25 August 2009

How to Buy Stuff at an Asian Grocer

The short answer is 1) pick it up 2) bring to cashier 3) give cashier money.

The longer, better answer:

1) Before you even begin shopping, check out all the Asian grocers in the area. They could be listed in the yellow pages under Asian, Oriental, Chinese, Hong Kong, Korean, Indian, Middle Eastern, or Japanese grocery/ goods. Obviously there are other Asian countries, but in my experience, these are the main sort of groceries you will find in the U.S. You can also go to chowhound or yelp (websites) and search for these same categories.

When you get to the stores, take a good inventory of what sort of foods are available and what sort of languages they seem to be in. If it's English, you're in luck, but usually foods will be labeled mostly in the mother tongue of the owner. For example, one of the Asian grocers near my house seems to label everything in Chinese. As I researched further, I noticed that most of the condiments, dried goods, and vegetables were of the Chinese or Vietnamese variety. This clearly was a good store at which to buy food for Chinese cooking, but not so much for Indian or Japanese.

If the store is Korean, there is a 95% chance that you will find many of the Japanese products you need there as well; Korean and Japanese cuisine share a lot of the same ingredients. The same goes for Indian and Pakistani foods. Most Middle Eastern cuisines share a lot of the same elements.

Figure out whether the people working at the store speak or understand English. If you speak their language, obviously you can ask them for all the help you need. Of course, they may not be interested in helping you.

2) When figuring out what to buy or not to buy, try to use cookbooks written by natives of the country whose cuisine you are attempting. This isn't absolutely essential, but if you go this route you will probably end up with the smallest and most useful collection of condiments and dried goods for the cuisine. For example, fusion American-Japanese cooking calls for all sorts of random ingredients I barely use again (while eating up valuable pantry space), but if I stick to a traditional Japanese cookbook, all that I am required to keep in stock is shoyu, mirin, sake, rice vinegar, miso, kombu, umeboshi, dried shiitake mushrooms, sesame seeds, and shichimi-togarashi. And I use them up.

3) Try not to buy the same brands available at your local supermarket unless you live in a heavily Asian-American area. Those supermarket brands are almost always lower in quality than the traditional stuff used in the native countries. For example, Kikkoman is everywhere and its soy sauce will do in a pinch, but almost any other brand at an Asian market will taste better (in my opinion).

4) Try to buy the lowest sodium version of whatever you are buying. Now that we enjoy the convenience of refrigeration, we don't need as much of the preserving power of salt that we used to. A lot of Asian countries' cuisines haven't yet adapted to this reality. Trust me, your food will still be plenty salty!

5) Arm yourself with both the native and English names of the food you want to buy. Also make sure you know what it looks like. If no one speaks English at the Asian grocer, it might be helpful the first few times to bring (color) pictures with you that you can point at. Thank goodness for the Internet! To try this out, just go to Google Images and type in "banana flower." Voìla!

6) If you want to get anywhere tasty, experiment with brands and new fresh foods, but not too much at once. Ask the people there (if they speak English) how they would cook such and such. Ask them how to store it as well. Or look that up online too.

7) Trust your instincts. If the unidentified fresh food looks wilted, don't buy it. If everything is caked with mold and grime, leave. If it seems too expensive, it probably is. If the baked goods don't look yummy, they won't be. There is one exception: if the people working there seem like idiots, there's a good chance that the language barrier is the problem, because they probably think you're an idiot too. And trust me, you're not. Would you read this blog if you were?

Don't answer that.


LizzieVelten said...

Hi Sarah! Miss you up here in New England. Glad to see you are getting back into blogging about food. I have been reading Julia Child's memoir, "My life in France" and I think you'd love it. I think you might have a similar cooking enthusiasm as her. I saw the movie last night too. Anyway, miss you!

Sarah said...

Hi Lizzie! That was a good movie. I miss you too. I'm excited about your dog though!

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