Hi everyone, Kaitlin here. I’m here to introduce the Asian or Chinese grocery store, and hopefully demystify a few things if you’ve never shopped in one. Here we go:
When I was younger, the power and allure of the Chinese grocery store was so strong that I thought that the forty-five minute drive from our house to the store or to Chinatown was all it took to go to China—as in…the country. I would literally ask my parents if we were planning on “going to China” that day (My sense of perspective didn’t really kick in until later in life).
I was always engulfed by the sweet heady smells of the bakery case, the allure of the fresh produce, the liveliness of the fish and meat counters, and the quiet peacefulness of the dry noodles, seaweeds, and mushrooms, spices, and sauces. Then there was the hot food bar, with the rows and rows of vegetables, tofu, braised meat, buns, dumplings, fish, and stacked Styrofoam containers of complementary soup ready to go next to the cash register. And of course, the piece de resistance: the roasted meat case with glistening portions of roast pork, roast duck, poached chicken, and stewed octopus enticing everyone who passed.
All Chinese grocery stores are usually organized in the same format. There’s the produce section where you can find all of your leafy greens, ginger, scallions, peppers, and mushrooms.
The meat section with slabs of pork belly, ground pork, chicken, and dried sausage. Often, you’ll see a case of meat to choose from and tell the butcher what you want, how you want it cut, and how much you’d like.
There’s seafood section with fresh fish in tanks, crabs in baskets, and maybe even a plastic barrel of live frogs (the frog thing is usually just available in Chinatown. Which is just as well. We’re not big on frog.) All of the seafood should be cleaned for you (with the exception of crab and lobster, which are usually sold live to maintain freshness).
Then, there is the frozen section that has pre-prepared seafood, frozen vegetables (soy beans, bamboo shoots, and Shepherd’s purse veggies for dumplings, etc.), ice cream and popsicles in Chinese flavors like red bean, green tea, green mung bean, and mango, buns, frozen dumplings, and scallion pancakes, among other things.
You’ll also find a refrigerated aisle with rice cakes, tofu, and fresh noodles in every Chinese grocery store.
From there you get into the dry goods—aisles of hot sauces, pickled vegetables, soy sauce, vinegar, cooking wines, oil, spices, dried seaweed, dried mushroom/fungi, dried noodles, and all sorts of tantalizing Chinese junk foods like crunchy shrimp-flavored chips (don’t knock them until you’ve tried them!
Bigger grocery stores will often have a hot food and bakery area, but not all do, and the size and extent of their offerings varies greatly. Walnut Cookies Pie, anyone? (not sure what this is exactly, but doesn’t it sound absolutely delightful!?)
These days, Asian grocery stores are increasingly common, and are even frequented by a lot more non-Chinese people, who are often drawn by the cheaper produce and meat. If there’s one near you, it’s a great place to get inspired and stock up on ingredients!
If you’re just getting to know Chinese cooking, here are a few items that you’ll want to pick up–a selection of the basic, bread and butter pantry items that are essential to any cook’s stockpile.
- Soy sauce
- Dark soy sauce
- Black vinegar
- Sesame oil
- White pepper
- Shaoxing cooking wine
That base will give you a good start, but as you get the hang of things, start exploring other ingredients. You must peruse our Chinese Ingredients Glossary that contains a wealth of information and most importantly, check out our recipes for ideas!