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MARKETS : Shopping for Soba, Sushi and Shabu-Shabu

September 22, 1994|LINDA BURUM

A bottleneck of cars jockeying for position in the parking lot at Marukai Discount Japanese Food Mart is the only sign of life on this desolate stretch of Vermont Avenue in Gardena. Tucked between an empty phone switching station and the flashy El Dorado gambling casino, Marukai sells bonsai gardening tools, wind chimes, fresh soba noodles, beautiful sashimi trays, instant matsutake mushroom soup, hand-carved wooden rice bowls, red-bean flavored ice cream bars and rubber Japanese garden slippers.

It's not fancy here. The aisles are tight and the floor is concrete. But shelves are packed with a treasure trove of edible discoveries--many of them selected and imported directly from Japan by Marukai Inc. You'll see the Marukai brand name on several styles of green tea, bamboo shoot tips and tempura mix, among other things.

Cooks who use Japanese ingredients, whether for authentic dishes or fusion cooking, love Marukai for its serendipitous selection of unusual brands. The store is well organized, but there are always a few randomly placed boxes of Japanese mayonnaise in squeezable plastic bottles or bubble gum wrapped with Japanese cartoon characters. A tiny Seiko watch department sits next to rare brandies and futons opposite the Japanese pharmacy items.

"The idea for Marukai grew out of necessity," says Art Noda, a close associate of Marukai owner Hidejiro Matsu. Marukai Inc. started out as a distributor of Japanese giftware, with locations in New York, Cerritos and Northern California. But the economic downturn of the late '70s put these novelties at the bottom of shoppers' lists.

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Matsu, who was already well connected in the Japanese wholesale food business in Hawaii and Osaka (where his family had a food distribution company), reasoned correctly that a discount membership grocery and housewares store would fit the revised spending habits of local Japanese consumers. So in 1982 Matsu opened Marukai on 166th Street across from the Gardena Buddhist Church. Patrons paid a $4 membership fee and were sent a monthly newsletter offering special deals on Japanese merchandise.

In those days, discount merchandising was unfamiliar to Japanese businessmen, and Marukai seemed like a bold idea. "Matsu is a creative risk taker," says Noda. The risk clearly paid off, for Marukai soon needed to expand into its present, much larger location on Vermont.

Recently other Japanese stores have begun to compete with Marukai's low-price deals, so I can't promise you won't find similar prices elsewhere. But Matsu is thinking ahead and he has changed his strategy once again.

The desire for excellent service, he feels, is making a comeback among his customers. His service-oriented "New Marukai," presently under construction, promises to be as imaginative as his discount merchandising in the early '80s. In addition to such conveniences as dry cleaners, mailing service center and shops such as a florist, and a food court, New Marukai will display cultural exhibits from the various provinces of Japan. The displays will give customers the opportunity to educate themselves about such traditional things as \o7 kimonos, \f7 regional porcelain and Buddhist altar goods. Cultural programs and cooking classes are also scheduled.

New Marukai will also have a recycling center and offer environmentally-friendly products such as organic produce and household cleaning agents. A philosophy has evolved here, one of "using business to bring the old and new together to help the 21st century work for our children," says a blurb for New Marukai. That will be another story.

Shopping List

SUSHI MADE EASY

Watching a skilled \o7 itame-san \f7 working behind a restaurant sushi counter can easily intimidate a non-Japanese cook. But making sushi at home really isn't an impossible task. Almost everyone in Japan can make several kinds of home-style sushi. The easiest version, \o7 chirashi \f7 sushi, is simply a bowl of sushi \o7 meshi \f7 (rice prepared for sushi) tossed together salad-style with finely cut fish and other ingredients. Some \o7 chirashi \f7 have one or more kinds of sashimi with garnishes and pickles arranged on top of the rice.

The second easiest home-style sushi, \o7 hako-zushi\f7 , is made by pressing the rice and fish or other topping into variously shaped molds called \o7 kata. \f7 The finished sushi is simply unmolded.

There's also \o7 inari-zushi\f7 . For this style you buy deep-fried tofu squares called \o7 abura-age \f7 from the tofu section. When thin slices of tofu are deep-fried, they puff up, leaving a pita-bread-like hollow to be filled with plain sushi \o7 meshi \f7 or rice mixed with chopped vegetables or smoked salmon. Marukai has everything you need for these sushi styles.

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