Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A good deed gone bad.

I ended up with Pocky, which is not entirely a bad thing, but it wasn't what I went in search of. Pocky is basically straw-shaped crackers dipped in chocolate. They look like the picture. They taste as you probably suspect, like chocolate-covered crackers, or chocolate-covered very thin bread-sticks.

I decided that today was going to be my East Village day. That meant going to see a friend, stopping at Kiehl's (metrosexual hair and skin care products), The Strand (used bookstore extraordinaire') and Sunrise Market (Japanese grocer).

I also had reason to go down to my office because I left a Christmas gift there that I need to mail off post haste. A friend of mine at the office who is Japanese mentioned to me that she was desirous of some tea and she needed to go to the Japanese market to get some.

"No problem!" I said, foolishly becoming ensnared in fate's trap for me on this day.

I found out that it was Genmaicha she wanted specifically, that sounds pretty Japanese, so I thought it would be relatively easy to pick up. I told her I would IM her from the store and tell her what I found.

Now, the person for whom the Christmas gift is for is not Japanese, but she did live in Japan for a number of years and had shared her fondness for Japanese pickles with me on numerous occasions. Now, these aren't just pickled cucumbers, all kinds of vegetables get pickled in Japan. Apparently it is something of a point of national pride, so I asked my Japanese friend for whom I was fetching tea to help me choose some pickles.

"Perhaps I should come to the store with you" was the reply. Ah, this isn't simple, there isn't the pickle equivalent of Coke, not some sure category killer that I can easily find. In any case, I was going to the store now and my Japanese friend wasn't free, so I was going in alone.

The Japanese store is intimidating in the sense that they make no attempt to make Americans comfortable in there. They are polite, of course, but everything is in Japanese, which means I can't make sense of anything except by looking at the pictures on the packaging.

The tea sounded easy, and it was, I found the tea and started looking for genmaicha. Hmm, I don't see it. Oh oh, there it is! That looks interesting, but it is loose tea (and roasted rice) in a plastic bag. I did see an english sign on the shelf for "genmai-cha" and I announced my victory to my Japanese friend over IM (I have a jabber client on the Treo). She asked me to get multiple boxes, which I did.

Now, for the pickles. My Japanese friend knows this store so I asked her where to find the pickles. She directed me over to a refrigerated case where I found things in containers with indecipherable names that were mostly either red, green, brown, or black.

I need to ship these pickles UPS ground so I can't send perishable items. However, i was still personally interested in the Japanese pickle phenomenon so I looked at these fresh pickles. I sent my Japanese guide an IM with the name of something on the shelf.

"Yuck." she replied. "Yeah, there's that stuff."

Crisis averted, I bought some pickled mushrooms. They're awesome.

I've been pickle-hunting with my friend at Asian markets in Fort Worth, so I looked walked around looking for cans that resembled the cans that she picked up when we shopped together, shook her head, and put back down. These are what I found. I have no idea what I have here.

I sent that picture to my Japanese friend and she said "I dunno. I've never heard of that stuff."

So, I am riding the train (aka the Subway) down to the office and I am picking through my bags to get the Genmaicha tea out for my friend. I am going to drop this at my desk so she can pick it up later.

I have the wrong tea. It is simple green tea, not Genmaicha.

I bought some simple green tea for myself. Where's that? It's Genmaicha.

I bought four boxes of the wrong tea for my friend, and one box of the wrong tea for myself. I left her the wrong tea for myself, and the right tea for her, and I went back to the Japanese market.

Now, I have to tell you, I thought about just blowing it off. I felt like an idiot fish out of water in there and now I was going to have to go back and exchange some tea. I did want to go back and get the other three boxes of tea that I promised my friend, but I could just go buy them, i.e., I didn't have to tell my friend that I ate four boxes of green tea on her behalf.

But, I wanted to get it right, so I took pictures with the Treo of all the varieties available in the store and waited on her to review them and e-mail me back with her preference. I didn't take pictures of the wrong tea, the one I left for her, since I assumed she would know that this was a choice.

I'm shy around Asian women. I'm not sure why, aside from idealizing almost every one I've ever known well, but I am particularly adverse to making myself look like an idiot in front of them. The cashiers at this Japanese market are women and I had this internal hurdle to overcome to fess up my stupid mistake and get it made right.

Bravely, I went up to the cashier and confessed my crime. She wanted to see my receipt. I had not been able to find it. She was going to do the exchange anyway and I pulled the receipt out of my front left pocket, where it had been since I put it in there after making my purchase, and this greatly simplified the cashier's task. She suddenly remembered that it had been herself that checked me out an hour earlier, and I got the right tea (though they only had three boxes, not four).

As I was walking out she muttered something under her breath to the other cashier in Japanese and she burst out laughing. I wish I know what that was.

So, finally, I assure my friend that I had the right tea and she tells me that the wrong tea, the one I had picked out inadvertently, was great, and that she preferred it to the one she requested, which I had just purchased.

Ever the polite Japanese, she quickly recovered by saying that whatever I decided was just fine. Damn right.

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