The Comfort (Food) of Home
Words by Nick Baines Photographs by James Bowden
Smack in the center of London’s most chaotic area—where vibrant Chinatown and seedy Soho merge—those seeking comfort in the form of Japanese staples find whatever their hearts desire at the Arigato Japanese Supermarket.
Arigato sits neatly underneath an office block on London’s Brewer Street, just a few hundred yards from Piccadilly Circus. The small Japanese supermarket has assumed its place here in Soho, somewhere between the extravagance of theaterland and the raucous, often seedy, seam of the city.
It was a notoriously wet day in London when James and I chose to camp outside the shop, with the sky an oyster gray that cracked sporadically, raining, forcing us to duck into the pub across the street where we sought shelter and a restorative pint. Looking out of that tear-spattered pub window, we watched hurried office workers dash in and out of the unassuming shop doorway, their cargo hidden inside nondescript white carrier bags.
Arigato has long been my go-to place for Japanese ingredients, but on that day I discovered that the shop sells many different things to an incredibly diverse range of people. Beyond the myriad of misos, sake and seaweeds, Arigato offers comfort. For a girl recently migrated from Chiba Prefecture, it comes inside a plastic pot of her favorite brand of instant ramen. For a salesman from the south coast of England, it is a warming meal from the hot-food counter, eaten hungrily at one of the small tables in the corner.
The word “healthy” came up time and again when we spoke to shoppers outside Arigato. Beyond the recipes being followed and the ingredients being procured for experimentation, it became clear that the reasons Arigato’s customers were shopping for their Japanese food products were as contrasting as the customers themselves.
Nick Tingle, 24, is studying for a PhD in music. His girlfriend is from Hong Kong and, following a recent trip to see her parents, Nick became enamored with Asian cuisine. He was shopping for a sushi kit and soba noodles.
While in the city on business, aviation marketing executive John White, 56, bought ingredients for his Korean wife back home in Cheltenham.
Yumiko Ishii moved to London in 1973 from her home in Tokyo. The 61-year-old shiatsu practitioner regularly shops at Arigato for misco, Bull-Dog sauce and nattō.
Chris Boateng is a 28-year-old stylist from southwest London. He had no specific recipe in mind, but wanted to experiment in the kitchen with wasabi power and seaweed.
Stephen Markeson, 69, is a retired photojournalist for The Times. “I like to eat healthy, and so I eat a lot of Japanese food,” says Stephen. He dropped by for miso soup and wasabi peas.
Miya Kao moved to London five years ago from Taiwan. The 25-year-old sales consultant grabbed shabu-shabu ingredients to cook a meal for visiting friends.
Leandro Farina and Natalie Stopford
Photographer Leandro Farina, 33, and partner Natalie Stopford, a 35-year-old visual-effects producer, visit Arigato regularly to buy ingredients. They stopped in for a lunch of katsudon and sushi.