What to buy at the Asian grocery

20 Apr

I love Asian grocery stores, but for the longest time I just wandered around confused, not knowing what to buy. The staff are always competent and professional, but between the language barrier and my general shyness (no, really), I’d come home with a bit of this and a bit of that, some of which was awesome and was gobbled right up, some of which was terrible and ended up in the cupboard for six months before hitting the bin. Here are some tips and some ideas of things you might like to try, if you’re an Asian grocery newbie.


Today’s grocery is Taste the Orient, located here in Leeds on Vicar Lane. I tried to get some photos inside, but I was told NO PICTURES. If you haven’t been, it’s not the tiny, crowded, confusing place you might expect. It’s very modern and bright with a red-and-black colour scheme. If you want tiny and crowded, you can head right across the street next to the Edward Street carpark where you will find the Wing Lee Hong Co. It is owned by the same people and carries many of the same products, maybe with more of an emphasis on catering sizes of Asian culinary staples, herbal and medicinal products, and Asian holiday decorations. They also have some gorgeous posters of old Chinese (I think – please someone correct me if I am wrong! ) cigarette ads with beautiful, traditionally-dressed ladies, which would probably look excellent over the mantel. I usually hit both stores when I am Asian marketing, but I stuck with Taste the Orient this time.
So here’s some Japanese crispy seaweed (though it is actually made in Korea, according to the back of the package). See how it has been opened? That’s because I ate more than half of it before I got home. This stuff is ADDICTIVE. It is as delicious as pork crackling, no lie. The nutrition information claims that the whole big package only contains 140 calories, but I don’t actually believe it. One, it’s too delicious, and two, it’s fried in palm oil and leaves a greasy mark when you lay it on a piece of paper. Still, this stuff is  amazing. The packaging suggests adding it to salads and sandwiches, which I might try if I could keep from eating it all in one sitting.

Here we have ponzu – a vinegar and citrus based sauce that can be mixed with soy sauce and used for dipping sashimi or dumplings aka gyoza. It’s great in salad dressings , too.
To your right are three varieties of instant soup, two miso and one ‘clear japanese broth’. Each envelope contains three soup sachets, so that’s nine here total. I have them at work instead of tea or coffee, sometimes. If you are the dieting type, all of these soups are really savoury and satisfying and only have about 10 calories per cup (but, like most everything on this page, they are very high in sodium). I especially like the miso soup with seaweed – it’s amazing how the tiny black pellets unfurl into tender, bright green leaves in the boiling water.

Remember my recent breakfast of udon noodles with kim-chi and a fried egg? These are the noodles responsible for that. You find them in single-serving packs in the refrigerated section. If you are using them in soup, give them three minutes to simmer before serving. If you are stir-frying them (Yaki Udon, anyone?), they can go straight in the pan, again, soon enough that they can cook for 3-4 minutes before they hit your plate.
This is a container of miso paste. It makes a great salad dressing mixed with lemon, ginger and oil. It’s nice spread thinly on salmon or chicken before baking or grilling. I wouldn’t buy this brand again, though – too sweet. I admit to being swayed by the super-cute packaging. My favourite brand is Korean, and comes in a tan-coloured plastic rectangular tub about twice as big as this one, but I couldn’t find it this time. I hope they haven’t decided not to sell it any more.

Next up? Brown rice tea. Sounds disgusting, tastes really nice and toasty and comforting, but completely unlike Horlick’s if that’s what toasty and comforting brings to mind for you. It’s kind of hard to describe – it kind of smells like popcorn. I drink this all the time at work.

This is furikake. It’s a seasoning made mainly of seaweed flakes, sugar, and sesame seeds. There are tons of different varieties which include things like dry salmon flakes, shiso, miso, etc. This stuff makes plain leftover rice into a new and exciting meal. Kids love it, apparently, because there are tons of versions in little envelopes with cartoon characters. There is even a Hello Kitty variety. I assume it doesn’t contain dried kitties. I use this stuff to season the rice when I make onigiri and sometimes I just sprinkle it on any old thing that’s tasting a bit boring. Tomato soup? Tuna Mayo? Ham sandwich? All good candidates for the furikake treatment.

Now this is a staple – panko bread crumbs. They are extremely light and delicately crispy and are perfect for any breading situation, Japanese or not. Have you ever had Chicken Katsu curry? It’s my go-to dish when I end up at Wagamama – it’s a breaded chicken fillet served with sticky rice and a Japanese style curry sauce. Panko is essential for breading the chicken if you want to make it at home. As for the sauce, you’ll need some curry roux, which you will find, along with the short-grain sticky Japanese rice, near the panko. I almost always grab a few packs of curry roux, but I think I want to try making it from scratch next time. The pre-made versions are perfectly nice, but they are full of sodium and hydrogenated oils, and with all the pig fat and salt I eat I need to cut corners where I can.
I tried something new today – mustard green kim-chi. I’ve only ever had the  cabbage variety, but this is pretty awesome. The mustard leaves are looooong and slimy and spicy and delicious. This came in a big packet, which I mistakenly thought was resealable. I need to get a couple of zipper storage bags to put this in because it is pretty (deliciously) smelly and it might take over the fridge before I’m done with it.
And, finally, my favourite asian vegetable – Pak Choi, Back Choy,  whatever you call it, it is awesome. Raw or cooked, in a salad, in a stir fry, and especially in cold rice noodle soup with soy, ponzu, red chili powder, sesame oil, sesame seeds, and spring onion. My reward for a hard day of Asian grocery shopping. Sorry for the mismatched chopsticks, I was in a hurry.
So that’s my guide to some things that are nice at the Asian grocery. What  do you pick up when you’re there?

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3 Responses to “What to buy at the Asian grocery”

  1. Zsu May 2, 2010 at 1:29 pm #

    Oooo, I'll defo try the miso paste on chicken! Good call.

  2. Zsu May 2, 2010 at 1:33 pm #

    Oh yes… what do we buy? I like disgusting desserts, so I get those glutinous rice balls filled with peanuts/sesame/bean curd. When I first bought them I thought that they were savoury and dunked them in light soy sauce, and now that I know that they are sweet… I still dunk them in soy sauce, because I'm a weirdo. I just love the gross slimy texture!

  3. Leigh May 11, 2010 at 5:58 pm #

    I too like pottering around in Asian Markets- it's like all the food is from the future!

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