Japanese Cooking and Barware Supplies
in Oakland’s Popuphood
In 2007, Yoko Kumano was living in Tokyo and Kayoko Akabori in Brooklyn. Friends and former high school classmates in Cupertino, the two wondered if they could do something creative with their shared passion for eating, drinking, and Japanese culture. That’s how they came up with Umami Mart, a food and drink blog featuring coverage of restaurants, cocktails, recipes, music, specialty food items, food packaging, and a mélange of other topics with a Japanese spin. Readership grew and posts came in from contributors in NYC, Tokyo, L.A., San Francisco, São Paulo, London, and Copenhagen.
When Kumano and Akabori both relocated to Oakland, they started thinking about how they could convert their enthusiastic following to a source of income. First, they expanded their blog into an online Japanese bar and kitchenware importing business, and then they took the leap into a retail storefront. The latest enterprise to bear the Umami Mart name opened in downtown Oakland in 2012. The bright, carefully curated shop with its art-covered walls exudes a unique style the two lightheartedly call “Shinto meets Scandinavia.” In addition to Japanese imports, they carry a selection of locally made items and foodstuffs from purveyors like East Bay Urban Bees, Small Hand Foods, and Inna Jam. All goods on offer are products that Kumano and Akabori—both enthusiastic cooks and cocktail mavens—use themselves.
Their cookware inventory includes inexpensive to reasonably priced Japanese culinary basics, like glazed pottery grinding bowls and wooden pestles (suribachi and surikogi), sturdy, long wooden chopsticks for cooking and serving (hashi), bright-red plastic sesame grinders, Benriner mandolines, miso strainers (misokoshi), and pickle presses. They also sell Japanese glassware for shōchū, sake, beer, and other drinks. According to Kumano, there’s a very refined cocktail culture in Japan, the accoutrements for which are highly regarded by bartenders the world over. Many people visit the shop for such implements as the Japanese-made Yarai mixing glasses and specialty bar spoons. You can also find lovely teapots and cups.
Kumano and Akabori credit some of their success to a six-month no-rent arrangement made possible by Popuphood, an Oakland-based small-business incubator and neighborhood revitalization project. Their six-month trial was successful, and the store recently signed a two-year lease, a great reason to throw a party, something the owners really like to do. Umami Mart is helping Popuphood fulfill its mission of bringing more retail to the area and is also creating a social, educational hub for the broader community. Since opening, they’ve hosted a photography show by artist/photographer Aya Brackett; a talk on pickling and canning by author Kelly Gear; a performance by an experimental electropop artist from Osaka; sake and wine tastings; a how-to gardening talk by Kitazawa Seed Company and Kristyn Leach of Namu Farm; and a $5 Friday-night dinner with Ippo Ramen of Oakland that was “crazy successful,” according to Kumano. On Tuesdays and Thursdays they offer bento lunches from Peko-Peko (see page 38) that sell out quickly.
More events are in the works, and the owners envision building out their space to include a bottle shop and bar offering Japanese drinks and cocktails. Check their website for all the latest news from this exciting enterprise. —KS
Umami Mart, 815 Broadway, Oakland; umamimart.com
On Umami Taste
Umami (うま味) translates to “savory, pleasant taste” or “delicious.” Scientific understanding of the “fifth taste,” as umami is sometimes called, dates to 1908, when Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese chemistry professor at Tokyo Imperial University, noticed that dashi, a classic Japanese broth made from seaweed, possessed a flavor that does not relate to the four primary tastes: sweet, sour, salt, and bitter. He determined that the deep, intense, savory, almost meaty quality is imparted by glutamate, a type of amino acid, and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, which occur naturally in many foods containing meat, fish, vegetables, and dairy products.