The small grocery store where I shop is a typical mom-and-pop Asian grocery. Once inside, you are in another land, surrounded with exotic looking provisions, colorful wrappers and labels, mysterious smells of incense, musty medicinal herbs, pungent dried fish, mysterious citrus, cooked curry, and tinkling sounds of tea cups in a tiny kitchen area in the rear. But you need no passport or visa to enter this place!
The store’s owners are Mr. and Mrs. Lin. The Lins are Thais of Chinese descent who arrived from Bangkok long before I had moved to the neighborhood. I can’t imagine it without them and I consider them my extended family. They suggested, many years ago, that I filter my water at home for my health, they shared with me the WaterSoftenerGuide and they were so right, so much wisdom.
Mr. Lin, “Sam” (Americanized from his Thai name Samorn), his wife Arun (Dawn), 12-year-old daughter Noi and 14-year-old son Tim form the nucleus of the grocery. The family is hardworking but each member always takes time to chat with customers. Mr. Lin opens early each morning, hosing down the front sidewalk and helping unload crates of produce or iced fish from delivery trucks. He is in his midfifties with a receding hairline, big wide-toothed grin, and gentle demeanor. When I practice my Thai with him, his dark eyes light up in encouragement, but his English is perfect. Mrs. Lin, wearing an apron, her salt-and-pepper tresses up in a twisted french bun, puts on a tea kettle and busies herself in the tiny kitchen in back of the store. She is petite and very graceful, having studied classical Thai dance at the Royal Dance School of Bangkok. She is like a mother to me, and brings homemade chicken, ginger, and garlic soup when I’m ill. She cooks a selection of daily specials and barbecues tier delicious ribs and other treats. The red-glazed strips of pork, rib slabs, and mahogany ducks dangling on metal hooks above the tiny deli counter are testimonials to her culinary skills. This deli counter is wedged between a fish tank and a refrigerator case. In the aquarium swims pomfret, carp, and sea bass. Customers choose a fish and Mrs. Lin hops it on the head with her cleaver, cleans and guts it, and then wraps it in paper, often with a cooking suggestion. The Lin kids help out after school and on weekends.
Upon entering the store, you face five jam-packed aisles running the length of the grocery, with numbered paper markers strung above each one. Pegboards are at the front of the center aisles with snacks in plastic bags hanging on hooks. Little wrinkled preserved plums, dried sweet mango, peaches, and ginger beckon next to packets of red and black dried watermelon seeds, spiced almonds, beef, pork, fish and squid floss, candies, rice crackers and dried honey olives, green peas and tamari flavored potato chips. Crates of fruit-Asian pear apples, green papaya, and starfruit, nestled in tissue and cardboard trays-are on the floor below the snack foods. A tangerine pyramid is piled in front of shelves 7 and 8, with a basket of pineapples below.
Rice bags dominate the front window with burlap 25-pounders stacked like sandbags against the pane. Across from those, on a shelf fronting shelves I and 2, are the smaller sacks of rice.
Open refrigerated produce bins are around the corner from the rice, along the east wall, or right side, of the store. The bins are divided into dozens of compartments, each one filled with fresh, lightly water-spritzed vegetable greens and herbs. Included are jade green bok choy, mustard cabbage, water spinach, flowering mustard and chilies, coriander, pale Chinese chives, and mint leaves. Further down the case are shin lavender and tiny pea eggplants, giant daikon radish, long beans tied in loose knots and, in plastic sieves, pea shoot tendrils, water chestnuts in papery brown skins, whole bamboo shoots and sausage-like lotus roots. Beansprouts are in a large plastic tub with tongs nearby to put them in smaller plastic bags pulled off of a roll.
After the produce bins, stretching to the back of the store (the north wall), is a freezer case. Pull open the top and look down into a swirl of water vapor to find whole or chunks of frozen fish, pig brains, ears, and tails, shrimp and fish paste balls, tubs of tiny rice paddy crabs, ducks, salmon and flying fish roe, boxes of squid, bags of wonton noodles, and all sorts of wrappers. There are also packaged frozen dumplings, siu mai, pork buns, and egg rolls to reheat and serve at home. Half of the back wall is lined with floor-to-ceiling glass refrigerator cases fitted with metal shelf racks. Doors swing open from each case letting out a blast of frosty air. The racks are full of everything from kim chee and sour bamboo pickles, Chinese sausage links, preserved duck eggs, styrofoam containers of fermented soybeans, miso paste, and tubs of tofu to bags of fresh egg or rice noodles, spicy boiled chicken feet in aspic-filled pouches, cans of coconut water, sugarcane soda, soybean milk, and coffee. You will also find Japanese fish paste cakes, smoked pressed geese, spring and egg roll wrappers, fried beancurd puffs and lotus or red bean paste-filled mooncakes wrapped in plastic.You can’t miss the selection of imported Asian beer: Singha from Thailand, Tsing Tao from China, Bintang brewed in Indonesia, or Tiger brand from Singapore.
