15 Things I Always Buy at the Asian Grocery Store

15 Things I Always Buy at the Asian Grocery Store

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I’ve loved grocery shopping with my mom ever since I was a wee-child in New Jersey. But before our journey, I’d always asked which store we were headed to. We frequented two types of grocery stores: the American one, and the Asian grocery store in East Hanover. A trip to the Kam Man Market was always something to get excited about.

Asian grocery stores are packed with incredible items you can’t find in other grocery stores. And items that you can find elsewhere, you can still find here, and priced significantly lower. The produce and fish are diverse and unmatched in freshness, and talk about a bakery! And the prepared foods section is worth the trip alone. Asian grocery stores come in all shapes and sizes, but if you have access to a sizable one (or one attached to a food court) then you can enjoy an entire afternoon outing and return home with a veritable culinary treasure trove. Here are 15 things I need to buy every time I go to the Asian grocery store.

Fresh rice noodles

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Like pasta from all over the world, you can find dry and fresh noodles at the Asian market. Certain noodles have suggested applications or common usages, and then there are dishes that where particular noodz are simply non-negotiable. Rice noodles are no different. Guay tiew sen yai are fresh, wide rice noodles that are coated in oil to keep them from sticking to themselves, and packed in a plastic bag to keep the noodles soft. They’re hard to find, finicky to make, and they’re best when eaten day-of. They also go fast. If you’re lucky enough to come across a bag, give it a little feel-up, if they’re warm, and slip around in the bag, then they’re fresh, buy two bags and make a giant lunch, perhaps Guay Tiew Kua Gai or Pad See Ew.

Dried noodles

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The noodz talk isn’t over yet. I would be remiss to skip a discussion on the dry variety. Dry noodles from every culture are essential to society. I’m not even exaggerating. They’re cheap, filling, shelf stable, and a majority of meals that encourage social connection and bonding are made using them. You will always find a full aisle of different dried noodles in the Asian grocery store, from pan fried noodles to glass noodles. They’re cheaper than other grocery stores with more variety, and usually have larger package sizes. I always buy glass noodles for soups and yum woon sen, and mai fun and rice sticks for stir-fry dishes like pad thai.

Golden Mountain sauce

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The one and only. Hands down, the best seasoning sauce is Golden Mountain Sauce. It’s a type of Thai soy sauce that you can splash onto nearly anything savory and give a dash of irresistible umami. The flavor has different tasting notes than a typical soy sauce–it’s a little funky, a little malty, and a lot salty. Use it in stir fries, on eggs, plain white rice, and in soups. I can’t live without the stuff, but this particular brand is not always available, even in an Asian grocery store. If you can’t find it, Maggi “Improves the taste” sauce is a suitable substitute, not the Maggi “Seasoning.” (The latter is good, but it’s concentrated, so you would use it differently.)

Black soy sauce

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Since we’re walking down the sauce aisle, black soy sauce is another umami booster with slightly different personality traits. It’s thicker than regular soy sauce, a little sweeter instead of salty or tangy, and the color is an opaque black. When added to stir fried noodles or rice dishes, you only need a small amount to impart balance to your dish and a rich brown color. It’s easy to overdo it, so my recommendation is to always start with a small amount first, maybe a half a teaspoon for a medium-sized pot of food. Stir thoroughly and assess the color and flavor. If you’d like a richer color, add a half a teaspoon more.

Oyster sauce

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I feel very passionately about oyster sauce. It possesses some of my favorite sauce qualities–sweet, fishy, viscous, and powerful–and it’s absolutely indispensable when making sweet and salty dishes that use a thicker sauce. Be aware that there are two types of oyster sauce on the shelf. Ones made from fermented oyster extracts and the ones made with “oyster flavor.” Buy the type made with fermented oyster extract, like my favorite one from Mae Krua. You’ll notice these higher quality oyster sauces are very thick (don’t worry, they smooth out in the heat of the pan), and the thinner ones are made from imitation flavors. Use oyster sauce for pad see ew, bok choy or pea shoots, and other sweet and salty dishes where you’d like the sauce to coat the ingredients more than soak into them.

