It was great fun, and a novel way to picnic. Practicing the age-old Asian art of market-eating, we had gone to Yaohan, the huge Japanese supermarket at the eastern edge of Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles. One of our party was Japanese, and she led the foray through the aisles. Soon our basket held more than we could possibly consume. It wasn't sheer greediness. We simply couldn't resist the intriguing and unusual Japanese foods.
Emerging from the checkout stand, we took our bundles to the tables and chairs set out by Sakura, a fast food and noodle shop. Sakura's prime attraction is hearty bowls of noodles-- udon or soba-- topped with tempura shrimp, beef, tofu, mixed vegetables or egg. The soupy noodles are cheap ($2.30 to $3), filling and good. There is also a sturdy $2.95 Chinese lunch that includes fried rice or chow mein and any two of an assortment of meat and vegetable dishes. (Bacon gives the chow mein a distinctive, slightly smoky character.) Hamburgers are available too, if you insist.
But on this day we patronized Sakura only for cups of green tea to accompany our picnic. We had chosen the dishes from a variety of counters within the market that offer ready-to-eat food neatly packaged to take home or consume there. Some of the foods are hot or at least warm, and there are even packets of plain cooked rice.
Our only mistake occurred at the pickle shop, a charming alcove decorated with little blue and white curtains called noren. I felt I was in Tokyo as I sorted through the abundant selection of relishes. We chose marinated eggplant, planning to use it as a salad, only to discover too late that it was intensely salty and meant to be eaten sparingly as a condiment.
The one dish that got a bad rating was vegetable tempura. The lacy cake of shredded vegetables was pretty, like a delicately colored, flattened chrysanthemum. But tempura must be eaten hot, fresh and crisp. This had cooled to toughness.
At the sushi counter, we chose seaweed-wrapped rice rolls ( nori-maki ) filled with eel and cucumber. In the same container were four golden packets of stuffed fried tofu, which our Japanese friend called "brown bags." We had no idea what the filling might be and were surprised to bite into rice that was sweet enough for dessert. What a fascinating blend of tastes. This puffy form of tofu, called age, is sold fried and ready for stuffing. We also had a mellow-tasting hot dish of regular tofu, fried and combined with spinach and ground meat.
The least exotic item was a roast chicken leg. Mostly, the combinations were strikingly different from American cuisine--potatoes dressed with syrup and black sesame seeds, for example, or slim mushrooms combined with bracken in a tangy dressing.
The highest price we paid was $5 for a rice bowl topped with sliced salmon, salmon roe, finely shredded sweetened egg, a gingery tasting green vegetable, peas and a single shiitake mushroom. The plastic container was tied with paper ribbon, like a gift. The cheapest item was an 80-cent, nori- wrapped cone of seasoned rice mixed with salmon and sesame seeds.
We also tried umani, an assortment of vegetables including lotus root, burdock and bamboo shoots stewed Japanese style. And we ended with desserts prepared by Fugetsu-Do and Mikawaya, two confectionery shops that have outlets at Yaohan. A thin line of strawberry jam lined Fugetsu-Do's plump, tender jelly roll. But I lost my heart to Mikawaya's choco pan-- the lightest imaginable little buns stuffed with chocolate. Packages of the sweets are sold in the market as well as in each shop. At Mikawaya, just outside the market, there is another tempting dessert possibility--cones filled with green tea or plum wine ice cream.
Our gargantuan picnic came to $8 a person, and we had plenty of leftovers. If one ate sensibly, the bill would be much less, making Yaohan a good place to sample typical Japanese food on a budget.
Yaohan supermarket, 333 S. Alameda St., Los Angeles. (213) 687-6699. Open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Garage parking validated with $10 purchase.