It’s no secret that ethnic markets are the way to get authentic, inexpensive, and hard-to-find ingredients for an extra memorable meal making experience. It can be hard to go into one, especially the first time because you’re not sure if you’ll be able to communicate with the people in the store, if they’ll look at you weirdly, or if you’ll be able to know what the packaging says because of all of the foreign words and characters.
How to Feel Comfortable in a Foreign Food Store:
1. Just Wander Around. There may be plenty of unrecognizable things, but there should be a good handful or recognizable items Pick up items and try to read the labels, or look for pictures.
2. Talk to the people working there. Only once in an Asian market did I ask the Chinese guy at the register a question and he shook his head and shrugged, to communicate that he didn’t speak English. For the most part, if they are working in a store in America, they’ll know a little English.If not, you can find another person working there, come back another day, or use Google Translate to help.
3. Take risks. Buy one thing each time that you have no idea if you’ll like it. At the worst you’re out a few bucks. At the best you’ve found an awesome new foreign thing you like!
And really, that’s it. I go to the Asian Market at 1221 Bakersfield Road, Columbia, SC 29210 (across from the AMC movie theatre in Dutch Square Mall) a few times a year to stock up on rice, delicious sauces, rice noodles, and inexpensive tofu.
This week’s trip was inspired by a burning need for vegetarian oyster sauce so that I could attempt to make drunken noodles at home. I also needed a lot of rice, tofu, and some of the Really Good soy sauce. Once you have REAL soy sauce, you can’t go back to the boring Kikkoman stuff, even though it is also sold in the Asian Market.
It took my wandering up and down the same three aisles that are crammed with sauces, picking up every single one with the words Oyster Sauce on it before I found this vegetarian mushroom oyster sauce. I was so happy, and didn’t even care that the bottle was enormous and the price was double that of regular oyster sauce. Between you and me, I was thisclose to getting oyster sauce squeezed from real oysters with the rationalization that I certainly ate it when I go drunken noodles from Mai Thai, but luckily picking up the bottles and reading paid off!
Other exciting purchases included the tofu in both firm and silken, a huge jug of soy sauce, a can of baby corn
(Patrick’s favorite!), thin rice vermicelli, flat wide rice noodles, a big sack of jasmine rice, and a dragonfruit! There’s always fun surprises at the Asian Market, let me tell you.
I’ve ALWAYS wanted to try a dragonfruit but have never been able to find it anywhere in Columbia. There was no price listed so I put it in my basket and asked at the counter. It was $6/lb. and my curiosity had the best of me so I bought it for the hefty price of $6.06. Dragonfruit is supposed to be a superfood that’s incredibly good for you, so upon arriving home the first thing I did was do a taste testing.
I sliced off the top and used a spoon to scoop out the pulpy flesh, which we agreed tastes like unripened kiwi. I was a little let down on the taste, but will use the rest of it in smoothies. It’s a beautiful fruit though. The hot pink and lime green exterior contrasting with the black and white insides are my idea of a good time!
Due to the type of packaging and the storage practices used in many ethnic stores, it is recommended to wrap your grain based purchases in a plastic bag and let it take a refreshing 24 hour lounge in your freezer to prevent a nasty pantry month infestation.
The best part about this Asian Market shopping trip was that the total for all of this came to $32.84. Their prices just cannot be beat. A cake of tofu that normally costs $2.99 at Bi-Lo was $1.85. Five pounds of Thai jasime rice was $6.25, and a near-quart sized container of the most amazingly flavorful soy sauce ever was $3.75. My two splurges were the vegetarian oyster sauce which cost twice the price of the real oyster sauce, and the dragonfruit which was my fun risky buy of the trip.