Natural Imports of Asheville, NC is the Go To Market for Authentic Japanese Culinary Fare

9 Reed Street
Asheville, NC 28803

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Natural Import Co

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(828) 277-8870

 

By Danielle Bussone

 

Once in a blue moon I’ll discover a truly unique gem of a resource that I simply feel duty bound to share with the world. Natural Imports of Asheville, NC, is one such discovery. Natural Imports is a purveyor of traditional Japanese culinary products of the highest caliber. Great care is taken to assure excellence, offering foods of a medicinal quality, prepared in time honored traditions by skilled Japanese craftsmen. Mass production and quicker, low-quality methods are threatening the livelihoods of these Japanese artisans, who prepare foods using the principal of Ishoku Dogen, “medicine and food have the same source.”  You’ll find no mass market food and no arsenic laden Chinese seaweed here, only traditionally crafted products and sea vegetables grown in deep waters of Japan, protected for centuries with organic, sustainable practices.

 

Natural Imports Interior

Natural Imports Interior

 

Bruce MacDonald, now semi-retired, is the founder of Natural Imports. His daughter, Crystal, has been his partner and business manager since its inception in 1993, since she was 19 years old. Crystal speaks fluent Japanese and is a wealth of information about all aspects of how the seaweed is harvested, the medicinal and nutritional ingredients of every product, the sustainability practices of her suppliers and any glitch that effects the ecosystem and thereby affecting the quality of their products. She is a dynamic powerhouse who stays on top of all issues pertaining to Natural Imports.

 

Crystal MacDonald

Crystal MacDonald

 

Crystal essentially grew up in the business. Her parents divorced when she was young and she spent summers working at Commodities, a Japanese import store Bruce owned in New York City, where she learned about Japanese food. Bruce had previously worked for Erehwon in Boston, which was the original importer of natural foods in the US and subsequently for Erehwon West in California and later for Bread and Circus, which was sold to become the original Whole Foods Market.

 

Books and Literature

Books and Literature

 

Crystal lived the rest of her year with her mother in Colorado, which had a sister-state program. Crystal’s interest in Japan prompted her to become involved with this program and her family hosted two Japanese girls’ stay in the US. She was reciprocally invited to live in Japan on a rotary scholar program for an entire year. This is where she learned Japanese and developed her life-long attachment to the culture.

All of this combined experience uniquely prepared the MacDonalds to create Natural Imports as a resource for exceptional Japanese products which reflect the care and passion of the artisans who create them. The MacDonalds have a silent partner, who is Japanese, and who became Crystal’s mentor, teaching her a great deal about Japanese foods.

 

Natural Imports Miso

Natural Imports Miso

 

Natural Imports carries some of the finest miso one can find in this country. Miso is a fermented paste, usually of soybeans, but can also contain rice, barley, or garbanzo beans, salt and the fungus aspergillus oryzae, called kōji in Japan. It is aged up to three years. Miso is used as a seasoning in sauces and spreads and as a flavoring agent for miso soup, a staple of Japanese cuisine. There are many varieties available with unique flavors.

Hacho Miso, also called Emporer’s Miso, is miso that is made of soybean. It is a three year, hearty winter miso and is used medicinally in Japan. After World War II, a Japanese scientist studying the effects of radiation after the bombing of Hiroshima discovered that Hacho Miso could remove radiation from the body. Actually, any miso can do this but Hacho Miso is noted for this purpose.

As a culinary ingredient, miso performs many functions. It adds body and creaminess to a soup base as well as a little salt. It can be used as a salt substitute in tomato sauces, cream sauces and stews. It disappears into the mixture enhancing the flavor without being noticeable. Miso soup is a fabulous starter for a meal as fermented foods are known to aid in digestion. It also adds to one’s satiety level, causing you to eat less.

 

Natural Imports Miso

Natural Imports Miso

 

“You first make a broth to get the taste,” says Crystal. “You can do it vegetarian by adding kombu or you can make a fish base using fish flakes or bonito. What you are trying to achieve is Umami which is the sixth taste. Bitter or savory is another translation for it. It’s the tasty part of Japanese food. It is kind of the hidden ingredient we don’t know about. Umami is becoming popular in the United States, now they’ve finally recognized there is a sixth taste, which is Umami. It doesn’t translate very well. It is somewhere between bitter and savory. Miso is a wonderful meat substitute. It has all the amino acids, it’s got all the proteins. It’s amazing. It’s salty enough it gives you all of the flavoring.”

Another flavor enhancer is tamari. Traditional tamari is actually a brine byproduct of making miso. Most of tamari available in the United States is an inferior product which is a mass produced and is not the wonderful authentic tamari brine from Japanese miso that Natural Imports carries.

