By Samantha Suarez | Photography by David Specht
Picture this: You’re developing a fondness for Asian cuisine. You’ve had great experiences at different Asian restaurants and you follow a bunch of foodie Instagram accounts showcasing the art of sushi and/or dim sum. Now you want to take a crack at cooking Asian food for yourself. You search for some recipes online and bring a shopping list to the nearest big box grocery store, only to find out they just have one aisle dedicated to international products. That’s right: one aisle for the entire world outside the United States. It comes to no surprise they only carry the bare bones of Asian ingredients.
If you consider yourself someone that appreciates food, you owe it to yourself to visit your local Asian grocery store. In terms of variety, price, and authenticity of experience, big box grocery stores just don’t make the cut.
Chances are if you’ve never been to an Asian grocery store, you just don’t know if they exist in your neighborhood. With the popularity of Asian food rising all over the country, there are more and more of these shops popping up all over the place. Regardless of the size of your city, you are probably not too far from an area where Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai, Filipino, or Korean shops and restaurants are clustered. West Michigan has several Asian grocery stores, including but not limited to Asian Delight, Seoul Market, Spice of India, and the Kim Nhung Superstore.
Putting the “Asian” in “Sensation,” One Product at a Time
Walking into an Asian grocery store for the first time can be intimidating. With its many aisles of unfamiliar ingredients labeled with words you can’t decipher, along with foreign languages being spoken all around you, it truly feels like you’ve been transported to an Asian country. Instead of letting that discourage you, Hung Le, Operations Manager of the Kim Nhung Superstore, encourages newbies to embrace the adventure. “Just walk around, be open-minded, and experience it!” He said.
From the allure of unique and colorful snacks with wonderful flavors like wasabi, green tea, or cherry blossom, the liveliness of the seafood and meat counters, and the quiet peacefulness of the noodles and spices sections, you’re guaranteed an outing to remember. “We have over one hundred different kinds of instant noodles and over seventy-five varieties of Asian drinks,” Le told Women’s LifeStyle.
To help ease you into your journey, we’ve assembled a list of must-have Asian products for your pantry or refrigerator.
15 Things You Should Be Buying at Your Local Asian Grocery Store
These bite-sized goodies usually have fillings of ground meat, seafood, and/or vegetables, wrapped in a piece of dough or wheat flour. They are either steamed, pan-fried, or boiled, depending on the type and can be found in the refrigerated section of the store. Some are fully cooked and just need to be heated up, while others will require a little more work.
Wonton/Egg Roll Wrappers
If you’re ever feeling ambitious and want to make your own dumplings or egg rolls, save yourself some time by buying plenty of wrappers. They come thinly sliced and ready to fill with our own delicious creation.
Perusing the instant noodle aisle of an Asian grocery store is like opening Pandora’s box – but in a good way! There are countless options of noodles to keep you feeling cozy and satisfied, especially on sick days or when it’s cold or rainy. From pho to ramen and yakisoba, the flavors are endless.
Boba (tapioca pearls)
Most people know this ingredient as the squishy balls in bubble tea, which (for those that don’t know) is a tasty Taiwanese drink that has become increasingly popular in recent years. By purchasing some of this gelatinous goodness, making bubble tea at home is easier than ever! We advise buying black tapioca pearls over the white or multicolored ones.
Condiments (sauces, spices, seasonings, etc.)
When buying condiments at an Asian specialty store, it’s hard to go wrong. There are literally hundreds of sauces to choose from. We suggest trying hoisin sauce, ponzu sauce, oyster sauce, and Knorr liquid seasoning.
Matcha (green tea powder)
If you frequent hipster coffee shops, then this tasty green powder (referred to as “matcha” in Japan) is probably familiar to you. It’s what gives your green tea latte, green tea frappuccino, or any other green tea flavored drink or dessert its authentic flavor. Purchase a can or jar and you can have it at home!
Mochi and Mochi Ice Cream
You may have seen these sweet and chewy treats as a topping option at frozen yogurt shops. Mochi is a Japanese confection available in a plethora of different shapes, sizes, and colors. Another popular form of mochi is mochi ice cream, which simply has ice cream in the center of the glutinous rice cake. Our favorite flavors are red bean, green tea, and mango.
Fruits that are native to Asia are easily the most hidden gems at an Asian supermarket. From the common mango and lychee to the less known persimmon and mangosteen, you definitely need to give them a try!
Commonly known as “seaweed,” nori is famous for its role in sushi-making and is available in dried form in most Asian stores. This dried version of nori can serve as a tasty savory snack you can take with you on-the-go. Plus, it’s a much healthier substitute for potato chips.
Rice noodles, vermicelli, egg noodles, and flour noodles are staples of Asian cuisine that are easy to hydrate and cook. Rice noodles are great for soup (like pho), and egg noodles are great for stir-fry dishes (don’t forget the veggies and sesame oil!)
Fun Flavored Drinks
Whether it’s aloe drinks, coconut juice, or milk tea in a can, you’re sure to have a good time exploring the refrigerated drinks section of the store.
Instant Vietnamese Coffee
For those that need their morning boost quickly and don’t want to stop by a coffee shop every day before work, instant Vietnamese coffee is a godsend. If you haven’t tried proper Vietnamese drip coffee with condensed milk, you’re truly missing out. For those that already have, this sweet yet satisfying alternative will tide you over until your next visit to a Vietnamese restaurant.
Meat and seafood you can’t find anywhere else
The offerings at an Asian supermarket’s meat and seafood counter will probably be different than what you’re used to, but once again, you get tons of value in cost and flavor. You’ll find sections of thinly sliced meat for stir-fries, pho, and shabu-shabu plus things like whole chickens, duck, offal, tripe, oxtail, and even chicken feet!
Many Asian dishes are vegetable-centric, so the produce aisle is a great place to discover copious varieties of greens, root vegetables, and other plant-based nutrients. Bok choy, anyone?
The choices are endless. Try White Rabbit candy, green tea flavored KitKat, Pocky, jelly cups, or wasabi green peas.
A Cross Cultural Hub
Aside from temples and actual cultural centers, Asian grocery stores are one of the few authentic cross-cultural locations you can find in the United States. These stores also serve as a sanctuary for immigrants and a place for Asian-Americans to get in touch with their roots. “It’s kind of a cliche, but we came from humble beginnings. When our parents came over from Vietnam, they had nothing and didn’t know the language. Many other immigrants started off in similar situations, so we want to make sure they’re taken care of when it comes to the products that feel like home to them,” said Le. “Plus, it’s about preserving and sharing our culture. Personally, I’ve never been to Vietnam. Being here and interacting with others is what helps me experience my own culture.”
We hope this introduction to Asian grocery stores has left you feeling more comfortable dipping your feet into unfamiliar yet delicious waters. Don’t forget come prepared with a detailed list… But also be sure to grab at least one or two unfamiliar items that intrigue you. It’s about embracing adventure, after all!