I really, really like Asian food. All the kinds – I have yet to meet an Asian cultural specialty I didn’t want to try, not just to eat, but to cook as well. I’m game to try almost everything, and my pantry reflects that. I recently mastered Saag and Indian Butter Chicken. I make my own Pad Thai, Bulgogi, Potstickers and other things pretty regularly. I started cooking Asian at home in my 20s out of curiosity, and because it’s a whole lot cheaper than eating out. I started with simple curries, and eventually ventured into more complex foods as my courage grew after successful meals, and the resulting expansion of my spice cabinet and pantry.
Not far from my house, close enough for a trip every month or two, is a giant grocery store called HMart. Primarily Korean, but stocked with food from about every East Asian culture, it’s a really fun place to visit. But it’s also intimidating, even for those of us who have been going regularly for a while – on a recent trip, my son found a sweet pancake mix that he wanted to try, but I had to confess that I had no ability to read the Kanji required to successfully prepare them. The trick is to treat it like an adventure with some necessities for Asian cuisine tossed in. I bring a list, but it is the one store where I allow us to go off script every time. My goal is to try at least a couple new things each time. It helps that I love grocery stores – I try to visit at least one in every country I visit.
When I bring the kids, the new things end up being treats. Asian candy, especially Japanese, is mesmerizing and the flavor combinations are both perplexing and near-endless. Sure, some things end up being in the ‘not even good enough to compost’ pile, but then there’s Crispy Matcha-flavored Oreos, which, I kid you not, are a real thing and they are so, so good – I say this as someone basically without a sweet tooth. I make an exception for these – even the box smells amazing.
The key to Asian grocery store success is to be open-minded, and not to be afraid of a little failure. And to ask lots and lots of questions – even of fellow shoppers if you feel comfortable. Early in my kimchi-buying days, after I had discovered I loved it, I spent a lot of time asking people why they picked a certain type, because I was daunted by the veritable wall of available fermented pickled cabbages, radishes, carrots and other items. I got an education, too – some because it’s the kind they grew up on. Others were looking for the hottest, flavor-iest kimchi available, still others just bought the largest quantity they could, because it was a dietary staple they preferred not to make. I still buy the same brand of coconut milk a woman standing next to me advised me on 15 years ago. When I asked her why that one, she shrugged and said – ‘good and cheap’. Hard to beat that input.
If you are going for the first time, pick a recipe you like to make, and then Google brands of the ingredients. This will help you to a) know what you are looking for and b) help in the event that your only available venue lacks someone who can translate for you. Be prepared to wander the aisles looking for things – until you get used to it, you need to allot yourself some time.
After you find your stuff for your recipe, go back and re-examine all the things that caught your eye. Pick one or two to try – the internet is filled with friendly, helpful bloggers who can teach you how to use that thing you bought.
Yesterday, I came home with rice vinegar (I buy it by the gallon), dumpling wrappers, seaweed salad, radish kimchi, coconut milk and lots of other things on my list, but also with Dragon Fruit, which has been on the household list to try for a while. I also found Tapioca Starch, which is a key ingredient in a whole bunch of Paleo recipes, Acorn Starch, because a friend with a Korean husband sent me a recipe to use it in, and candy that my son picked out. We know we generally love Pocky, but the Muscat-flavored Gummy Choco thingies were a surprise love for all of us. They will definitely be reappearing in our vacation goodie bag this summer, after watching my daughter tentatively eat one, and then immediately try to chug them directly from the tube.
Even though we veer off the shopping list every time, I still would offer that I think that our willingness to expand our options is a part of living more frugally. We don’t spend tons of extra money. We often find things we really, really like – Black Tea Udon noodles have become a pantry staple for cold noodle salads that get rave reviews every time I serve one up – and I don’t need to order take out very often if I crave ethnic food. I’ve crossed the line into the land of finding the food better at home a good deal of the time, and that saves me lots of money.
But most of all…it’s fun. Trying new things, adventuring out of my comfort zone – these are things that make even the simplest of days entertaining. So the next time you need an adventure, I highly recommend finding your neighborhood ethnic grocery store. And trust me, it’s a great way to keep a 5 year old entertained for hours.