Gourmands who want to buy artisanal foodstuff from Japan can now do so without leaving their homes. Instead of visiting supermarkets, they can turn to online grocers that specialise in selling fresh produce and products from the land of the rising sun.
Over the past one and a half years, at least three such e-grocers have been set up. They are Rakuten Singapore, the local offshoot of the Japanese e-commerce giant that sells everything from food to electronic gadgets and furniture; Asian Cutz, which sells Japanese meats; and Zairyo, which brings in Japanese cooking products and tableware.
Among their offerings are seasonal exotic produce such as nama sujiko (raw salmon roe sacs), uni (sea urchin), snow crabs and premium meats such as Tajima and Miyazaki wagyu. There are also speciality condiments and confections such as Matcha- flavoured jam and whimsical Omiyage items, souvenir sets that consist of sweets and biscuits.
The increased appetite for sophisticated Nippon nosh is due to Singaporeans being more well-travelled and knowledgeable about Japanese cuisine.
Ms Jillian Kee, 37, co-owner of Asian Cutz, says: "Some diners can rattle off names of sashimi. With more restaurant brands opening here from Japan, such as Shinji by Kanesaka, diners have the chance to experience authentic dishes."
Diners are also keen to bring back these dining experiences to their homes. Mr Masaya Ueno, director of Rakuten Asia, which receives more than 3,000 food orders a month from Singapore, says Singaporeans like to buy ingredients that are hard to find outside Japan to replicate their favourite Nippon dishes.
These e-shops maintain the freshness of perishables by ordering stock only upon receiving orders.
Ms Amanda Tan, 26, co-owner of Zairyo, which has seen business doubling to 50 orders in a week since it started last November, says: "Stocks in supermarkets may have been sitting in the refrigerator for days, whereas we deliver our produce on the same day that it arrives from Japan and within three hours from being dispatched from our warehouse."
For Rakuten Asia, shipments are air-flown from Japan daily and transported in cool trucks to consumers on the same day.
Besides the freshness of the produce, another reason people buy online is lower prices.
At Zairyo, prices are 15 per cent to 50 per cent lower than in supermarkets as it imports and distributes the products directly. Thanks to low start-up costs, Zairyo's Ms Tan says she charges "close to wholesale prices" for the products. She says: "Without spending much on shop rental or manpower, I can pass on the savings to customers. If prices are the same as in supermarkets, there's no point setting up this business."
These online grocers provide personalised services on top of home-delivery options. Value-added services include menu planning and tips on storage and preparation.
Asian Cutz's Ms Kee says some customers kill the dining experience with these expensive meats as they lack cooking experience. She says: "I help customers mix and match the different varieties of meats according to their taste preferences and give advice on how much meat to order based on the size of their parties."
Still, as is the case with most Internet shopping, a drawback is that customers cannot inspect the products before clicking "buy".
But they feel that the relatively low prices, convenience and hard-to-find products are fair trade-offs.
Ms Sylvia Yeo, 30, who works as a sales manager in the information technology industry, orders meats such as Tajima wagyu steaks in A4 grade twice a month from Asian Cutz to cook for potluck parties. She says the online prices are up to 30 per cent lower than butchery shops.
"I can decide how thick I want my steak to be cut and everytime I order meats from them, I know exactly how they will come, instead of hoping the quality of meat will be as good as my last order at butcheries," she adds.
Mr Aun Koh, 41, chief executive of Coriander Leaf, which runs cooking classes and catering services, likes the low prices of perishables at Zairyo. He has bought items such as a box of uni, soya sauce and seafood such as otoro (tuna belly) and ayu (sweet fish).
He says: "It takes time to build up trust that an online grocer can deliver foods of consistently good quality as you are buying based on Internet photos."
E-SHOPS FOR JAPANESE PRODUCTS
This e-shopping website offers more than 10,000 food products from 55 food suppliers. It includes popular brands from Japan such as Yokohama- based confectioner Vanillabeans, noodle specialist Shizen No Yakata and traditional sweets shop Gyokkado.
It also has Singapore-based suppliers, such as Kuriya Fish Market and Snaffle's Pastry. A hit among Singapore customers are the Omiyage (gift) items, with more than 1,000 of them sold in a month.
One such product is the Hokkaido All Stars Sweets Assortment ($30), a package of biscuits, jelly and snacks.
Other bestsellers are the sashimi-grade frozen oyster meat ($43.20 for 1kg) and Wild Alaskan Snow Crab ($40 for 1kg). It also sells sampler packs of well-known Japanese products. Try the Kogiku Trial Set ($35.60), a bundle of bouchees, madeleines and cookies from Shizuoka Prefecture.
Delivery: Varies for different products.
For years, Ms Jillian Kee, 37, had to join the three-hour queues in Liang Court's Meidi-ya Supermarket to get meats for her Chinese New Year shabu-shabu parties. Last year, she decided enough was enough and started Asian Cutz, a online butchery shop.
Ms Kee, who runs an information technology business, invested about $100,000 with three partners in this start-up. It gets processed meat supplies from Singapore-based wholesale meat purveyors Indoguna, Angliss Singapore and Eurasia Global Food.
Its Japanese meat selection consists of about six varieties of beef and pork, including Miyazaki and Tajima wagyu, Kurobuta pork belly and Momoiro pork loin. These meats are available in three styles - shabu-shabu (sliced up to 1.2mm thin), yakiniku cuts and 300g slabs of steaks.
Hot picks for steamboat gatherings are Miyazaki A4 Sirloin shabu-shabu slices ($35 per l00g) and Momoiro pork collar shabu-shabu slices ($6 per 100g). To make it accessible for customers to sample these meats, they can be ordered in smaller amounts, such as 150g. Place orders three working days in advance.
Delivery: Free delivery for orders above $150. Orders below $150 cost $25 a delivery.
Aptly named after the Japanese word for ingredients, this six- month-old e-grocer offers more than 100 food products, from meats and seafood to condiments and rice.
Co-owner Amanda Tan leverages on suppliers from her father's 14-year-old food supply businesses to bring in products that are off the beaten track.
Popular items include uni (sea urchin), which starts from $80 for 80g, Kyoto Matcha Jam ($25.50) and ikura (marinated salmon roe, from $38.50 for 250g). Fresh produce, which is imported twice weekly, comes flash-frozen to retain its freshness. Flash-freezing is a process by which food is frozen at very low temperatures as soon as it is harvested.
Suitable for parties and steamboats are the 14 Party Packs, such as the Chirashi/Sushi Party Pack ($182, serves four to six people), which includes ikura, uni, scallops and negitoro (minced tuna). It also sells uncommon seasonal produce, such as nama sujiko (a pouch of raw salmon roe) and aka mamako (red sea cucumber). Place orders at least three days in advance.
Delivery: Free delivery for orders of more than $100. Orders below $100 cost $20 a delivery.