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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!)?

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  1. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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!

        1. "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

          4 Replies
          1. re: scubadoo97

            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.

            1. re: Kajikit

              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

              1. re: scubadoo97

                Yup, Kadoya all the way. But buy a small bottle to start, a little goes a long way.

                1. re: scubadoo97

                  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).

            2. 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
              Chili sauce
              Dried mushrooms
              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.

              1. You need to pick up a copy of "The Asian Grocery Store Demystified" by Linda Bladholm.

                It basically goes through the entire store and describes each item. She also did ones for Indian and Latino markets.

                3 Replies
                1. re: OnkleWillie

                  That sounds like a great book! I'd love to know what you're meant to do with '100% mung bean strips' and stuff like that.

                  1. re: Kajikit

                    I'd like to know too! Not too long ago, I helped a family use up a bag that has been sitting in their pantry for ages -- coloured red and green and cut like flat, crinkly fries -- by making the strips into a coconut milk-based Vietnamese-style dessert. I had no clue what I was doing!

                    1. re: Kajikit

                      Another suggestion is Bruce Cost's Asian Ingredients. The information presented in either of these books might not be earth shattering if you have intermediate to advanced knowledge on the cuisines; but they are extremely helpful if you are a beginner, or if it is the first time you are using a certain ingredient. I like Cost's version better because his descriptions are clear and sometimes accompanied with pictures. He even suggests reliable brands for some of the ingredients.

                  2. Well Asian is a very broad term, that's like asking what type of groceries you would buy if you plan to cook European food. It all depends on what specific cuisine you are after. Do you want to cook Korean, Japanese, Thai, Filipino, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Laotian, Cambodian? And let's not forget Chinese, which can be subdivided into numerous subsections - Szechaun, Hunan, Cantonese, Guandongese etc.

                    Broadly speaking, all Asian cultures have noodle dishes and dumplings in some shape or form. Soy sauce, chili, tofu and coconut milk is found in numerous Asian cuisines as well.

                    Maybe you could post some of the ingredients you saw that struck your curiousity and ask what cuisines use them and how?

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: SeoulQueen

                      Bingo. Asian is a Broad term.

                      The very first step is understanding what kind of store it is, who are they selling to and what are they carrying? The assumption that all Asian stores are the same is untrue.

                      In this area (Boston), there are many Japanese ingredients that are not carried by the SEAsian supermarket stores. Unfortunately, two Japanese grocery stores have shut down over the last couple of years, leaving only one Korean/Japanese place to sell Japanese specialty foods.

                      Once you know what cuisine they're selling, think of foods that you've had of that nationality, and that you've liked. If it's Vietnamese, perhaps you've enjoyed a bowl of pho. If Japanese, perhaps some thick Udon noodles in a broth, or a katsudon. Then look up those recipes on the net and go after those ingredients.

                      1. re: applehome

                        Okay... the name of the place was 'Hong Kong grocers' so I assume they were selling Chinese-style ingredients. They definitely didn't have Japanese stuff. I've shopped at Chinese grocers before (long ago) but they still had tons of stuff that I didn't begin to recognise.

                    2. rice noodles, cellophane noodles (bean thread noodles), coconut milk, mae ploy curry pastes, better varieties of instant noodles (ramen), thai fish sauce, tofu (firm/soft), inexpensive white/green/black teas.

                      1. The BEST way to figure out what to buy in an Asian market is with a cook book, not a list from people here. Or, if you don't want to buy a cookbook, there are a gazillion and a half Asian recipes on line, many of them in English. The problem with going at it backwards, which is what you seem to be doing from my perspective, is that you risk ending up with a bunch of stuff that just sits in the back of your refrigerator taking up room, or spends many years on your spice shelf turning to dust. For example, you won't get nearly the flavor from lemon grass powder as you will from fresh lemon grass, something many supermarkets carry these days. My local Walmart even stocks it. So in my opinion, you'll be doing yourself a great favor (and probably save some money) if you go shopping in your Asian market next time armed with a few recipes, then buy what you have a use for.

                        Good luck! You're starting a fun adventure .

                        1. What constitutes a "must buy" really depends on what YOU like to eat, and what YOU intend to cook.

                          For example, if you don't like spicy food, then Chinese peppercorns are not a "must buy".

                          Or, if you enjoy sweet and pungent flavors, then I would say hoisin or oyster sauces would be "must buys".