Fried tofu

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Tofu used to get a lot of disrespect back in the day when it was relegated to the salad bar in a pool of cold, cloudy water. Now, it seems more folks have been exposed to the wide world of this versatile soybean creation, and the Asian grocery store has an incredible variety ready for you to explore. Fried tofu is completely texturally different than the kind you find packaged in water. It’s light, spongy, and chewy instead of silky or dense. You might find it labeled as fried tofu puffs, fried bean curd, or soy puffs. I always need at least one pack of each shape of fried tofu, which are usually squares, triangles, and puffs. Tofu puffs are my favorite. They’re airy and hydrated on the inside, with a fried and chewy outer skin. I love them in Kai Puloh because they soak up the rich, savory five spice broth. They also make a heck of a pizza roll or vegetarian Buffalo wing.

Frozen fish balls

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Despite what my older brother told me when we were kids, fish balls are not gonads. They’re usually made from ground up fish, seasoning, and a binder like tapioca starch or eggs. Similar to sausage, these ingredients are minced or ground into a homogeneous mixture, and, instead of being shaped into links, they’re shaped into balls and fried, steamed, or boiled. Normally found in the freezer section, I have never seen fish balls in other grocery stores, so I tend to buy a couple bags. There are so many different types of fish balls, it can be difficult to choose. We usually get variety packs just to try a little bit of everything. You can add them to a range of savory dishes, in the same manner that almost everything is better with mini meatballs. Add fish balls to stir-fries, serve them as a side during a large family meal, or (my favorite way) drop them into noodle soups as the main protein.

Fried garlic

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Everyone has a particular seasoning that is needed so frequently, they’re better purchased in bulk. Fried garlic is one of those ingredients in my spice cabinet. If it’s not dessert, odds are that fried garlic will be an excellent addition sprinkled on top. Yes, it’s just garlic and oil, so it’s very basic, and you could make it at home, but I would have to make it every day for the amount I use on a regular basis. Sometimes it’s nice to open up a jar, pinch as much as you want and throw it back in the pantry, knowing it’s always there to support you. I use fried garlic on eggs, soups, noodle dishes, bagels and cream cheese, cheeseballs and anything that can use a garlicky crunch.

Shrimp chips

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If you needed another salty snack to get hooked on, I got you covered. Shrimp chips should make their way into your shopping cart one way or another—there’s the kind you fry at home and the pre-made packaged kind in the pink bag—but the packaged kind are a quick and easy solution to urgent salt cravings. As soon as I walk down the snack aisle, my eyes are peeled for that bright pink bag with the picture of wavy sticks flying across the front. When you first crack open the bag you’ll be greeted with a notable fishy aroma, not too strong, but discernible. The chips are crunchy and, honestly, ideal for mindless snacking. If you think you don’t like fishy flavored chips, I’m suggesting you try at least two in a row. The first one might throw you off, and the second one will allow you to assess it properly. After that, you’re throwing back ten or nothing, but I’m positive they’ll be calling you on your next visit.

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Thai chilis, bai makrut, and long beans

Thai chilis, bai makrut, and long beans

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I’m aware that I’ve listed three things in the title, and what I really mean is “all the produce,” but since that’s a whole list in itself, we’ll just start with three. Thai chilis, also called bird’s eye chilis, are small, fiery powerhouses that set your whole torso on fire. They come in mature red, or less mature green varieties. The green is said to be slightly less spicy but honestly, at a certain point, if you’re sweating, you’re sweating. They’ve become more widely available in other markets but I find the price is unbeatable at the Asian grocery store. You can get a huge pack of 60-70 chilis for around two dollars.

Bai Makrut, or Makrut lime leaf, is hard to find but if you do, it’ll be in the produce section, still attached to small branches from the tree. Chiffonade this aromatic leaf into curries or as a garnish to impart a subtle lime flavor into the dish. You can also drop the leaf in whole (I usually remove the center rib) and fish it out later if you don’t want to eat it, similarly to how you treat a bay leaf.