The refrigerator cases end midway across the back wall. There you find the tiny take-out counter where Mrs. Lin prepares her specials. A one-wok mini kitchen that resembles a mobile hawker’s cart from the streets of Bangkok is just behind the counter. Cooked food is displayed behind glass in metal steam pans. On a given day there could be green curry pork, chicken in red coconut curry, or fried catfish with a side of green papaya salad, but her popular pad thai noodles (see a recipe in the appendix) are always on the menu. While you wait for your order, you can watch fish glide around in the tank sandwiched between the deli counter and a narrow row of shelves. This nook is stocked with jumbo-sized plastic containers of pork floss. On the lower shelf space are foil packets of “instant” prepared jellyfish.
Long shelves run almost the length of the grocery, toward the front counter. They are packed with household merchandise: dishes, teacups, pots, pans, woks, dome lids, rice cookers, cleaning brushes, knives, bamboo steamers, mesh noodle strainers, bundles of chopsticks, balls of cotton string, multicolored plastic sieves, and bathroom slippers. There are also bamboo skewers for satay, mats for rolling sushi, wooden tongs, soup dippers, clay stew pots, Mongolian fire pots for soup, stone mortar-and-pestles and chopping boards that resemble round slices of tree trunks. At one end are small, red, tin family altars, wired to light up when plugged in. Stacks of paper money, incense coils, joss sticks, and candles are here, too, to be burnt or lit as offerings in Asian homes to appease any upset spirits, placate kitchen gods, or honor deceased ancestors.
The Lin’s family altar glows with red electric lights in an alcove above the front counter, on the left side of the store. A plump orange or a sprig of blossoms is placed there daily when the Lins open for business. They pause at the altar, clasp their hands in prayer and burn a stick of sweet incense, which sends a curl of smoke into the air. They have a cup of tea and their day begins.
Behind the counter are shelves filled with vials of herbal pills, medicines, ointments, balms, creams, and face powders. With her satin smooth complexion, Mrs. Lin has me convinced that Pearl Cream is the answer to beautiful skin. Have a headache? Mr. Lin will sell you a paper packet with a picture of an elongated man’s head on it, filled with aspirin powder. For general good health he suggests Bao ji wan pills, sold in little capsules, ten to a box. “All natural herbs and roots, can’t hurt!” he adds. Next to the cash register is a carton of tiny glass “poppers” of ginseng extract that Mr. Lin urges tired customers to take for an energy rush. And there is a cup filled with miniature silver ear picks, a sort of Asian impulse item. You can also spring for a pack of licorice or ginseng chewing gum. Near the register is an antique set of scales used to weigh produce, chopped barbecue meats, and pickles from earthenware crocks. On top of the counter, in a glass steamer box, pork char siu bao and red bean paste-filled buns keep warm. Below are plastic wrapped styrofoam trays of chow fun (sheets of oiled pliant rice pasta). On the floor you will see a basket full of jiggling live crabs and a crate of shrimp packed in ice chips.
Now let’s tour the aisles and check out the contents of each shelf.
Shelf one – Spices
Just opposite the produce and freezer cases is shelf 1. Salty flavorings lead off: bottles of soy sauces, fish sauce, teriyaki marinade, oyster sauce, noodle dipping sauces, jars of hoi-sin, and salted yellow and black bean sauce. Next is a section of squat jars and ceramic crocks of red and white fermented beancurd. About mid-aisle are slender bottles of pale golden rice vinegar and black vinegar, sweet cooking wine, and Chinese wine, which is similar to sherry. This is followed by a section of tart and sweet-sour flavorings: tamarind concentrate in jars or bricks of pulp, plum, duck, and sweet-and-sour sauce, even a tangy Thai dipping sauce for fruit.
If you are a chili addict, you won’t be able to resist the next section: hot and spicy flavoring ingredients that add tongue-tingling heat to recipes. There are big fat jars of pickled ground chili peppers, ketchup shaped bottles of hot banana sauce and sambal seafood sauce, siracha, sambal olek, and chili powders and pastes in tubs or jars. Moving along, at the end of the aisle are cooking and flavoring oils. For deep-frying and cooking choose peanut or corn oil. Add the sesame and chili oils for flavoring. Now you are at the end of the row. Turn the corner and slowly stroll up aisles 2 and 3.
