Help me demystify Asian grocery stores!

Hello all,

I love to cook. I love to go out to eat and then, in the privacy of my own kitchen, try to figure out how chefs prepare my favorite dishes. I love to watch Food Network and make things from the recipes on their website. I do excellent Italian food, and I’m getting better with Mexican, Cuban, and Cajun-Creole. But I’ve always left Asian food (encompassing Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and even Indian cuisines) to “the professionals,” figuring restaurants can do it better than I.

Now I’ve recently gotten into browsing around in Asian grocery stores, and we have a particularly big one nearby in Miami. They have such unique smells, and they’re full of such neat-looking exotic foods. But unfortunately, I don’t know what a lot of these things are, or what they are used for. I’ve gotten braver with picking out snack foods, but I’d love to just fill up a cart with goodies and go home to experiment.

What are some good food staples to pick up at Asian grocery stores–ingredients and also brands, since there is a great deal of variety? What are some good beginner recipes I can make with these authentic ingredients? What are some rare treats and must-have goodies I should pick up to keep in the house? I just feel over my head at that place, and I’d love to relax and expose myself to all kinds of new food experiences.

Well, first of all you are going to want to buy some rice . . .

Now that you mention rice (here I am, playing the straight man), I’m very intrigued by the dozens of different kinds of noodles they have. What’s what, and what are the best?

Well, there are certain “staples” of asian cooking but its likely that you can find the same stuff in a western supermarket nowadays. However, some stuff simply doesn’t appear due to the western palate. In terms of snack food, you should try and see if you can get some sunflower seeds. These simply rock!

Apart from that, try some of the chilli and oyster sauces, pastes and spices etc.

Er, DreadCthulhu, I don’t know quite how to admit this to you, but my local Asian market has a really good fresh seafood section, and one of the items I buy the most frequently is — gulpsquid.

It’s a really good cheap source of protein, and is wonderful sauteed in almost any sauce.

I usually buy it fresh, although dried or canned versions can be used in some recipes. I used to buy the whole baby ones with skin and head still attached, but I now feel that I’ve done my time peeling and de-penning them, so I buy either tubes that get chopped into rings (for the small squid) or steaks (for the larger squid).

Mmmm, squid…

If you buy noodles, buy the rather thin and flat ones, made with eggs (egg noodles). Other staples are soy sauce (I use dark soy sauce, which is salty, but there are sweet ones), oyster sauce (which I believe is not really made of oysters), plum sauce (which is sweet). Nice ingredients are things like fish balls (to make soup) or wonton balls (for wonton soup), beans (white with a black dot), mice ears (mushrooms shaped like mice ears), soy blocks (those white bricks floating in a vat of water).

You really need a cook book if you want to start cooking. You should also decide what kind of chinese cuisine you want. I recall there being a thread lately on differents kind of chinese cuisine. Most common in America is Cantonese IIRC.

I’m used to fairly simple recipes.

Slice the meat in thin slices/blocks, season with salt and pepper or other stuff (like soy sauce), braise the meat, let it simmer, add onions/beans/snappers/other vegetables, add other sauces (like plum sauce or so), and leave it alone until it is ready (depends on the kind of meat). This covers a lot of dishes.

Combos are: small strips of beefsteak with onions in soy sauce, beef with cucumber in soy sauce, duck (whole or filet) with plum sauce, which is delicious. Don’t overdo the soy sauce because it can ruin the dish; better start lightly and add more to taste later on.

Soup can be made with any stock, just heat it, add a handful of chopped spring onions, and noodles/wonton balls/fish balls to your liking.

When I first moved to LA, I lived in Koreantown…and one of the local supermarkets had only Korean food.

I can remember wandering through there thinking, “what in the hell is that?!”

There was a bag of what looked like only dried sardines. A huge bag, and lots and lots of them. Also great looking boxes that had cute cartoon figures that I could only assume were either odd cookies or cereal.

I only bought milk there. But it sure was fun walking through the place and looking.

I’m a big fan of Japanese curry. It’s become my comfort food, which is odd because I’m not remotely Japanese. (If I had to guess, it’s because I’m a displaced Southerner living in California, and it’s as close to gravy as I can get out here). It’s thicker in consistency than any Indian curry I’ve seen, more like a gravy than sauce.

