Tucked away in a Goleta strip mall on Calle Real between Trader Joe’s and KFC is Nikka, a market full of interesting treats. According to Ai, one of the employees, 90 percent of the store’s products are Japanese in origin while the other 10 percent are a variety of items from other Asian countries. Said Ai, “[Nikka] is the only Japanese grocery store in the Santa Barbara area.”
Walking into the store can be a little intimidating at first, as many shelves overflowing with food and other items are crammed into the small space. Some things, like the bars of dark chocolate, are familiar to Western eyes, while others, like the bag of dried anchovies, are not. This feeling of intimidation increases upon seeing that all of the writing on the packaging is Japanese. But fear not! As this reporter quickly discovered, the nutritional facts on almost all of the packaging is in English, which should provide shoppers with enough information to figure out what they are looking at.
After sampling a few of the products recently, these are some of my favorites.
Mochi: While many have become familiar with mochi ice cream, you may be surprised to learn that mochi comes in a non-frozen form, as well. Nikka sells the small, flavored rice cakes in packs of six and in a variety of flavors. The strawberry-flavored mochi has the familiar soft, pink shell but is filled with a flavored jelly center instead of ice cream. The center has a distinct strawberry cream flavor that almost makes the mochi taste like strawberry shortcake. I especially appreciated this dessert because I got to enjoy the same mochi flavors as the ice cream, without feeling like my teeth were freezing while trying to eat it.
Kung Pao Sauce: I found this small jar of Dynasty kung pao sauce tucked away among Nikka’s impressive array of sauces. When I added this to my vegetable stir-fry dish, this sauce was not as spicy as I expected. However, this worked out nicely for the dish because it added enough spice to satisfy my taste buds, without causing my lips to burn or my nose to run. This kung pao sauce also had a savory flavor that is difficult to come by in other, spicier sauces. Overall it was definitely a worthwhile purchase.
Asian Pears: While this pear is not the most aesthetically pleasing fruit on the shelf, it certainly is one of the tastiest. Underneath its brown exterior lies the tangy sweetness of a pear coupled with the firm, reliable structure of an apple, meaning you won’t have to worry about it getting squished by your other fruit. This pear is also large enough to satisfy any and all fruit cravings and is often too large to eat all in one sitting.
Hana-Awaka Flavored Sake: It’s hard not to be at least a little curious about flavored sake, so I figured I’d give it a try. According to the label, “hana-awaka” means “sparkling flower,” and the drink contains both flowery and fruity flavors. This particular flavor of sake comes in a pink bottle and has just a hint of carbonation, making for an interesting and rather bubbly drinking experience. It is hard to decide what to make of this drink at first, but after a few sips, it’s pretty good — if you’re looking for something sweet. While I don’t know if this will be my new drink of choice, it is definitely something worth trying if you are curious about sake.
Nikka Japanese Market is located at 5721 Calle Real in Goleta. Call 805-964-7396 or see nikkamarket.com.