Let me tell you about one of my favorite Columbus gems.
For five years now, I have been venturing with friends to Tensuke Market and its constellation of sister businesses, a small oasis of Japanese culture located in the Kenny Shopping Center on Old Henderson road. It’s become a traditional excursion for us, though much about the shops has changed in recent years. NPR even had an article in 2016, which is why I didn’t preface “gem” with “hidden.”
Tensuke Market was founded in 1990 as a Japanese grocery, offering imported Japanese products for immigrants and locals alike. The “little Tokyo” of Columbus has grown, now featuring the Tensuke Express restaurant, Sushi 10, gift shop J Avenue, Japanese style bakery Belle’s Bread, and Akai Hana.
When we started going to the shop in 2012, things were slightly different. Tensuke Express was a small venue attached to the market itself, with only a few cramped booths and tables for seating. Formerly, one small TV hung in the corner, playing Japanese game-shows and dramas that were delightfully incomprehensible with no subtitles to explain the action (in the case of the game-shows, translation probably would not have helped.)
The noodle shop has now expanded into a freshly constructed building next door, and in its place is Sushi Ten. Sushi Ten offers the freshly prepared sushi once sold at a counter within the market itself, from which you can still purchase packages of pre-made sushi; J Avenue, the gift shop featuring imported Japanese trinkets and beauty products, has replaced the previous Hana Gifts.
Perhaps the biggest change is that even just a few years ago when entering Tensuke we were more often the exception than the rule. It was much more common to be surrounded by patrons speaking languages other than English. A previous coworker told me that when he was majoring in Japanese in the mid-2000s, Tensuke was where he’d go with professors to practice Japanese over steaming bowl of noodles; by the time I graduated in 2015, the noodle bar had grown crowded, and seating was difficult to come by, bursting at the seams with people of all nationalities. It’s clear that the expansion was a wise idea to accommodate the growing customer base.
On my most recent excursion I’m accompanied by my friend Kayla and her boyfriend Sean, former roommates and frequent companions on noodle seeking journeys to Tensuke. Many were the times when one of us would be sick, tired, or angry, and text only the phrase “send noods.” Parodying our generation’s solicitation of illicit pictures (“send nudes,”) this missive was a symbol of urgency, a primal need for the steamy comfort of udon.
Our first stop on this occasion is to J Avenue to peruse the home-goods and ultra-cute Japanese stationery; plushes of Gudetama (a small, plump, strangely relatable egg-man mascot), shiba inu paper clips, sushi roll socks, Japanese beauty products of indeterminable purpose with logos spelled out in katakana, hiragana and kanji, featuring wide-eyed girls posing with a finger turned to the dimple of their smile. I pick up a tiny Hello Kitty bento box and suggest that Sean, a towering densely haired giant, should begin packing his lunches in it.
Satisfied by our witty repartee, we move on the to main event.
Before the expansion, Tensuke Express had a more limited offering; your choices were essentially udon, a thick wheat flour based noodle, or soba, thinner noodles made from buckwheat. You could also pick a combo meal form the list, which would come with a small bowl of rice topped by a meat of your choice.
Now the menu has expanded, adding ramen, curry plates, new toppings like kitsune (sweet bean curd,) and a variety of side dishes such as onigiri rice balls, charming fish-shaped taiyaki, and okonomiyaki (a savory pancake made with cabbage which differs regionally throughout Japan, and which I once failed spectacularly to make at home.)
I mix things up a bit on this occasion by foregoing my usual order of udon, selecting the zaru soba instead, zaru indicating it will be served cold.. My soba comes on a black lacquered tray atop a small bamboo matt, dipping sauce arranged on the side along with wasabi paste, green onions, and two crispy tempura shrimp fried in a pale batter.
Zaru soba isn’t just cold in the sense of being un-heated. It is chilled. The sensation is pleasing on my tongue, the buckwheat giving the noodles more of a toothsome texture than slippery smooth udon. I’m not wholly certain of the thin dipping sauce’s provenance, though it definitely features soy sauce as a base. I dip then slurp the noodles happily between my chopsticks, the best method to achieve a steady and blissful stream of intake; a reverse waterfall of noodles.
It’s hard to be certain of the freshness of fried shrimp, an already mild-tasting seafood further masked by the buttery crisp nature of its coating. But as a side to the cold soba it is delicious, longer and straighter than the smaller shrimp we might picture due to the cultural permeation of cocktail shrimp. I crunch even through the tails, brittle and papery-thin, which crumble like cellophane between my teeth.
Kayla ordered the gyoza as a side to share, and these too are pleasant; noodley dumplings stuffed with pork and featuring the characteristic crispy char on the side. I doubt they are freshly made each day, but for the price point of Tensuke Express, where a meal will run you roughly $10, the food is a bargain.
After finishing our meal we’re off to Belle’s Bread, the bakery that sits caddy-corner to the market itself.
