I stumbled across a posting for an Asian Supermarket Tour on twitter and was intrigued. I’ve been venturing out (read: driving further) to try out different ethnic markets – but the ones I had been to were a hodge podge of multiple cultures – not hardcore on just one. When I saw the tour led by Natalie Keng aka the Chinese Southern Belle I knew I needed to sign up.
I posted on facebook seeking a pal to join me, and thankfully my friend Jenny was up to the adventure.
I only assumed we’d be visiting Buford Highway Farmer’s Market (store name was only revealed upon tour purchase). WRONG! We were going in deep… nothing I was familiar with… to the HONG KONG MARKET on Jimmy Carter Blvd.
The experience was immediately freaky – I am NOT making this up… there were security guards walking around the parking lot and it was a cold day – but they were African-American guys with black skull caps, black face masks and head to toe black clothes and I thought: NINJAS! I have never ever ever seen police/security dressed like this AND I SEE IT HERE? Already more interesting that my regular Saturday AM. I didn’t snap a pic because I felt like a creep taking a pic of the ninja cops. Now I wish I had one.
So, I’m the jerkface who arrives to the tour with her own cup of coffee. Hey, I didn’t know we’d immediately be offered a warm welcome of barley tea. So, I missed sampling that because I’m no good at managing four square check ins, registration forms and TWO beverages.
Right off the bat, I feel like I’m in the way. We’re gathered near the front entrance and no matter where I shift my body/purse/etc. I’m in someone’s way. This unnerved me at first, but then it was pretty much how I felt for the next three hours – so it became a more familiar feeling. I’m sharing with you so you can “let it go” when you walk in the door.
Here’s what I learned on my tour (well, what I took notes on):
- Wearing non-skid shoes is SUPER important. Luckily I was told this before the tour and now I’m telling you.
- Chinese Pomelo tastes like a less delicious grapefruit – skip it.
- Jackfruit is one of the world’s heaviest fruits. It’s one of those BIG brown spiky ones (don’t confuse it with the little brown Durian one – that smells like a sewer and if you open it you’ll have to basically call a hazmat crew to clean your house). Hong Kong Super Market had cut up pieces of Jackfruit available (as well as whole) for purchase – think like the cut up watermelon at Publix. To find a ripe one, look for the more yellow exterior. You eat the yellow fleshy part inside and it was described as being a cross between a pineapple and a banana. I agree – but I detest bananas and actually enjoyed jackfruit – so go figure. I also am super into the show “Duck Dynasty” and wanted to keep doing “hey Jack” to people around it – but as I mentioned, I already felt in the way no matter what I did so I kept that hilarity to myself.
- There are a lot of different variations of more familiar items in the produce section.
- Preserved plum powder is frequently sprinkled on fruit.
- Mangosteen is the hot new fruit. I had never had before not in a smoothie and enjoyed it. Seems like a lot of work to peel and is $$$ – so maybe just stick to the smoothie version?
- Our guide showed off garlic flowering chives (pretty) – and said she used every part (but will break off the ends and toss if woody – like you do with fresh asparagus).
- While they do sell Tamarind pods, the pre-packaged paste of juice options are usually preferable. It’s a sour, pickled flavor that is often used in candy and for a dipping sauce base.
- Choy means “Green” in Cantonese and there were lots of choys. They are almost never eaten raw.
- Since water isn’t potable in many parts of the world, items are often steamed or boiled to kill any nasty germies. Many cultures don’t eat any raw foods for risk of it making them sick. Our guide said her grandmother would faint at the thought of a raw food diet.
- The fresh herb options were great (and cheap) – I saw one called lime leaf and was told its used much like a bay leaf (flavor your food with it, but them remove and don’t eat it itself).
- Some of the best mushrooms are in the dried aisle. Dried items can be very valuable in the Asian culture.
- Our tour guide recommended putting fresh ginger through your garlic press (whoa! Good idea) and also freezing it and then grating it for ginger zest when you want it.
- When I was in the aisle of spring roll wrappers, I thought I was in the paper plate aisle – “boring – plates, I get it,” I thought until I realized it was 1,000 options for spring rolls. (hey jack, they were in round packs of 50 and looked like plates down a long line).
- Our guide only buys tea from US, Taiwan or Japan (skip the others) – I don’t remember why. Just do it.
- There was a huge selection of soy sauce. Look for the phrase “naturally brewed” and then you’ll know you have the real deal. Wait, doubting my one from Target is authentic now…
- There was a big tank of live eels going crazy with their eel-y bodies in the seafood section, which is still giving me eebie jeebies. SNAKES!
- They had samples along the way on our tour and I was freely sampling anything in the cookie aisle because get real – it’s not like I’m not going to like them and there was one I couldn’t figure out the flavor of… was it sweet? Is it savory? What is this? It was Egg Yolk flavor. Ah… not my sweet treat craving.
- I stopped free wheel sampling when we got to the dried cuttle fish. And I only thought of this from south park
Most important take aways for me were:
- There are likely reasons behind why another culture does something seemingly “weird” – like the lack of clean water and therefore cooking everything.
- There are so many exciting and affordable food options I’ve yet to explore.
- Don’t come to a crazy Asian supermarket without a recipe or a real shopping list or you’ll buy a bunch of random stuff and try to throw it together with lackluster results. Jenny had 10 amazing Vietnamese recipes with her and made an awesome feast. Why can’t I plan ahead and have it together on that level?
So, what are you recs for great ethnic markets to explore?