (the same Obama, Fukui town that was once upon a time obsessed with Barack Obama), has made public the manufacturing process on its website for anyone to read—because, realistically, who would have easy access to hundreds of tons of fresh sea urchin to begin making the sauce?

This tea chocolate from Nanaya, a sweets shop from Shizuoka, comes in all sorts of beautiful flavors, including matcha, houjicha, and genmaicha.

In Hong Kong work culture, it is customary for departing employees to buy 散水餅, which are typically sweets or snacks to mark your departure from a team or company. I purchased a number of tea chocolate bars earlier in the summer to thank my mentors at the law firms I worked in for all their help, although I didn’t know if the chocolate was any good. I surreptitiously opened a leftover matcha chocolate bar at work, curious as to how it tasted, and broke off pieces to share with another colleague. And the taste was so decadently different from other green tea chocolates I’ve had in the past. The chocolate was so smoothly semisweet. It was like drinking a very nice green tea latte.

City’super also has a lot of craft beer. I want to be as sexy as this goat on the can.

In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Shonen Jump, a major manga magazine, Georgia is featuring some of Jump‘s most famous comics. The only one I recognized was Kuroko’s Basketball (黒子のバスケ).

Finally, since I was going around city’super to do actual grocery shopping, and not just to hold up random grocery items to take close-up photos on my phone, I ended up settling on this purchase: a can of mackerel in olive oil.

Canned mackerel is a delicious (and cheap!) source of protein in Japanese supermarkets. Having dined, once upon a time, on Parisian cans of olive oil tuna before, I was hooked by how fancy and delicious this yellow package sounded.

And for the record: mackerel in olive oil on a bed of spinach leaves is a perfect starter for a three-course dinner made with friends.