Sure, your local supermarket has an international aisle where you can get some of the basics you need for Asian cooking, but in terms of variety, price and freshness, you, as a food lover, owe it to yourself to plan an outing to an Asian market. However, it can be baffling to be confronted with aisles of ingredients you’ve never seen before and labels in languages you can’t decipher. Even when you do see something familiar, like soy sauce, there are 15 varieties to choose from.
Never fear! With this introduction to shopping at Asian markets, you’ll feel confident about dipping a toe into unfamiliar (and delicious!) waters.
Your friendly neighborhood Asian grocery store
Whether or not your city has a full-fledged Chinatown, chances are good that you’re not too far from at least one neighborhood where Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Malaysian, Thai, Filipino and/or Korean restaurants and shops are clustered.
These stores range in size and scope, from mega-marts with acres of condiments from all over Asia, entire aisles dedicated to noodles, and in-house bakeries and restaurants, to compact markets with outdoor produce displays, narrow aisles, and boxes stacked all the way to the ceiling.
Embrace the adventure
It can be a little overwhelming to step into a place that’s full of unfamiliar sights, smells and sounds, but that’s part of the fun. Think of it as a mini, budget-friendly vacation.
In addition to having a larger selection of ingredients than the international aisle, you’ll be surprised and delighted at how much cheaper most Asian markets are than a typical supermarket. This means you can afford to experiment. Don't just stick to items on your list. Grab an an unfamiliar condiment, vegetable or candy that intrigues you and try something new!
Good cookbooks are a worthwhile investment. Any good Asian cookbook geared toward a Western audience will have a section dedicated to ingredients. Read these for a basic education on the types of ingredients you’ll need to get started, some guidelines as to how to select them, and in some cases, the author’s preferred brands.
Another marvelous reason to explore your Asian market is to find fresh versions of ingredients you’re used to buying prepackaged, like tofu, curry paste and noodles. You can also find fresh spices like turmeric, kaffir lime leaves and curry leaves.
Note: If you can't find these items fresh, they could be hiding in the freezer section!
Photo from the Craftsy class Vietnamese Classics: Pho, Noodles & Beyond
Make a detailed list
If you’re shopping for a specific recipe, make a very specific shopping list. What I mean is, if you write down “chili sauce” or “curry” on your list, you may get to the market and find yourself facing a dozen varieties of each, many of which taste very different.
Sweet chili sauce is not the same as chili-garlic sauce (aka Sriracha), which is not the same as sambal, but they all go by the name of chili sauce. Same goes for curry. Thai curry paste generally comes in at least three varieties -- red, green and yellow, which is quite different than Vietnamese or Japanese curry paste, which again is very different than curry powder or curry leaves. And tamarind is available as a liquid concentrate, a paste, or in whole dried pods.
Sign up for the Craftsy class Favorite Asian Dumplings from Scratch for the perfect recipe to get your grocery list started!
This may sound like an odd rule for grocery shopping, but it’s something I learned for myself during two years of living in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Not all cultures have the same implicit rules about queuing up and waiting your turn as you may be accustomed to in the U.S. If the market is crowded, you may need to (politely but firmly) insist on your turn at the fish counter.
When it comes to buying things that the shopkeeper needs to select for you (fish, meat and sometimes produce), don’t be shy about insisting on the item that you want, even if it’s not at the top of the pile.
Get crazy for condiments
Most, but not all, product labels will have at least a little bit of English. Sometimes, this is only a sticker slapped over the ingredients list, translating it for import.
Here are some guidelines for selecting from the most popular condiments on the shelves.
Andrea Nguyen, in her Craftsy class on Vietnamese cooking, gives enlightening advice on how to choose fish sauce: “Look for a light amber color and the words 'nhi' or 'thuong hang' on the label. These terms indicate that the condiment came from the first extraction of liquid from the fermented fish and is of the highest quality.”
Most soy sauces come from either Japan or China. Japanese soy sauce, or shoyu, tends to be sweeter and milder than its Chinese counterparts, thanks to the higher ratio of wheat to soybeans used in brewing.
Chinese soy sauce uses more soybeans than wheat (some brands are 100 percent soy), resulting in a stronger, thicker sauce, and comes in both dark and light varieties. Light is the most widely used. If you have a recipe that simply calls for “soy sauce,” go with this one. Dark soy sauce is thicker and has a more intense flavor due to a longer fermentation process but is not necessarily saltier.
Avoid any brands that contain corn syrup or caramel coloring, both are indications of an inferior product.
Curry paste is usually made from a blend of fresh chiles, aromatics (shallots, garlic, galangal, lemongrass), spices and shrimp paste. The color of the curry paste depends on the color of the chiles and spices it contains.
Thai curry paste comes in many varieties, including red (made with dried red chiles), green (fresh green chiles), yellow (turmeric), Panang (red curry with ground peanuts) and Massaman (red curry with the addition of sweet spices including cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and clove). Vietnamese curry is yellow and can be found in paste or powder form. Japanese curry (inspired by Indian curry by way of England) is brown/golden and is usually sold as a sauce mix or in cubes of roux, which thicken dramatically in liquid.
There are three basics types of this umami-rich fermented soybean paste: white, yellow and red. The color is determined by the other ingredients blended with the soybeans, namely rice and barley, and by the length of fermentation. Generally speaking, the darker the color, the more robust the flavor.
Look for “oyster extract” as one of the first ingredients, as many sauces are artificially flavored.
The produce aisle
Many traditional Asian dishes are vegetable-centric, so the produce aisle is a great place to discover copious varieties of greens, root vegetables, melons, squashes, chiles, beans and herbs. Consult your favorite cookbooks to get an idea of what to buy, but don’t be afraid to grab a few unfamiliar items too. At a market with high turnover, everything should be fresh and plentiful. If any of the greens look wilted or yellowed, just dig around for a fresher bundle.
Meat and seafood
The offerings at the meat counter might be different than what you’re accustomed to seeing at your regular supermarket, but once again, they often offer tons of value in both cost and flavor.
Check out the selections of thinly sliced meat for stir-fries, pho and shabu shabu. You’ll also find short ribs, pork loin, whole chickens and ducks, as well as plenty of offal, such as tripe, oxtail, kidneys, beef tendon and chicken feet. Don’t miss out on the dried sausage, either! Its savory-sweet chewiness is excellent in fried rice to scrambled eggs.
Note: Put some chicken feet in your next batch of chicken stock for an extra-velvety texture.
In the seafood section, get ready to encounter lots of whole fish, some of them still swimming! If you choose live fish, the butcher can kill, gut, scale and, if your lucky, filet it for you. Some larger markets will even fry the fish on the spot for you!
Keep in mind, you don’t need to stick to Asian cuisines just because you’re shopping at an Asian grocery. My local Chinese market serves me well whenever I get a hankering for a Cajun shrimp boil, Buffalo wings, oxtail stew or a whole roast chicken.
The freezer case is a treasure. Grab some pot stickers and pork buns for easy snacking. Then, try a new ice cream flavor while you’re at it. You could go exotic with durian or corn or stick with more approachable varieties like green tea and coconut.
Cooking equipment and utensils
An Asian market can also be a fabulously affordable place to outfit your kitchen for Asian cooking. Look for carbon steel woks, vegetable cleavers (these are lighter weight than meat cleavers and great for both chopping all kinds of vegetables and scooping them up), bamboo steamers, chopsticks and sushi rolling mats. Plus, there are all kinds of beautiful ceramic plates, bowls, cups and teapots.
The best way to get acquainted with the Asian market is just to dive on in. Choose a recipe or two that you’d like to prepare, and go shopping!