                          Really, it just depends ...

                          1. I know your post was aimed at exotic ingredients not easily found in American supermarkets, but larger Asian markets like 99 Ranch also have much better pork and seafood selections than a regular supermarket and at much cheaper prices.

                            1. Fresh galangal (for tom ka gai soup, it's a type of giinger) or frozen, fresh lemongrass, fresh (or frozen) kaffir lime leaves (for Thai curries etc.), frozen coconut milk or coconut.

                              1. My daily grocery is an "Asian" store which offers an odd combination of Greek, Portuguese and Thai ingredients with some other Southeastern Asian foodstuffs thrown in. I don't get much Korean or Japanese ingredients, but I get fantastic Thai curry pastes in a can (Maesri brand), coconut milk, herbs, vegetables rice and protein to prepare cheap weekday dinners that are usually tastier than most takeout. The store is a good source for animal protein and while this is not grass fed organic meat, I find it much higher quality than the one sold at the local conglomerate grocery (especially poultry and pork). Some other Asian stores that are further away have reportedly the freshest fish supply in town (mine doesn't sell fresh fish, only frozen). The greens are usually much better and cheaper than the bigger grocery stores as well (not to mention, greater variety), and I can get fresh herbs for 80 cents a bunch so that I don't feel too sad when I discover a half bunch of forgotten mint in the fridge. So even if you don't cook "Asian" food, you can still shop there for more mundane ingredients. Slowly you can incorporate new recipes and new ingredients.

                                Fruit is hit or miss, but I can say that the mangoes and papayas are much cheaper (and usually better ripened) than regular grocery stores. They also get those little tiny mandarin oranges that I absolutely adore around the Chinese New Year.

                                I like to buy random things once in a while. But that is the beauty of it, and sometimes you learn to cook new things through impulse purchases. Just last week, I decided to try "basil seed drink", something my friend labeled as "tadpole tea". As freaky as it looked, I loved it; but not all endings are happy endings.

                                Perhaps my biggest recent discovery is getting the frozen shredded lemongrass sold in a tub. For me, it just tastes better than the stalks.

                                I also love the frozen fish (especially cheap sardines), but you must know that some of the species are frozen without any butchering. So you'll have to do the dirty deed once they are defrosted.

                                Lastly: candies (corn, coffee, mango, green tea, ginger), japanese cookies, ice cream and confectionary, and beef jerky (if you don't mind your jerky on the sweet side)

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: emerilcantcook

                                  I really liked the frozen shredded lemongrass I bought. I recently bought The Ultimate Thai and Asian cookbook which has a great explanation of ingredients (with colored photos) at the beginning of the book. I researched the recipes I wanted to try soon so I could make a shopping list of things I didn't have already: Thai chilis, fresh kaffir lime leaves, coconut milk powder, etc. I'm still puzzled by the assortment of soy sauces so now I have dark soy, light soy, sweet soy, etc. I also bought some palm sugar and tamarind paste. Thai tea so I could make Iced Thai tea. Several sizes of coconut milk. Vaccum packed shredded bamboo shoots. Green curry paste. I also like the small cans of Maesri curry pastes, with Massaman being our favorite. I already had a variety of products that have been posted. I like to have a variety of noodles. Recently bought some shredded dried black mushrooms which I liked. I use a lot of oyster and hoisin sauces now because I've found some recipes I like to make again and again. Fresh produce and herbs are usually a lot cheaper in the Asian markets, esp baby bok choy. My husband likes a sesame candy with peanuts that we can't always find so I buy several packages when we can get it. Dried herbs and spices are also much cheaper. I, too, bought lemongrass powder before I found the frozen tub. Haven't used the dried baby shrimp yet and I need to find more recipes that use shrimp paste.
                                  On my last trip I visited a small shop that I'd never been to before. It was quiet and the owner was very helpful but I also like to go to the large market on Saturday mornings when they have fresh prepared food delivered. Some of the other shoppers have been helpful but in general, busy Saturday mornings aren't a good time to ask questions.

                                2. Pickles & chutnies
                                  Breads & pappadums

                                  1. rice
                                    rice wine and vinegar
                                    fish sauce
                                    frozen pot stickers
                                    dried noodles
                                    dried mushrooms
                                    tamarind paste
                                    fresh fruits and veggies
                                    lemon grass
                                    dried shrimp
                                    char sui
                                    dried sausage

                                    I always buy a few pastries.