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What to buy at an Asian grocery store

Chef, entrepreneur, baker, reluctant cupcake master, cookbook author, humorist/memoirist/essayist (writer), public speaker, raconteur, wife, mother,

Look for these gems at the treasure trove that is your local Asian grocery

About a year ago, my husband and I decided to move out of New York City, which I agreed to with one condition: Wherever we would go, we needed to be close to an Asian supermarket. Why? Because they are cheap as all get-out. Cheaper than your regular grocery store’s sale prices. Cheap in a “how is this even possible?” way.

It’s not an illusion — there’s no underhanded vegetable smuggling or black market butchery afoot. Here's the simplest way to explain how it’s done: Asian grocery owners don't follow the same business model as American chains do, which involves a stupid number of middlemen. Also, the clientele of these markets shop and cook differently than Westerners do — you’ll see people shopping several times a week rather than making one big trip on the weekends, and buying ingredients for meals where vegetables and starch are served in larger portions than meat is. What this means in a nutshell? Product turnaround is incredibly fast, meaning the food you’re getting your hands on is remarkably fresh — often fresher than your conventional grocery superstore. Ain’t that something?

And don’t fret if you don’t live close to one of the thousands of Asian supermarkets that have been opening up across America over the past decade. While you may not be able to partake in the fresh foods, there are many online-only markets that allow you to order the best stuff to be shipped to your house. (The “best stuff” means candy, because for real, they are miles ahead of us in junk food development on that side of the globe.)

There are exciting new ingredients to discover, new recipes to try, new experiments to be had! If you’re ready to jump into a whole new, exciting world of grocery shopping, here’s what should be on your list for your first trip.

More: 25 Japanese recipes easy enough to try at home

Pastes, spices, condiments

Using these, it’s very easy to make a giant plate of vegetables more appetizing than a steak. Eating a bag of steamed green beans out of the microwave is never going to convince you to start eating healthier.

I will guarantee you will find the condiment section at the Asian market completely overwhelming, so here’s what you need to get on your first trip:

  • Miso paste
  • Soy sauce
  • Sesame oil
  • Rice wine vinegar
  • Shrimp paste
  • Xiao Xing cooking wine
  • Mirin cooking wine
  • Fish sauce
  • Thai curry paste
  • Ponzu sauce

Don’t ask me what they are; just buy them. Sauté vegetables, throw in a bit of one or a few of those up there, and you’ll end up eating less junk and start dropping weight like 1987 Oprah.

Once you start getting comfortable with these, you can start picking up other things that look interesting, like fermented black bean paste and Sichuan chili oil. The internet is rife with recipes that use them, and keeping a cabinet full of these things will mean you always have a healthy, “gourmet” dinner on hand instead of eating grilled chicken breast and frozen spinach for the thousandth time. We really do make eating healthy as miserable as possible here in America, don’t we?

Alternative flours

Rice flour, potato starch, chickpea flour — all staple groceries found in Asian markets long before they were “a thing.” They’re still there, hanging out in the starch and noodle aisle, priced at about 70 percent less than what you’ll see at the supermarket (and 3,000 percent less than at Whole Foods). There are also rice noodles, rice paper wraps, ground millet, tapioca starch — if you follow a gluten-free diet, it's grocery Disneyland.

Pork belly

Pork belly is the best/worst meat in the world — best in that it’s so delicious it makes me believe there is a God, worst in that I realize God is trying to kill me. Pork belly is the basis of bacon, and I believe the internet has done a swell job in telling us how it feels about that.

While not something that should be eaten on a regular basis if you want to live past 40, pork belly can reasonably make it onto your menu once a month, provided you keep your meat portions at a sane size. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever made in my slow cooker, which means it’s perfect for impressing people with a minimal amount of work. Pork fat has a way of making that sort of magic happen.