Belle’s Bread features the baking style characteristic of Japanese breads and sweets, lighter and fluffier than many American counterparts, with a predilection for reinterpreting French pastries such as the croissant. They have apparently recently added crepes, which are a bit of a craze in Japan, as well as soft-serve ice cream and a small menu of cafe foods which I have yet to sample.
Wicker baskets line the wall and a central stand, cradling the freshly made baked goods which are protected by thin plastic bags and explained by small sign stands. Proliferations of sweet buns containing different fillings like moussed peanut butter or sweet cream, shiny pastry “horns” featuring chocolate or mocha filling, almond croissants, melon breads and mini-UFOs (sweet buns that have had a cookie melted and baked over them, creating a rim that gives them their extra-terrestrial shape. Should we be invaded by this type of alien, I for one will welcome our sweet new overlords.) Shelves contain stacks of pillowy square breads and packages of small crumbly cookies, plain swirled with matcha.
The glass display case by the registers features the refrigerated desserts sitting in little fringed paper cups. The cheesecake is of the airier Japanese consistency, and is flanked by other offerings like mousses, petite strawberry cakes, and more. Light and springy swiss rolls contain flavors like mocha and matcha green tea, or whirls of sweet red bean paste. They stand in rows like little confection emissaries, crowned with tiny dollops of cream or fruit.
It’s a playground for the eyes, and quite a bit of our time is spent circling the various offerings which change on any given visit, especially as some things sell out early or are offered only seasonally. I still dream of a perfect pumpkin roll found several falls ago, so much less dense and cloying than the heavy log you’ll find in most Midwestern recipes.
Making a pick is always difficult, practically bringing me to my knees with indecision, eyes watering with the unfairness of a world where neither my stomach nor wallet can accommodate an endless stream of treats. On this occasion I purchase an ogura roll to be eaten later, a pillowy bun sliced and filled with sweet adzuki bean paste and cream. As a present for my boyfriend, I select an adorable cat-shaped nutella bun, its face and stripes drawn on in chocolate icing with rounded ears of bread. Every now and then you’ll find incredible confections like this; I’ve previously bought chocolate filled crabs there, complete with pinchers and chocolate dotted eyes.
Many Americans might balk at the idea of bean paste in a dessert, but I think the Japanese have it right. Eating my ogura roll that night, the thick adzuki bean paste is sweet, but with a rich undertone that gives the bun a bit of an earthy flavor. It balances the sweet cream and the plump sweetness of the glossy bread that surrounds it. The overall texture is light in a way that makes eating it a joy when compared to heavier and larger American confections. Tim’s nutella kitty, which he lets me try a bite of, is equally delicious, utilizing a similar dough to the ogura roll for its bun, and a nutella mousse core to be sought out gleefully by tongue. A bite of the plain bread before reaching the center, rather than boring, is a delicious excitement. There is a zing of excitement when you reach the hazelnut-chocolate center.
So, finally, to discuss Tensuke Market; the epicentre of this Japanese complex. Although the focus is on Japanese imports you can find many other asian foods at this small grocery, Korean gochujuang chili paste and Taiwanese rice noodles.
Shopping at the market reminds me of my time living in Edinburgh, where I walked everywhere and thus did all my shopping on foot. One of my frequent stops would be the small Chinese market Starlight on Clerk St, which was on my way home from uni; similar to Tensuke they stocked a variety of other asian products, and my illustrator friends and I often looked for inspiration among the enoki mushrooms and interesting packaging, a way to jog us out of the styles and products more routine to our eyes, purchasing purple yam candies, caffeinated gum, or wiggly konjaku noodles.
I think the key to shopping at these kinds of groceries is to approach them with respect. It is fine to be interested, curious about foreign products which we are not used to seeing in a Wal-Mart or a Kroger. In fact, I think being interested in other cultures, other ways of eating and cooking, is a beautiful thing.
The problem which you will see occasionally lies with the intruders that make their presence painfully know, laughing at products loudly as if at a freak show, making exaggerated faces of disgust at the length of octopus tentacle on display in the meat cooler and ignoring the fact this place is, to many individuals, a stop on their list of errands as normal as walking the dog or doing the laundry.
Now, I’m not perfect in this respect – on this particular visit I do stare in awe at the pale anemic flesh of a wobbly daikon which has been pickled whole and shrink-wrapped, the length of a forearm. But I can assure you I laugh at basically all phallic produce, regardless of origin, so perhaps that is not reflective of cultural ignorance, just… Immaturity in general.
Asian markets (or other, for lack of a better term, “ethnic” markets,) are wonderful places to get products of usually better quality for a lower price. On this trip I stock up on sesame oil, rice noodles and tofu, all of which are nearly ½ the price of similar products at chain stores; bulk rice is another great item to buy. As previously mentioned, sushi of good quality, made in-house, can be had at bargain prices. Depending on the stock left near closing it can even be marked down anywhere from 20% to 50%, should you be lucky.
I resist the urge to pile my basket high with dried shiitake, natto, crisp strips of seaweed, pickled radish and all the other tempting goods.
After all, I know I’ll be back before long.