What are 'must buys' for an Asian grocers?
I finally persuaded DH to take me to the Asian Grocers today... I had a lovely half-hour or so browsing and I bought some bits and pieces like lemongrass powder and galangal powder and sweet chilli sauce (yum!) and dessicated coconut so now I can make a coconut slice again. But half the stuff in the store is unrecognisable to me and I don't even know what it IS let alone how to cook it. What hidden gems should I look out for next time I go back (which will be soon!)?
Japanese: wakami (seaweed), nori (seaweed sheets), tins of smoked or roasted eel, Fukujinzuke (canned pickled vegetables), ume (salted "plums"), gari (pickled ginger), yellow pickled diakon in shrink wrap packages (pickles go alongside of hot rice and green tea), dried shiitake mushrooms (many uses), aburage (fried tofu skins to make inarizushi). canned bamboo shoots and water chestnuts (for traditional Japanese dishes or for stir frys), shoyu (soy sauce), rice wine vinegar, wasabi, fish cakes, Japanese rice from California, soba (buckwheat noodles), rice noodles, mung noodles, miso, tofu, mochi, yokan (dessert), arare (snack), green tea, tea cups, a Japanese mandolin and vegetable knife. On later trips you can start to get Japanese kitchenware as appropriate to what you start to prepare.
Chinese: fermented black beans, different gyoza and dumpling wrappers, frozen pot stickers, dried mushrooms and fungi, hoisin sauce, egg noodles, dark soya sauce, more pickled vegetables, a cleaver.
"Asian": rice paper wrappers (fresh lumpia is a fave), different noodles, tamarind paste, fish sauce - nam pla from Thailand, nuoc nam from Vietnam, patis from the Philippines), tiny dried fish, frozen coconut cream, … so much more.
For me, it's really the only place where champagne (alphonso?) mangoes are available at a decent price. Also, lots of Asian vegetables like yo-tsai (sp.?) that you can't even get at Wegmans.
Maggi Seasoning is cheaper there, so is soy sauce.
Sichuan pepper corns. Fresh fish....frozen dumplings. Tofu. Soy bean sauce for ma po tofu. Lots of stuff.
Oh, my! I feel the way you do..."what's this for?" "how do you use this in food?" Truly, I would love someone to take an hour and lead me through the Asian store I frequently visit to EXPLAIN the goods being offered....HOWEVER, I buy:
Squid brand fish sauce
Pearl River dark soy sauce
Fermented black beans
Hot Bean Sauce
Shaoxing rice wine
Egg roll wrappers
Various ramen (mostly for 25 yr old son..lol!)
KIMCHEE (love it!)
Oh, almost forgot my newest item there: Genmaitcha tea (green tea with toasted rice) which I discovered in San Fran visiting my son...love it!!! He sells a bag of loose genmaitcha for about $7.00...lovely!
I found it helpful to find a recipe I wanted to try and then go to this place and ask for ingredients (rather than just buy an item and then try to figure out how to use it--just not my style) ...the recipe that got me going was Ma Po Tofu..(you can buy tofu anywhere these days)...but the ingredients called for the hot bean paste and fermented black beans among other things, and you can't usually find those items at a supermarket. Have fun exploring!
"But half the stuff in the store is unrecognisable to me and I don't even know what it IS let alone how to cook it."
But that's half the fun. Don't be afraid to ask and think of how you could use a product. Look for products that you can't get in your grocery store or can buy at a better price than the megamart. There are lots of things mentioned in this thread but I'd be hard pressed to think of a must buy as I tend to buy a lot of things. Sam mentioned a lot of things I buy. Good fish sauce, tamarind paste or concentrate, good soy, mecap manis, good sesame oil, noodles, dried mushrooms, fresh lemongrass and oriental vegetables, Thai basil, beans, spices, dashi, bonito flakes, seaweeds....the list goes on
Question - how do you tell 'good' soy from bad? Ditto sesame oil... they had a whole ROW of different varieties/flavours/brands of soy sauce and I basically tossed a coin to pick one! I turned the bottle upsidedown to look for the sediment ring and checked that the label said 'naturally brewed' but they all look pretty much the same.
Why that's what CH is for. Do a search for best soy sauce and sesame oil. There are quite a variety of soy sauces. Different countries and regions make different styles of soy sauce. Again ask the person at the store. They may be able to provide some advise.
For sesame oil I'm partial to Kadoya Sesame Oil
Agree too, that Kadoya is one of the very best, although I've recently got a bottle from Taiwan which is not bad either.
As a self-proclaimed CHer, I do research, experiment and ask around to find a good soy sauce too, but am also guilty of getting straight to the priciest one, just to see if it's really superior (usually it is).
My shopping list:
Seaweed - various permutations (I use a lot of kombu)
Fresh water chestnuts - unbelievably sweet and crunchy (canned should be banned)
Fermented black beans - versatile (and often end up in a marinade or stirfry)
Shoyu - various types of light and dark
Red chili peppers
Tofu - so much fresherVarious greens
Wonton wrappers - soon to expire vegetables get a new life
Pickled and dried fruits
Agar agar - to add firmness to some sauces and desserts
Rice wine and vinegars
Rice and soba noodles
Rice and other flours
I usually buy something I've never seen before (a grab bag approach) and then try to find a use for it - both traditional and in my daily cooking (use the ingredient for a week in various ways - sort of like a word for the week approach).
But to Val's comment, I wish there was a tour guide - I'd pay for some translations.