Shelf two – Pickles and preserves
Here you’ll find pickled and preserved goods. Cans and jars will be on the upper shelves, with brine-filled plastic pouches of “wet”-pack pickles and “dry”-pack salt-preserved ones on the lower shelves. Take your pick from mustard cabbage greens, radish in strips or shreds, turnips, tiny hot chilies in vinegar, sour spicy bamboo shoots, green mango pickle slices, or ping-pong ball-sized Thai eggplants – all used as seasoning ingredients or as condiments. You’ll notice a pungent spicy aroma coming from a large crock on the floor. It’s Sichuan preserved vegetable. At the end of this aisle are jars of pale purple fish paste and potent smelling dried fish paste cakes wrapped in paper. This is called belacan, and the overpowering rotten odor dissipates after roasting or cooking.
Shelf three – Dried goods
Enticing odors waft down this aisle: the spicy scent of curry powder, black and white pepper, and coriander seed mingles with fragrant star anise, cinnamon bark, dried citrus peel, and lime leaves. We are in the dried goods area of the grocery, and beyond the spices are dried seeds, nuts, berries, beans, sheets and rolls of beancurd skin, chilies, and mushrooms-both the little shriveled cloud ear fungus arid the black Chinese sort. Don’t overlook the dried spongy looking pulp of the inside of bamboo stalks or plastic containers of fried red onions and shallots. Dried seafood products fill a large section and are important flavoring ingredients in Asian cuisine, adding an intense dimension of richness. Fancy whole or sliced abalone in expensive boxes are on the top shelves. Middle and lower ones are filled with bags of shriveled oysters, scallops, salt encrusted sheets of jellyfish, squid, fish slabs, and sun dried silvery anchovies.
Keep an eye out for the dried shrimp that look like pinkishorange crustacean fossils. The jars of pink sawdust are shrimp flakes and the dark reddish substance nearby is dried shrimp roe, both used as garnishes. The rest of the shelf space is filled with sweeteners and sugars. You’ll find tumbler glasses of golden Chinese honey, some lycheescented honey, and fat tubs of liquid amber maltose sugar. Yellow lump sugar crystals, used in savory slow-cooked dishes as well as in sweet ones, will be in bags or boxes. That large layered “toffee candy” is actually brown slab sugar made of compressed layers of two sugars and honey. At the very end of the row are jugs of semi-soft creamy-tan palm sugar and cylinders of dark coconut sugar.
Shelves four and five – Noodles
On the right are oodles of noodles stretching almost to the end of the aisle. They are grouped on the shelves by content. Rice stick noodles, vermicelli, and flat round packages of rice papers fill one section. Next are wheat flour-and-egg noodles. In another section are cellophane and Korean yam and mung bean starch thread noodles. And yet another has Japanese buckwheat soba, somen, and udon noodles. The whole upper shelf is stacked with ramen and instant soup noodles.
Fast food – powders and mixes
In the last section you’ll find convenience packs of powdered mix for soups, noodle sauces, marinades, satay seasoning, Chinese roast duck and barbecue spices, and much more. The most popular brand stocked in the Lin’s grocery is Asian Home Gourmet from Singapore. Available mixes range from Thai tom yam soup, Cantonese fried rice, and Indonesian tamarind fish to Indian briyani rice, herbal spare rib, and coconut curry noodle. You’ll also find bouillon cubes and powdered soup stocks, Vietnamese beef noodle broth mix in cube and powder form, jars of instant Thai coconut ginger, and hot-sour seafood soup pastes and packets for Filipino guava soup. This section is your friend. Stock up on these time-saving mixes for authentic Asian meals in a flash.
Flours and exotica – Flours and starches
At the front section of shelf 5 are bags of flours and starches. These are used in making noodles, dumplings, and steamed cakes and as sauce binders and thickeners. Good old cornstarch is found here, in the familiar yellow-and-blue box and in bags of Asian brands. There is also wheat starch and flour, long-grain and glutinous rice flour, potato and water chestnut flours, mung bean starch, tapioca and sago starches and pearls. The little pellets of these root starches are also sold in pastel tints for use in puddings and desserts. You will find Japanese roasted soybean flour and cinnamon-colored Thai toasted rice powder.
Here too is where to find Vietnamese pancake powder for making rice flour crepes, boxes and small plastic bags of tempura batter mix and panko, to coat foods for deep-frying.
Where the various types of flour end, the truly exotic begins. For here are beautiful boxes of bird’s nests and sharksfin, both very pricey and almost tasteless but prized for their gelatinous texture – and as a symbol of luxury. Here’s where to find fish maw, the puffy dried air bladders of a deep-dwelling fish, also a textural delicacy, but without the high price tag. Then there are all those withered-looking leaves – dried lotus leaves, screwpine, or pandan, and so on. Lastly you’ll see bags of black “hair clippings.” This is fat choy, a dried black sea moss. And for more exotica such as blood pudding, duck feet, and devils tongue jelly check the refrigerator cases.
