Friday, July 9, 2010

A Trip to the Asian Supermarket

Yesterday I took a little trip to the local Asian grocery store.  The Hong Kong Supermarket is a place of endless condiments and even better deals.  The reasons for this little adventure?  A fancy little meal that I wanted to make from my Candle Cafe cookbook: Spicy Soba Salad with Creamy Wasabi Dressing.  This simple grocery trip turned into something more - a self-discover of sorts.  But first, the Hong Kong Supermarket.

What strikes you when you first step into the Hong Kong supermarket?  The first thing I and anybody else with a nose notices is the smell.  A most unpleasant odor of fish and meat smacks you in the face upon entering and never truly fades throughout the visit.  It's so bad that even if I ate meat, I wouldn't be buying it there.  It's easy to miss the cornucopia of inexpensive and culturally varied produce laid out in front of you because you're trying to figure out where that smell is coming from (the back right corner) and if it's at all acceptable to be smelling it (probably not).  But once you learn to ignore the smell (because escape it you will not), you're in for a treat.

What the produce sections tends to lack in basics (apples, bananas, etc), it makes up for in variety and deals.  Yesterday I scored 99 cent apiece avocados (3 for $5 at my local store) and some ridiculously cheap bok choy.  And oh, the choices of bok choy!  Who knew?  There had to be at least six varieties and, as my grocery list said nothing more detailed than "bok choy" and I don't actually know anything about bok choy, I chose the prettiest variety.  What else is a girl to do?  And what else was there?  Mushrooms aplenty, young Thai coconuts, whole stalks of sugarcane, white cherries in bags marked grapes, breadfruit, and who knows what else?  ME, ME!  Near the perimeter of the produce section were plastic bags filled with whole, dehydrated sardines.  Oh the treats to be found at every step.

The cornucopia didn't end there.  There's an aisle devoted to different varieties of soy sauce and its relatives (tamari, shoyu, etc), vinegars (white rice, brown rice, black rice, etc), chili pastes, stir-fry sauce, etc.  There's also an impressive collection of unidentified dried seaweed, dried vegetable (though vague, the only ingredient), Domino sugar that was uncomfortably close to a display of meat, some really cheap tofu, and a selection of ramen-style noodles that would make the cheapest of college students swoon.

 Of course, despite such a selection, I was unable to locate what I really wanted - umeboshi vinegar - which brings me to the real point of this ever-lengthening post.

What's the problem? you ask. What are you going on about?  Just ask for help already and end this diatribe!  Well that's the thing.  I can't ask for directions there.  I tried once when I had the husband for support.  My first trip to this store I was looking for miso, something that I knew of but knew nothing about.  Therefore, I spent what felt like hours wandering up and down the soy sauce aisle, as well as its neighboring aisles, vainly searching for the elusive substance and, finally, broke down and asked for help.  And asked.  And asked.  Nobody spoke English.  I wasn't too surprised by this, nor offended, but I was affected.  Why, you ask?  I asked myself the same question during yesterday's trip and here was my conclusion: I am intimidated by Asian people.

One of my oldest friends, Stephanie, is the child of two Chinese parents.  In retrospect, her parents were quite generous, inviting me into their home, giving me rides home from school, etc.  At the time though, I was terrified of her mother.  Short and tidy, she appeared to me to be a fireball of wrath, always yelling, rarely speaking English, often criticizing Stephanie.  To her I attribute this sense of intimidation.  Just to note, the last time I saw her which was after a multi-year gap, I found her quite friendly and amusing.  I mentioned this to Stephanie and her response was along the lines of I know!  I don't know why everybody was always so scared of her!

While on my knees in the vinegar section, searching for English ingredient labels listing the elusive plum and trying to bully myself into asking for help, I realized that I was scared of being yelled at.  Which is completely unfair considering I know now that Stephanie's mother was not after all yelling at me, and I only thought that because of the differences in the tonal qualities of languages.  Which is all well and good but really didn't solve my problem because an intellectual dissemination of tonal qualities is going to do nothing to alleviate my deep-seated, unreasonable sense of intimidation in the presence of Asians.  East Asian immigrant women to be exact.

So, pathetic creature that I am, I left without my umeboshi vinegar.  I gave up, defeated but what I acknowledged to be an unreasonable, paranoia.  I also left without mochi, arame, garam masala (which was a bit of a stretch, but they had packaged rotis so I wasn't too unreasonable in that expectation).  I did however come away with this haul:
Bok choy (I forget which variety), avocados, firm tofu, a huge package of cheap soba noodles (same price as a three-serving box at the regular grocery store, soy sauce, tamari, shoyu, mirin, pure sesame oil, wasabi power...

'Twas a good haul, though not quite complete.  Fortunately, the aforementioned health food store was able to make my dining dreams come true:
This resulted in the following:
The noodles are seaweedy, the tofu yummy, the wasabi dressing a nice little kick of spice without being too overpowering, the bok choy a delight...  Overall, this is satisfying though probably not a repeat.  I'll finish the leftovers (all the leftovers, because the husband was not a fan) but leave it at that.  I find that this kind of dish is not really for me.  It reminds me a bit of the Miso-Morphosis from Angelica's Kitchen: good but not for me.  The good news is that it was worth the search for the ingredients!

Back to the true topic of this post: I fear that what I've said can be easily misconstrued.  I don't dislike Asians and have had many as friends.  This realization of an unreasonable paranoia within myself is upsetting and not something that I'm okay with.  I'm not really sure what to do about it though: spend more time at the Honk Kong Supermarket?  Set up a coffee date with Stephanie's mom?  Just ignore it and hope it goes away?  I'm typically comfortable among most people and fear that this can be seen as a subtle racism or something equally negative.


  • Can you relate to this experience of being uncomfortable around a certain group of people without reason?  What do/would you do about it?
  • Do I sound racist?  I'm really paranoid about this because I really don't think that I'm a racist person!
  • What are your favorite treats to pick up at the Asian grocery store?  I'd love ideas on something new and different to get on my next trip!
  • How cute is this?
Okay, that was a trick question.  We all know the answer is "super-cute"!


  1. ...I wanna get a kitty. Get a really well paying job and gimme some money to get a kitty.

  2. I loved this! I have always wanted to visit an Asian supermarket, and there's an Indian market near work. I'm on the look out for umeboshi plums and vinegar, too! It's all over the Kind Diet. In fact, most of Alicia Silverstone's Superhero Diet consists of sea vegetables, which I'm betting you can ONLY find at Asian supermarkets.

    The fact that everything was so nicely priced makes me want to Google a market in my area right now. I think I will!