Crystal showed me boxes of Kombu,  long strips of the sea vegetable, harvested from the deep, arctic waters of Northern Japan, where the water current was unaffected by radiation leaks caused by the great tsunami which damaged Japan’s nuclear reactors. Natural Imports has their products rigorously tested for by third party entities for such environmental contaminants.

 

Natural Imports Kombu

Natural Imports Kombu

 

“We do have third-party verification of our products,” says Crystal. “It gets tested in Japan at the farm level, then it gets retested when it leaves Japan, then it is tested again when it arrives at US Customs. We knew which producers we were going to have problems with [after the Tsunami] in the first 6 months to a year and we resourced those items to other producers in a safer area.”

Kombu is a sea vegetable and is the original source for MSG, a flavor enhancer found in many US food products. Unfortunately, MSG has a lot of chemical side effects. You can easily achieve the same effect by cooking with a small piece of naturally grown kombu, which has none of these chemical issues. Kombu helps most foods to become more easily digested as well as improves their flavor. Try using a piece of kombu in cooking beans. They become infinitely more digestible. The best kombu comes from Hokkaido, a northern island of Japan. Crystal says that kombu loves cold water. The China and Taiwan have tried to duplicate Japan’s efforts in growing kombu but their waters are too warm. Natural Import sells it in 8 ounce bags, 32 ounce bags and in the long strands.

 

Natural Imports Mitoku

Natural Imports Mitoku

 

Some of the ingredients I’ve come to love and which have become indispensable items in my pantry are the condiments. Marvelous brown rice vinegars, Mirin, a sweet rice wine vinegar, rice and malt syrups, sushi vinegar and plum pastes to name only a few. My latest discovery are the umeboshi vinegars, which aren’t vinegars at all, they are a brine. Similar to Tamari, umeboshi is a byproduct, in this case of pickling plums. Crystal tells me it is very good used in salad dressings and marinades, anytime you want a tangy taste.

“Umeboshi is difficult to duplicate in recipes, it is a unique flavor. Umeboshi vinegar is high in vitamins, particularly vitamin c. It’s an immune builder, good for mothers to be. Umeboshi has medicinal qualities as well, mostly for stomach, digestion and overexertion. It is high in citric acid and folic acid.” says Crystal. “You can also make quick pickles with umeboshi vinegar with cabbage or daikon.”

I like to use it as a finishing salt. Adding a few drops to a mango puree makes the dressing sparkle.  I also use it as a flavor enhancer for soups and stews. It’s useful in many culinary applications. The wonderful thing about Japanese condiments, seaweeds, oils, misos, etc., is they are useful in just about any kind of dish you can think of. The kuzu and agar are fantastic for preparing vegan desserts. I rarely cook Japanese food, but I use Japanese ingredients in nearly everything I prepare.

Natural Imports carries a wonderful brown rice vinegar, which is lighter than umeboshi. It can be substituted for apple cider vinegar or white vinegar. It is high in gaba (gamma amino butric acid), a particular acid which aids digestion. It’s the same thing found in sprouted brown rice, according to Crystal.

 

Japanese Pottery and Cooking Items

Japanese Pottery and Cooking Items

 

Organic beans, grains and rice are some of the items offered at Natural Imports. Most of us have heard about the arsenic problem with rice. Crystal is on that issue as well, like white on rice, so to speak. Crystal’s passion for the safety and quality of her products is evident in her vast knowledge of the areas which produce the foods she sells, down to the movement and effect of ocean currents on rice, seaweed and other items. She can tell you where the problem rice exists and where to buy safer products.

 

 Aduki Beans

Aduki Beans

 

Natural Imports Beans

Natural Imports Beans

 

There is no way I can speak to all of the Japanese culinary delights to be found at Natural Imports. It is principally a mail order company, though they do have a store in Asheville, NC which is open to the public, by appointment. I could (and did) spend hours in there and left with baskets full and my pocketbook a bit lighter. Natural Imports may be more expensive than some other purveyors of Japanese goods, but the quality speaks for itself. Take some time to browse their website and you will see what I mean. I certainly plan to make shopping at Natural Imports a guilty habit. In fact, I’m planning another trip next month. I’m going to get me some of those long pieces of kombu and some larger bottles of umeboshi!  Maybe I’ll see you there!

 

Co-founder and editor of Veggin’ Out and About, Danielle writes restaurant reviews, profiles and interviews of people making a difference in the plant-based community. She is currently writing a cookbook for vegans called, “Time For Change: Whole Foods For Whole Health.”

Danielle’s region is SW Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina and anywhere she happens to stop for sustenance along the road. Contact Danielle  directly to share your restaurant finds, to make comments or just to say hello.


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