Shelves six and seven – Tea
Now we wend our way up shelves 6 and 7. On your left is a great wall of tea, stacked in boxes, tin canisters, and paper-wrapped blocks. All the main tea types are represented – blacks, slightly fermented oolongs, and greens – from Japan, China, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia. Browse here, too, for jasmine, chrysanthemum, or ginger teas, slimming beauty brews or healthy herbal ones. Here too are Chinese medicinal cooking herbs, including caterpillar fungus and ginseng. Mid-aisle are the teapots, metal and bamboo strainers, and little china cups for serving the brew.
Little Tokyo – Japanese samples
The other half of shelf 6 is “Little Tokyo” as the Lins call it. Here are found nonperishable Japanese products. Tubes and small cans of sinus-blasting green wasabi, an ocean of seaweed from black sheets of nori and strips of dark green wakame to stiff olive-green konbu and the black, twig-like hijiki. In this section is sansho and seven spice peppery powders in small shakers and hon-dashi instant soup base, packets of instant miso soup, sushi rice mix powder, and dried shavings of bonito fish. Sake, ponzu, and seasoned rice vinegar in glass bottles are here too, while Japanese pickles, salted umeboshi plums, sushi ginger, and fish paste products are over in the refrigerator cases.
Now turn around and face shelf 7. Shelf 7 is a mixed bag of items. First is a section of typical Asian hot beverage mixes. There are big green cans of Milo, Ovaltine, and other malt-based drinks, Thai spiced coffee, and Malaysian roasted coffee powder blended with dehydrated margarine. Then there are the unfamiliar drink powders: soybean cheese, almond, sesame and peanut soup pastes, and mango or strawberry dofu mix. These are all high-protein “health” drinks. In this area are almond and fruit flavor agar-agar dessert mixes, pudding, custard and gelatin powders, and tinted clear jellies in tiny plastic cups.
Snacks – Sweets and crackers
A snack section is tiiid-aisle.You will find toothsome curry and green onion pop pan crackers, tins of biscuits, soda crackers, cookie rolls that look like cigarettes, almond cakes, popped rice candy pieces made of puffed rice in a hardened sugar-honey syrup, sesame brittle, peanut cookies, and soft thin pancakes made of melted sugar and sesame seeds. Fancy some ginger? Choose from ginger bon-bons, red pickled ginger, and crystallized chunks. There’s also tamarind and prune chewy candy, date-walnut soft candy, sugar-coated almonds, Sichuan toasted honey glazed walnuts and sizzling rice crusts to deep-fry and drop into soup.
Japanese senbei fills another section of this shelf. They are toasted rice crackers in lots of sizes and shapes both savory and sweet; glazed with soy sauce, wrapped in seaweed, spiced, or sugar coated. Nearby you can pick out chocolate swizzle sticks and bags of puffy pink shrimp crackers or seaweed flavored potato chips. Other treats to discover are dried roasted coconut chips, crystallized pineapple, melon seeds, and papaya milk taffy The last section of this shelf has a row of tiny bottles of extracts used to flavor desserts and drinks: banana, rose, pandan, jasmine, and orange flower. Next to these are jars of syrup-preserved fruits, sugar palm seeds, and coconut gel balls and shreds. That jar of vivid purple puree is a sweet jam made from a Filipino purple yam. You’ll also find jars of sweet chick peas in syrup, chunks of yellow-orange jackftuit and a fruit mix labeled “halo-halo.” All of these are used in desserts or served over shaved ice.
Shelf 8 – Canned goods
Rounding the corner of shelf 8, the eye is greeted by a solid wall of rows of neatly stacked canned goods. Cans of fish and seafood are first: sardines in hot sauce, grass carp, clams, cockles, oysters, crabmeat, squid-in-ink, and grilled eel rolls. You will also find canned vegetable items including pickled lettuce and cucumber, bamboo shoots, baby corn, water chestnuts, and straw mushrooms. These are handy to store in your pantry for throwing together fast meals, and will keep almost indefinitely. More canned items to consider are tiny boiled quail eggs, ginkgo nuts, lotus seeds, and mock meats made of fried, boiled, and braised wheat gluten. Unusual canned things you will see are Ai-yu jelly, banana flower buds, green jackfruit, and kaya, a coconut and egg jam. Cans of coconut milk fill the next section, an essential and convenient item you should stock up on for adding flavor and creaminess to spicy soups and curries as well as desserts. Keep on hand for instant dessert some of the many tropical fruits in stock: lychees, longans, rambutan, soursop, small red bananas, pineapple, and mandarin orange segments.
At the end of the last aisle, you are now back at the front counter.
Taken from Linda Bladholm’s book “The Asian Grocery Store Demystified” with permission. © Linda Bladholm. Published by Renaissance Books. ISBN 1-58063-045-6.