Mushrooms

There is so much to taste in this world beyond plain ol' white button mushrooms, and nowhere is it more affordable than here. Shiitake, enoki, oyster, wood ears — and those are just the fresh kinds! I always keep a few bags of dried mushrooms on hand for those nights I forget to plan ahead for dinner. They work just as well in meatloaf as they do in miso soup. Throw some into the slow cooker with the pork belly, and be amazed.

Ramen

It may make you think of those times in your early 20s, when more of your food budget went to beer than it should have, but ramen is not just for the broke and foolish. While the classic 12 for $2 has its merits, there are some fancier ramens that are most definitely worth your time, and they’re cheap enough that you can try them all to find your favorite without going broke. Or just skip straight to the Shin Black ramen, because that will literally change you. Do you know how much time I wasted cooking for myself when all I needed to do to be happy was cook up some fancy ramen with a few poached eggs and sambal oelek? Speaking of which...

More: 12 original ways to rock your ramen

Sambal oelek

Sambal oelek makes Sriracha sauce look like a little bitch. It’s a thick chili garlic paste, where the peppers are crushed instead of puréed. Whereas many hot sauces exist just to burn your face, sambal oelek is bright, flavorful and an all-around champion. You can buy it in tiny little jars or in massive jugs, because there really is no in-between with this condiment. You try it once, and it quickly escalates to “all in.”

Gochujang

Asian markets are where ingredients hang out before they get famous. This is where the behemoth that is Sriracha sauce toiled in obscurity for years before becoming the Drake of condiments. Now all the cool kids feel it’s overexposed and are moving on to gochujang paste. Think of it as a cross between miso and hot sauce: a fermented blend of red chili, soybeans, sticky rice and salt. A small spoonful added to a sauté, stirred into a soup or stew or blended into a marinade will make you look like a goddamn culinary genius. All the cool kids will want to come over. Your slow cooker pork belly with dried mushrooms and gochujang will erase the years of psychological damage middle school inflicted on you.

More: 15 condiments to try if you're so over ketchup

“Health food”

Asian markets are, in many ways, like Whole Foods, except they’re cheaper, and you don’t want to punch everyone in the face. Because of Buddhism, veganism and vegetarianism have been a serious cuisine for hundreds of years before your college roommate discovered it and began posting PETA memes on Facebook 10 times a day. Even in many omnivorous households of East Asian descent, meat doesn’t end up on the plate at every meal. Tempeh, tofu and seitan are commonly used meat substitutes you can also find in health food stores, the only difference being that there they cost significantly more money.

Korean pears

In Asia, fruit is often given as a gift, much like wine is given to a host here in America. Certain fruits are even treated as luxury items. There are boutiques in Japan where a single piece of exceptional fruit can set you back over $100. It sounds crazy, but when you indulge in a “splurge” fruit like a perfectly ripe Korean pear for around $5, you’ll understand. These pears are — and I say this without a moment of hesitation — the greatest fruit I have ever put into my mouth. As a professional chef by trade, I have tasted a lot of fruit, so consider this an expert opinion. A Frappuccino or a fast-food combo meal costs more than luxury fruit, so why not spend your money on something that’s not only better for you but that tastes finer than most fancy meals you’ve ever eaten?

Kasugai gummies

These candies from Japan are my favorite. They're better than chocolate, if you can even believe such a thing is possible. Intensely flavorful without being overly sweet, they are the only fruit-flavored junk food I have ever tasted that truly, vividly tastes like fruit.

In addition to being absurdly delicious, each bag comes with a delightful Japanese-English idiom to describe its contents. While I love all dozen or so varieties, my heart belongs to muscat. It’s a type of grape used to make some of the world’s finest wines and is also the inspiration for the greatest product description of all time:

"Its translucent color so alluring and taste and aroma so gentle and mellow offer admiring feeling of a graceful lady."

If that doesn't convince you that you need to try these, I feel for your sad, dark soul. Because it's true: You will feel the admiring feeling of a graceful lady — Helen Mirren-level graceful — and the joy you will feel is explosive. And you'll have candy!

Look for these gems at the treasure trove that is your local Asian grocery
Image: Gabriela Arellano/SheKnows
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