Last weekend, Beloved Husband and I decided we needed to take a trip to our local Large Asian Supermarket. The one closest to us is an H-Mart, a chain with stores mostly on both coasts, but a few scattered here and there across the midlands.
I love shopping at Asian supermarkets for a number of reasons. For starters, they have great produce. Stuff you can’t find anywhere else: lychees and weird squashes and things you’re not even sure what they are. And fresh herbs in good-sized bundles, rather than the anemic plastic packages found inWestern supermarkets. Varieties you’ve never seen before, like five different kinds of eggplant. FIVE. Most local markets only have pathetic examples of the common type at best. And even the “normal” stuff–apples, oranges, potatoes–looks better and fresher than what you find in the American chains.
Then there’s the seafood. Fresh fish in types you might never even have heard of. Ginormous shrimps–for $6.99/lb. Sashimi-grade fish. Even eel. You might find some of those things at the overpriced specialty markets, but at much higher prices.
We actually went in looking for some key ingredients. We’d found a recipe for hot and sour soup that called for Chinese Black Vinegar. Finding it–amid rows and end-caps of bottles mostly labeled in languages we can’t read–proved to be something of a treasure hunt, but in the end, we emerged victorious. And with a few other interesting-looking sauces in hand as well.
This time out, we also learned that going into H-Mart on a Sunday is a bit like going into Costco on a weekend. All across the back of the store, tasting stations tempted us into trying things like rice cake, seaweed salad, and fish cake (the latter two of which I brought home with me).
Another thing most Asian markets stock in glorious profusion are frozen dumplings and stuffed buns of just about any kind you can imagine. We keep saying that one of these days we’re going to go raid the place, then come home and have a huge dim-sum party. I’ll need to pick up a few more steamer baskets before then, though.
Speaking of which, Asian markets are also great places to look for cooking equipment and serving dishes. They’ve got rice bowls and chop sticks and woks and steamer baskets and…well, you get the idea. And the prices are usually quite reasonable.
Perhaps the thing that amuses us the most, though, is that H-Mart (unlike some of the other Asian markets) has aisles set aside for foods from other ethnic cuisines. So they have an Indian section, and a Middle Eastern section, and a Hispanic section, and yes, even an American section. And while selection within those sections isn’t very deep–they have one brand of canned hummus, for example–it’s very broad. So you can find things there that you might not even find at an ethnic market specific to that cuisine. I was amused to fine decaffeinated Lady Gray tea, something I’d been seeking, in their “British” section, and some verjuice (juice made from unripened grapes, often called for in medieval and Renaissance recipes) in their American section.
So far, all I’ve made using what we brought home from our expedition was a salad of bean thread noodles. I’m not thrilled with how it came out, though, so I’m going to tweak the recipe some more before I share it. However, plans for supper tonight include making that batch of hot and sour soup, along with steaming some pork buns and maybe making some pork shu-mai. I’ll let you know how it goes.
What other experiences have people had shopping at ethnic markets? Any exceptionally good (or even bad) ones?
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