They sell packages of it at the local Safeway, so I’m sure they’ve got it in bonafide Asian markets. Can’t remember the brand name I use, though. It comes in little bricks about the consistency of baker’s chocolate. There’s a recipe on the back of the box, and it’s really simple to do – even I can manage it, and I’m even less of a chef than I am Japanese. The basic recipe is this:

  1. Chop whatever meat you’re using into cubes. I’ve had best luck with chicken.
  2. Heat up oil in a big skillet, cook the meat long enough to just brown it. (They recommend adding diced onion, but I can’t really tell the difference in taste with or without the onion, so it’s your call).
  3. Add whatever other ingredients you want; I usually use canned peas and carrots. (Again, the curry is pretty strong in taste, so fresh/frozen/canned isn’t going to make a huge impact).
  4. Add about two cups of water and bring it to a boil. Cover and simmer for about 10 minutes, long enough for the meat to get tender.
  5. Break the curry into chunks and add it to the mixture. Keep simmering it and mixing it in until the curry melts completely, about 5 minutes.
  6. Serve over rice or noodles.

Great stuff. When I get it in restaurants, I order katsu curry – breaded, fried pork or chicken cutlet over rice, covered in Japanese curry. It’s as if God is speaking to me directly (and he’s saying, “keep eating this and you’ll get really fat”). I can’t make that version at home since I’m still sketchy on the deep-frying aspect, but the home version is pretty good too.

Try the veggies. I like the greens. Cut them in about 1"-1 1/2" lengths, and if they’re the leafy type, first stir-fry the stems in a little oil, and when they’re partly cooked, add the leaves, then sprinkle on a little salt. Make sure you stop before they’re over-cooked. Or what the average American thinks is fully cooked. Serve with “steamed” rice. Generally the Northern Chinese and Japanese like the short-grain variety, while the southerners and Southeast Asians like the long-grained fragrant type. But don’t get glutinous rice unless you’re doing a recipe that calls for it.

Things I buy from Asian grocery stores:

  1. Fish Sauce. I like Three Crab brand from Thailand. I cook a lot of Thai-ish and Vietnamese-ish food, and the combination of fish sauce and lime juice is key to lots of things.

  2. Rice noodles, size varies depending on what I’m going to do with them. I put them in soups, inside spring rolls, stir fry them, etc. I also use egg noodles if I’m doing Chinese-ish food, but this is less common. Italians seem make hudreds of shapes of noodles from one ingredient, while asian countries have one shape, made with hundreds of different flours.

  3. Red and Green curry pastes. I’ve made them from scratch, but it is a lot quicker and not so different to just use a spoon of these for Thai curries. You can tweak them as needed by adding more garlic, chili, etc.

  4. Toasted sesame oil - this stuff is great, has a really wonderful nutty kind of flavor and a little goes a long way. Chinese noodles seem kind of boring to me without sesame oil.

  5. Big bags of cumin and coriander seeds - sure you can buy premade curry powder for Indian dishes, but I prefer to grind my own in a coffee grinder (which has never actually had coffee beans in it). Cumin, coriander, turmeric, maybe some red chile, fennugreek, fennel, or any of a dozen other things as your mood strikes you go to gether to be way tastier than premade curry. Remember to flavor your oil with cinnamon sticks or cardomom pods first, and always make sure to fry your spices a bit to get the full flavor out of them.

  6. Cocounut milk - in southern Indian food or Thai curries, it’s not the healtiest thing for you but is really tasty.

  7. Cilantro - I always have a bunch of cilantro in the fridge, in small glass of water. I use it all the time as I love Mexican, Thai, and Indian foods where it seems to show up a lot.

  8. Chilis or chili paste/sauce - I like the Vietnamese chili garlic sauce, I believe it has a picture of a chicken on it.
    These are the staple items that I always have around. I live in small town and don’t have a full-on Asian grocery store around, but I can find most of this stuff at local supermarkets (we actually have a not insignificant Indian and Chinese population in town).

