Try Asian grocery stores for freshness at a great price

Sept. 22, 2021
A woman and child figuring out what to buy at Asian market they are at..
What to buy at Asian markets? Asian grocery stores offer some of the freshest vegetables, fruit and fish at a great price. Photo: Getty Images.

If you call yourself a good cook, then you shop where the food is best or most appropriate to your cooking, no matter what you’re cooking.

In truth, Asian grocers aren’t merely the best places to buy groceries if you’re cooking Asian. Sure, they have 26 varieties of soy sauce or chili paste or rice cooking wine. Each. And as many turns on rice noodles or ramen packages as the stars at night.

But they’re also the best — and often best-priced — groceries for most vegetables and fruits, period. And for most cuts of pork. And fresh mushrooms. And dried mushrooms.

And fresh fish.

You certainly need not speak an Asian language to navigate an Asian grocer. I’ve found that most Asian grocers and their staffs also speak English or Spanish. That’s the Colorado way, folks.

What to buy at Asian markets?

Asian grocery freshness

What cooks want, most of all, in their cooking ingredients is freshness; grocers achieve that with turnover. The more something is purchased, the quicker that a fresher item replaces it.

At an Asian grocer, that’s the case in the produce, most meat and certainly the fish aisles. And compared with non-Asian grocers, the prices are not only competitive, but commonly far less. (Examples on a recent visit: limes, four for a dollar; squashes at 70 cents a pound; scallions for 33 cents a bunch).

Frozen foods

And if it cannot be found fresh, the frozen sections of Asian grocery stores shame those elsewhere. The average American grocer now may power up what resembles The Wall in “Game of Thrones,” but close to a fourth, even a third of the real estate in many Asian grocery stores is dedicated to frozen foods, a lot of it appetizing, much of it useful, all of it well-priced.

An entire bag of pot stickers or meat-and-vegetable dumplings for less than the cost of the same as an appetizer at a Chinese restaurant; ice creams of every stripe, including the now-fashionable flavors of mango or matcha (green tea); and, perhaps best of all, frozen ingredients for other non-Asian cuisines such as choclo corn from South America, or various yams of Africa.

woman looking at her phone to know what to buy at Asian market she is shopping at.
Need to know what you can buy at an Asian market? Asian grocery stores offer some of the best-priced vegetables, fruits and fish. Photo: Getty Images.

And, of course, in those freezers is another vast selection of fish, shellfish, prepared fish, and cuts of pork, chicken, beef, duck and offal meat. All of it iced, that’s all.

But let’s say you really are cooking just “Western” tonight. Still, an Asian grocer often makes better shopping sense. All of these, for merely a few examples, are far less costly at an Asian than at a “Western” market: shrimp, heads on or off; oxtail or bony beef for soups or stews; chicken parts (even, yes, feet) for gelatinous broths; indeed, whole fowl of most any sort.

Great meat options

What I love above all, for my own meat-based cooking when I do it, is the true nose-to-tail possible pork purchase. (Here, “nose-to-tail” is indeed that, snots to corkscrews, because in many other non-Asian markets, restaurants and purveyors, the phrase is merely, um, lip service.)

For instance, many a French braise calls for “lardons” to start. Cookbooks will say, “blanch sticks of salt pork” or “slice uncured bacon” to approach getting at real French lardons. In France itself, lardons are the small pieces of raw, un-smoked, uncured, unsalted pork belly rendered in a pot or larded through an un-marbled piece of beef, say.

Well, if you’re after raw, un-smoked, uncured, unsalted pork—belly or otherwise—the array at an Asian grocer can be unnerving. (Note to self: learn how to prepare pork uterus. Not an altogether offal idea.)

I’ve been touting Asian grocery markets as joints for smart shopping for non-Asian cooks and recipes. But of course, they’re best for Asian cooking too—and for other “special need” or specialized kitchen work and eats, as well.

Most Asian grocers have a kitchenware section that’s far more extensive than the half-aisle at the local grocer. My kitchen is replete with strainers, metal bowls, various sizes of bamboo steamers and skewers, and woodenware that makes all my cooking, Asian or otherwise, more efficient.

Get more tips and recipes from Bill St. John.

Gluten-free options at Asian markets

When I cook for my gluten-averse friends, I shop at Asian grocers for rice-based ingredients (rice papers in any number of forms; rice noodles of any size; various sorts of rice grains, brown, sweet or white) and buckwheat noodles or tapioca- and bean-based noodles, flours or ingredients. Sure, you can get some of the same at non-Asian grocers, but neither will the selection nor variety be as extensive, nor the price as low.

Yes to wonton or dumpling skins—fresh or frozen—when I don’t want to roll out pasta for tortellini; yes to grey squash at 69 cents a pound when down the street it’s a dollar or more for zucchini; yes to lemongrass stalks as long as my leg for a third the price of the wee package of sticks of the same hanging in the herb section of the mega-mart.

Yes to panko instead of canned breadcrumbs; yes to Korean pears in December; yes to fresh, real sesame oil, sweet soy sauce, sweet-hot Korean gochujang that wasn’t tinned two years ago; yes to palatable cooking wine; yes to 50-cent ramen packages with terribly interesting flavors.

Yes to smells and greenery and sweet cookies made in Indonesia, the names of which I can’t—nor care to—pronounce. And seaweed treats and gummy bears as large as my thumb and persimmons with still-taut skin.

And yes, to raw, un-smoked, uncured, unsalted pork.

And live fish.

Umami Shrimp: Get what you need at the Asian food grocer

No, the word “umami” in this recipe does not name a sort of Asian shrimp. It is the “fifth taste,” say many scientists, to be added to salt, sweet, acid and bitter. Umami is the savor of cooked mushroom, for example, or aged cheese. Oodles of it in this dish (the crimini, broth, tamari) and from the cooking of it altogether.

 Ingredients

2 tablespoons canola oil, plus more if needed

8 ounces sliced crimini mushrooms

3 green onions, sliced

1/2 cup chicken broth

2 tablespoons tamari

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1/4 teaspoon ground red or black pepper

1/2 pound cleaned, cooked shrimp

1 cup cooked broccoli florets or green beans

Cooked noodles or rice

Directions

Heat canola oil in a wok or large skillet over high heat. Add crimini mushrooms; stir-fry until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Transfer mushrooms to a plate with slotted spoon. Add more oil to wok, if needed; add green onions. Stir-fry 1 minute. Add chicken broth, tamari, sesame oil, and pepper to taste; heat to a boil. Stir in shrimp, broccoli florets or green beans, and reserved mushrooms; heat until hot, about 2 minutes. Serve over cooked noodles or rice.

Reach Bill St. John at billstjohn@gmail.com

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s sidewalk.com. In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.

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