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shopping for ingredients in chinatown

i live quite close to the chinatown in brooklyn and have spent many weekend days browsing at the many supermarkets in chinatown... although i'm intrigued by all the different foods i see in the stores (especially all the different green vegetables), i don't know how to cook with any of these... it would help if i could even identify what they are in english so i can look up recipes online, but all the signs are in chinese. i'd really like to cook more than bok choy and eggplant (two things i can easily recognize) -- so please let me know if there are any chinatown favorite ingredients/produce that you've found and the best way to prepare them! i'm open to suggestions on all products that can be found in these markets - produce, meats, sauces, dried foods, seafood,... please try to describe the items fully if you don't have an image to append. thank you for your help!

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  1. I agree that the variety of pretty greens just call out to the shopper. Rather than getting all worried about the names (which can vary widely), there are two basic methods. Buy a bunch of something gorgeous with just budding flowers maybe, divide in half and try it 2 ways. First saute in a little oil with garlic and a splash of oyster sauce or soy and maybe a few slices of ginger. Taste as you cook and stop saute/stir-fry when you like the texture. Eat with rice. Second, simmer chopped in good sized pieces in a nice chicken or beef stock along with cubes or slices of protein or tofu. Add noodles of any type separately cooked (otherwise they cloud your soup and add their floury taste to the broth) Be playful. In my experience if I ask a fellow shopper these are the replies I invariably get "good for soup, and "good for stir-fry".

    1 Reply
    1. re: torty

      sometimes the clerk will ask - "you know how to make this?" take it as an opportunity to say "yeah I think, but how would you?" or "I'm learning - any suggestions?"

    2. I've got to ask. Along the same lines...I've seen dried lizards in Vancouver BC's Chinatown. They were literally on a stick. Does anyone know how those are used?

      1 Reply
      1. re: Vetter

        They're used in Chinese medicine. Not the tastiest things out there.

      2. basically if they are green and leafy you can chop them up into small pieces and stir fry them with garlic and ginger .. like choy sum, baby bok choy, shanghai cabbage ... water spinach etc... If you see fuzzy melon (it's oblong and covered with fuzz.. hence the name) you can use that in soup.. bitter melon is oblong too and has ridges. You can stir fry that with black bean sauce and some meat.

        1. My suggestion is to buy a Chinese=English cookbook. My cookbook has a description and explanation of all the products. The place where I purchase the Chinese products here in Connecticut the owner speaks English and is very helpful.So I do not have any problem.

          1 Reply
          1. re: classylady

            Do you know of an online reference for this Chinese/Cantonese/Szechuan = English website ?

          2. There is an excellent book for you: "Asian Ingredients: A Guide to the Foodstuffs of China, Japan, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam" by Bruce Cost.

            Years ago I used the first edition of this book just to learn my way around the produce at my local Chinese grocery. If I saw a vegetable new to me, I would buy about a pound of it, bring it home, and look it up.

            Often, Cost gives a recipe for the vegetable. Other times, I would simply go to another cookbook, armed with the knowledge of the vegetable's name.

            I also have an out-of-print book by Martha Dahlen which is even better for vegetables. There are more than one book listed for her and I don't remember which one I have (I am at work now.)

            Of course, if you can get tips from the people at the market, you are way ahead. Not only are there several ways to us most vegetables, you can find out about seasonality and local availability.

            BB

            1 Reply
            1. re: Big Bunny

              not a produce suggestion, but i'm on a huge summer baby octopus salad kick, and go to chinatown to find my little octopi.

            2. thank you for all the suggestions -- the stir-fry/soup recipes are simple and universally applicable -- i am looking forward to coming home with armfuls of greens this weekend. i will also definitely look up the books to try to be more knowledgeable about the ingredients. i guess if it's green, it'll be good for me so i should be afraid to try it!

              the seafood is a bit more of a problem -- is there a general, simple chinese recipe that would work as a test recipe for any of the fishes i can find at the market? i know what to do with all the shellfish i see, but the wide variety of whole fish at these markets are a bit daunting...

              thanks again!

              2 Replies
              1. re: nyc_cravings

                for any fish you can steam it whole. Take your fish and add lots of finely shredded ginger on top of it and in the cavity. Steam till done, drain off the accumulated liquid in the dish, and top with finely shredded scallions. Pour on soy sauce and a little smoking hot oil and you're in business.

                1. re: bw2082

                  This is my favorite way to eat fish, hands down -- no idea why more Western restaurants don't do it. I once ordered a whole-fish special at an upscale, New American kind of place, and the server asked twice whether it would be okay to present it whole. I never see the appeal in filets...but, most Chinese places will filet it for you if you ask.