My favorite Southeast Asian-ish book is Hot, Salty, Sour, Sweet by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. Not the most number of recipes, but they all seem to work out pretty well for me. I’m not a real big recipe type guy though; I like to get ideas and figure stuff out on my own.

I like the Japanese curry too, and the brand I buy is called S&B GOLDEN curry. It comes in Mild, Medium Hot, and Hot; I’ve only tried Mild and it’s pretty mild. I also love katsu curry, and when I make chicken katsu or tonkatsu at home I never deep fry. I beat the meat really thin, dip in some beaten egg, then cover in katsu and fry in some vegetable oil until golden brown. No deep frying necessary.

Big Bad Voodoo Lou, one thing I always pick up are kim chee bowl noodles, dried ramen-type noodles in a styrofoam bowl with kim chee seasonings. All you do is just add boiling water. These are also available at non-Asian markets.

Wasabi peas. Everyone should have wasabi peas at their house.

Sriacha hot chili sauce. Good for stir frying and dipping sauces. This is the Vietnamese sauce chorizo mentions above with the picture of the chicken on it.

Buckwheat soba. These are greyish brown thin noodles made with buckwheat flour. You can serve them hot or chilled. I like them with soba sauce (kind of like sweet soy sauce) and a little daub of wasabi, but if you search you’ll find tons of recipes using buckwheat soba.

Rice vinegar (I buy Marukan brand). I sometimes add a little to stir-fried vegetables, like nappa cabbage or bok choy. It’s sweet but has a bite to it. It’s also good for making sushi rice.

I’m wondering if anyone has ever seen instant Won-Ton soup (don’t laugh) at this places - I’ve seen it on the Web, but the two Asian markets near me don’t seem to carry the stuff.

Oh, I love these stores! I get lots of ideas just walking through them; most are pretty tasty too. Here’s what I’d recommend:
Soy sauces: get a few different ones: light, dark, whatever. There’s an Indonesian one (kecap manis) that is thick and sweet that’s great.
Fish Sauce: I substitute it for soy sauce a lot.
Chinese Cooking Wine: I like the amber colored ones; they are a lot like sherry. An all purpose marinade I like is equal parts soy sauce, cooking wine and sesame oil
Sesame Oil: the darker the better. It’s a seasoning, not a cooking oil per se. If you use it like a cooking oil your food will likely end up nasty and tar-flavored.
Chili Paste: I like the ones that have garlic in them too.

I try to buy something new each time I go shopping there; that way I always have something new to experiment with. Good luck!

My g/f is Vietnamese, and I have lived in a very Asian household for over ten years (I’m a big meat and potatoes white boy), and this has reinforced an idea which is all too easy to forget: when you eat “foreign” food, people tend to formalise it too much, and have a dish with a famous name - “tonight we are having Thai tom yum soup”, etc, which is fine, but don’t disregard the Asian version of the quick snack cobbled together with whatever you happen to have in the fridge. A typical dish in the TLD houshold could be something like a bed of boiled and fluffy, yet slightly sticky, rice, a bit of steamed bok choy or another green vegetable, and a few strips of whatever meat is handy. A squirt of soy, another squirt of Sriracha chilli sauce, maybe a few drops of fish sauce, and a sliver or two of sliced fresh chilli. This is Vietnamese peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Yer actual after school / work snack kinda thing. It doesn’t have a fancy name, but for me, this in some ways is Asian food at its finest.

Basic stuff I like to have in the kitchen:

  • Rice. “Jasmine” rice from Thailand is the best. It’s gotta be short grain, and don’t forget to cook it gluggy.
  • Soy sauce. The brewed Japanese style stuff is nice, but I find it a bit heavy for some South-East Asian dishes, and for those the el cheapo Maggi hydrolised vegetable protein “seasoning” (they don’t even call it soy), is quite ok. Keep both.
  • Chilli. In as many different forms as you care to try. Sweet chilli sauce, hot chilli sauce, fresh chillies, pickled chilli mince (yum).
  • Fish sauce. Learn to love this stuff. Eventually you will.
  • Hoi sin (seafood) sauce.
  • Oyster sauce.
  • Fresh green vegies. Shallots / spring onions, bok choy (or the various other Asian incarnations of spinach), and whatever else you fancy.
  • Coriander (or whatever you Yanks call it - I think it’s something else)
  • Lemongrass
  • Meat. Make lots of use of chicken and duck, and typically avoid lamb. Never use too much meat. Too little is preferable, IMHO.
  • Balut. Because I am evil.

