One of the great things about Japan is the senmonten (専門店)―specialty shops dedicated to selling one thing and one thing only. There is, for instance, a shop in Shinjuku that sells nothing but canned food, and multiple restaurants that serve nothing but eel. There is something bold about these places, and something very Japanese in their level of commitment to a chosen craft or product.
These were my thoughts as I entered Ma-suya (塩屋; まーすやー; Māsuyā), a salt specialty store I came across during a shopping trip to Yokohama Bay Quarter, the vaguely Hawaiian-themed seaside shopping center near Yokohama Station.
Upon entering the shop, I was greeted by a large display of different kinds of salt, both domestic and foreign, with carefully-written explanations that include where the salt comes from and recommendations on what kinds of dishes to use it for. More importantly, there were samples of each salt on display, meaning I could try before I buy.
Perhaps the most surprising salt I tried was Magma Salt, a reddish salt with a strong sulfur flavor. The copy on the explanation even says, “It tastes just like a hot spring egg!” Who knew salt could taste just like an egg? This salt, recommended for meat, shrimp, and crab, is delicious, but at nearly 1300 yen for 100 grams, it’s rather pricey. I decided to look for something that would be of more practical use.
Salt for sake? Now we’re talking. Sasagawanagare - Shio no Hana (笹川流れ 塩の花) is a kind of fleur de sel recommended for sake. Sake, especially barrel sake, is often consumed in a square wooden cup known as a masu (升), and is served with salt used to line the rim of the masu, margarita-style. When drinking sake in this way, the quality of the salt is extremely important. Once, a small restaurant I frequent that serves delicious barrel sake apparently ran out of the usual salt that they use for sake, and provided me with regular table salt. That experience, one which I do not wish to duplicate, made me realize how important the quality of the salt is when drinking sake, and how completely different one kind of salt can taste from another. The Sasagawanagare salt, with its delicate, crystal-like texture and mild saltiness, is exactly the kind of salt you would want for your sake nightcap.
This deep red salt―named Fleur de Merlot―comes from France and is, interestingly enough, Merlot-flavored. It is recommended for cheese and cheese fondue, and I can understand why. It really does taste like wine, and the flavor is not so strong as to overwhelm the cheese. It comes in a cute, wine-shaped bottle, which adds to its charm.
Ma-suya also sells original salt mixes, including practical mixes such as their Dressing Salt, which is salt mixed with onion, garlic, pepper, oregano, parsley, and all kinds of other herbs and spices, and is perfect for making salad dressings. They also sell more unusual salts, such as their lobster-flavored salt or their matcha salt. I ended up buying the Dressing Salt and Shiso Salt, which I intend to use as a topping on a daikon radish that is waiting for me at home.
They also sell sets featuring their most popular products, which would make good souvenirs for people who enjoy cooking. This “Best 10 Set” contains five packets each of their ten best sellers, including salad salt, steak salt, soup salt, wasabi salt, and hot chili salt.
It can get pretty salty after a few tastings, so naturally they provide water, free of charge.
After choosing my salts, I noticed that the shop sells Yukishio Soft Ice Cream, a plain soft-serve ice cream flavored with Okinawan yukishio (雪塩), or “snow salt”. Salt-flavored ice cream, which is quite popular in Japan, may sound weird to those who’ve never had it, but it is really quite good and is considered a summertime standard. This simple ice cream is delicious on its own, but with the wide array of topping salts waiting at the table just outside the shop, I had to experiment.
The shopkeeper told me that matcha salt and cocoa salt were the most popular toppings―which didn’t surprise me, given the other, more daring flavors, which included Okinawan Chili Salt, Hibiscus Salt, and Wasabi Salt. While all of these sounded interesting, the salt I eventually settled on was the Japanese-style Black Sesame and Kinako (きな粉; roasted soy flour, which again doesn’t sound good if you’ve never tried it, but trust me when I say it is delicious). Words cannot adequately describe how tasty this sweet and salty concoction was. This shop is worth a visit for the ice cream alone.
At checkout, I was given a small catalog that featured explanations, usage advice, and easy recipes for each salt. It’s only available in Japanese, so if you can’t read the language then it might not be of much use to you, but the recipes look easy and include such interesting dishes as “Avocado Shrimp Gratin” and “Spicy Bean Sprout and Mushroom Salad”.
This is exactly what makes a visit to a specialty shop in Japan such a great experience. The dedication―not only to the quality of the salt itself, but also to making sure that customers understand how best to use the salt by actively providing explanations and recipes―is what Japanese service is all about.
With my ice cream finished and my new salts in hand, it’s time to head home and start cooking! I can’t wait to try out some shiso-salted daikon radish.
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