Asian Markets- Great for the Palate, Easy on the Wallet

Unlike other ethnic markets that may be specific to the foods of just one nation or culture, visiting an Asian market opens up numerous avenues for culinary adventure. Whether you want to re-create your favorite Chinese takeout dish, try your hand at making sushi, create the complex sweet-sour-spicy taste of Thai dishes, enjoy Korean kimchee or the heat of traditional Vietnamese food — an Asian market offers everything you need.

If you are lucky to live in either a metropolitan area or, like me, an area with a large military population who have served in Asian countries and want to re-create dishes they had oversees. Our area also has a significant immigrant population from countries like Korea and Vietnam. We all benefit, since our diverse population supports several ethnic markets on the Virginia Peninsula.

While there are several Asian stores in my city, the one I frequent most is the a small market run by a couple from Cambodia and like a lot of Asian markets, it offers a wide variety of goods in a small space, so you can wander down the aisles and pick up a wok, or a three-layer bamboo steamer (I have one that is nearly 20 years old that I still use to make my steamed dumplings), buy fresh butterfish, smoked tofu, star anise or one of about 50 kinds of noodles. I am always amazed by the different types of dried goods — mushrooms, lily buds, fish, shrimp and seaweed, to name a few. Our Asia Grocery offers numerous produce items that you may not be able to find, particularly the long, skinny eggplants, baby bok choy, snow peas and daikon radishes as well as plantains and mangos. The variety of fresh greens at a good Asian market is beyond what is normally available in your upscale supermarket.

Whether or not you are a big fan of Asian cuisine (and I am), there are all kinds of ingredients that can be incorporated into your daily meals. Soy sauce with a little honey makes a great glaze for chicken or salmon filet. Seasoned rice vinegar with peanut oil can make an Oriental vinaigrette that, served over some shredded Napa cabbage and carrots, makes a light and healthy coleslaw. Thai sweet chili sauce is a great change of pace to have with your steamed shrimp instead of cocktail sauce.

What are some staples that should be in your Asian pantry? Of course it depends on what Asian cuisine you want to try, but here is a list of some essentials:

Rice. Jasmine rice is great with almost any Asian meal, but if you want to make your own sushi, you will need sushi rice which is stickier so your California roll will hold together.

Ginger. This is not the powdered spice you put in gingerbread, but the fresh gnarled rhizome sometimes known as ginger root. In Asian cooking it can be used fresh or candied. Ginger has purported medicinal benefits including fighting motion sickness and intestinal disorders.

Soy Sauce. Soy sauce is made from fermented soy beans mixed with some type of roasted grain (wheat, barley, or rice are common),that is injected with a special yeast mold, and liberally flavored with salt. After being left to age for several months, the mixture is strained and bottled. It darkens sauces and adds saltiness to dishes.

Oyster Sauce. This a thick brown sauce that is oyster flavored, and if you have ever had beef and scallions at your favorite takeout place, you can recreate it with some thinly sliced beef (flank steak is best) and scallions stir-fried. Add some oyster sauce and you have a delicious dish as fast as takeout.

Noodles. There are so many different types of noodles used in Asian cooking. I usually have ramen noodles and bean thread (or cellophane) noodles, both great for incorporating into soups or stir-fries. Another great dish is a marriage of cooked cellophane noodles tossed with some of the peanut sauce above, top with chopped peanuts and scallions for a quick and nutritious meal. Or try your hand at Pad Thai,a delicious noodle dish.

Chili and Garlic Paste. This is one of my favorite Asian ingredients, adding multidimensional heat to any dish.

Thai Fish Sauce. A very fragrant sauce that is a staple for Thai food. Luckily, as an ingredient it tastes a lot better than it sounds!

What if you are really not a fan of Asian food? Asian markets are also great (and cheap) sources of ingredients you probably use in your kitchen every day. Staples like soy sauce, peanut oil, shallots and sesame seeds are available almost 30 percent cheaper than at the supermarket. I bought a bunch of watercress for $2.49 at the supermarket, only to find two days later that I could have bought a bunch for $.99 at the Asia Grocery.When I was looking for star anise to use for tea-smoked chicken, a search of three supermarkets didn't yield it at any price, but the Asia Grocery will sell me a pound for 5.99! Black and red peppercorns can be bought for your grinders in bulk for about half of what the grocery store charges. At a time when we are all watching our food budget, this is reason enough to check out your local Asian market and start playing with Asian ingredients.

Indonesian Peanut Sauce

Mix about half a cup of creamy peanut butter, 1 tablespoon of brown sugar, 1 tablespoon of chili-garlic paste, and juice of half a lime, and 1 cup of warm water. The sauce is similar to Indonesian sate and fabulous on bean thread noodles topped with chopped peanuts and scallions.

Read my story about our local Asia Grocery and its owners Bunna Sor and Theany Sok in the Daily Press at:,0,4637267.story


Kerrie said…
I too love the Asian market in our area, last week when I stopped in I found hosin in the greatest bottle where it stores upside down for easy squeezing out. The one closest to my home is large (and part of a cultural center) and I find it less intimidating to go during the weekdays when there are less people.
Ning said…
It's great to know people like you who love Asian markets!

I love your picture! I would love to be in that pose! Except that my hair would be straight and black. And I do not have a Mac :(

Thank you for dropping by my blog - Heart and Hearth.
Deborah Dowd said…
Kerrie- I need to look for a bottle like that!

Ning- In truth, I don't have a Mac either, it was just the closest laptop the photographer, Greg Adams, had on hand when he posed me!
Jessica said…
Thank you! I usually go to E Mart but will have to check out the market in your DP article.

And I love the picture too! He keeps asking me to do one but I have no idea what I'd do. Your choice is fantastic. :)
Deborah Dowd said…
Jessica- You should go to Asia Grocery.While the E-market has a lot, I really like the feel of a neighborhood market. And you should let Greg take your photo- you can see from my picture that he can make magic (or miracles in my case!)
Chicken Fried Gourmet said…
Asian Markets are the best for fairly cheap inspiration and new found ingredients, I love them.
Bistro 613 said…
I used to go Asia Market, but moved- now E-Mart is closer. While I certainly like the (overwhelming)selection of goods, the cloistered atmosphere and friendly faces at Asia Market were always a bonus.