Long beans, also called yard long beans, are always in the produce section and I’ve never seen them look subpar. They have a similar flavor to their short cousin, the green bean, but are better if eaten raw or quickly cooked. Don’t blanch long beans the way you would a green bean, keep them crunchy by adding them toward the end of a stir-fry and other dishes with multiple ingredients. Use them in a long bean stir fry, or chopped up in kai yad sai.

Cookware

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One of the best kept secrets of the Asian grocery store is the cookware section. If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “Where do I get a good wok?” quickly turn away from ordering online and go to the cookware section of your Asian grocery market. We’re all accustomed to ordering things online, but it’s easy to get duped into buying something of a suspicious quality for an equally suspicious low price. Check out the cookware section and you’ll be able to assess the quality for yourself, discover woven bamboo steam baskets of various sizes, beautifully decorated ceramic teapots, dishware, bakeware and utensils for appropriate and affordable prices. You’ll be able to go home with the carbon steel wok you were thinking of that same day, without paying a shipping charge or reaching a minimum in your cart.

Thai curry cans

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Another item that has made its way to the international aisle of American grocery stores is packaged curry paste. The reason I prefer to buy it at the Asian grocery store is because it’s often two or three dollars cheaper per item. If you’re in a pinch and just need to grab a jar of panang curry, no problem, spend the extra money. However, if you know you’d like to bring home six to twelve cans, then that price hike will damage your budget for sure. Furthermore, the variety alone is enough of a draw. For each style of curry paste the Shoprite has, the Asian grocery store has eight. Why not grab a jar of the green curry that you’ve just noticed for the first time? After all, it’s only a dollar and change.

Coconut milk

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I buy coconut milk at the Asian grocery store for the same reasons I buy my curry here: The price and brand variety. Although if you ask my mom, coconut milk is so expensive these days anywhere you go, you can certainly save a dollar and a half per can, which is a noticeable amount of money if you’re buying more than a couple cans. (If you’re using coconut milk to its potential, then you probably are.) Coconut milk is wonderful to use in Thai curries, desserts (like the popular mango and coconut sticky rice), and it’s lovely to bake with because of its richness and delicate coconut flavor. It’s also wonderful in coconut milk cocktails. My go-to brand is Chao Koh because the coconut flavor and creamy texture is fantastic, but other brands are comparable if you can’t find it.

Frozen kanom tuay

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You can’t leave without dessert. One of my favorite freezer section items is kanom tuay. Usually sold in a pack of six servings, it’s a quick and delicious coconut pandan-scented pudding almost everyone will love. They keep nearly indefinitely in the freezer but once you crack open the package, you’ll surely consume them all within a couple days. The package directions usually suggest a quick steam, or an even quicker zap in the microwave, for the perfect sweet, slightly salty, coconut dessert.

If you’re a person who loves bonus stuff (like myself), they come made in reusable ceramic dishes! The “tuay” dish is a very specific light gray bowl with a blue line around the top that can be washed and reused to make your own version at home, or to use for anything else. Mine get a lot of use for cheese and meat platters. I use them for small servings of condiments, nuts, olives, fruits, toothpicks, or as a pit bowl.

Pork and cabbage buns

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I saved the best for last (although it’s usually my first stop): The bakery and prepared foods section. It’s tragic to name just one thing. So, before I embark on making a whole new list devoted to this section someday, we’ll talk about my favorite food. The pork and cabbage bun.

The pork steam buns are pure comfort. If you have a hot foods section in your store, they’ll be here, sometimes steamed and pan fried on the bottom. The dough is thick and soft with a light, shiny skin on the surface. As soon as you bite it, you expose the core– a juicy pork meatball that usually includes chives or cabbage in the mixture. They can also be sold, steamed, in a package of six, so you can bring them home and prepare them as you like. You can fry them at home to reheat them, but we tend to put them in the microwave with a wet paper towel to revive them. Don’t forget to peel off the little square of paper on the bottom before devouring.

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