You can also use the tranparent rice noodles made form mung beans. Just soak them briefly in hot water to soften them up, drain and put them in the soup at the last minute. Do not boil them like regular noodles!

Oh, and go the freezers section and see if they have white buns(about 3-5 inches in diameter, sometimes labelled ‘pow’, ‘pau’ or similar). They’re snack buns that usually contain barbeque pork or sweet bean paste in a steamed, bread-like pastry. Take them from the freezer and microwave them for ~2 minutes. There’s usually other sim-sum style dumplings in the freezer.

I agree with TheLoadedDog about the Jasmine rice, but I prefer the rice to be firm. YMMV :slight_smile:

PS: Coriander = Cilantro. It has a rather strong and distinctive taste, but it grows on you. Dead easy to plant, just watch out it doesn’t take over the garden.

Oh, that kecap manis is the best thing in the world! If I had that and some sweet chili sauce, I could live off rice for a month. Sure, I’d get scurvy, but I wouldn’t get bored!

Rabid_Squirrel, I have also seen those as “bao.”

There is something you can get in cans called inarizushi no moto, they are these little sweet fried soy envelopes that taste delicious around rice. You seriously can’t mess this recipe up unless you poke your finger through the envelope wall or something. Buy a can. Open the can. Take an envelope out. Put cooked sticky rice in it (I like the rice with a bit of rice wine vinegar and a pinch of salt and sugar). Eat your inari!

There’s also this neat sauce available at Trader Joe’s called Soy Vey, it’s this sort of Hawaiian soy sauce that involves pineapple and sesame seeds and is quite savory.

I find Kikkoman Lite to be the best soy sauce, but your mileage may vary.

(Sing along: Show me! Sho-yu! Kikkoman, Kikkoman!)

  • Mocchi balls in the freezer section.
  • Caravelle sweet chili sauce.
  • Sriracha hot chili sauce.
  • Someone mentioned balut - try it with steamed rice and whatever savory concoction you’re having the rice with, but keep in mind a little goes a long way. a VERY, VERY little goes a VERY, VERY long way. if your palate is unaccustomed to eastern cuisine, we’re talking microscopic amounts here to start off with.
  • Pick up some more mocchi balls, to make it up to your tastebuds after that whole balut thing.
  • Decent ramen and udon, the kind that comes with liquid packets and fresh ingredients. Stockpile this because you will want it for lunch for the next several weeks.
  • Choose some mysterious looking beverages at random - the less english on the bottle, the better.

Yes. The Vietnamese call those things “banh bao” (pron. bun bao), I believe. From memory, I think in Cantonese, it’s something like, “tai bun”, but I probably disremember now. They are yum material, too. I definitely can vouch for that. The are also in the “rip the plastic off and stick 'er in the microwave for a minute” easy snack category. And relatively inexpensive, healthy, and filling. Whack a bit of soy and chilli on top before you wolf it down.

Another really cool (and easy) snack is the sticky rice cakes which are especially popular around lunar new year. I prefer the pork-
centred savoury ones, but there are bean-based sweet ones too.
For the savoury ones, unwrap the banana leaves from it (this is a pain in the bum), and cut it into half-inch slices. Fry them until crisp on the outside in a hot pan. The usual chilli and soy on top, and tuck in.
R_S: Cilantro! Yep, that’s the word I was thinking of. Ta.

scablet, I’ve always had balut “neat”, if you like. In Vietnamese company, I’ll crack the top like a soft-boiled egg, and add some pepper and salt, then tuck in with a spoon. If I’m with Filippinos, I’ll tilt my head back, and “drink” the thing from the shell. I prefer the Vietnamese way, I think. Your method sounds interesting though. I haven’t tried it.

look here there is a book on the subject:D

i used to be too until i read the ingredients - the very first thing in it is lard…:eek: