Maybe it’s the live fish swimming around in tanks. Or the duck feet. Or what appears to be a normal-size grocery store aisle, except it’s filled with just one product – hundreds of choices of soy sauce.
You have entered a state-of-the-art Asian supermarket.
Unlike the smaller mom-and-pop, mostly Cantonese markets of 40 years ago, modern Asian markets typically are as big as typical American grocery stores. Of course Safeway has bok choy, but eight varieties?
You’ve got to go ethnic for pork stomach, frozen dim sum, tofu skin, fresh water chestnuts, bitter melon, wood ear mushrooms, dragon fruit, salted jellyfish and pickled mustard stems. You can’t make authentic mushi pork without those wood ear mushrooms, and why use canned water chestnuts in a stir fry when fresh tastes so much better?
“These are quite common to Chinese people,” said Sally Wu, of the basics of a Chinese home kitchen, “but maybe not so common to you.”
Wu is an instructor at the Confucius Institute at the University of California, Davis. She was addressing a dozen people she was about to take on a field trip through the Asian food universe inside Ranch 99 Market, a Taiwanese American chain with more than 30 locations in California, Nevada and Texas.
“Most people don’t realize the variety,” said Betty Louie, a Sacramentan of Cantonese ancestry on the tour as a volunteer with the Confucius Institute. “Today, it’s more than rice and soy sauce.”
She could have been speaking about Shun Fat Supermarket, Wing Wa Seafood Supermaket or Seafood City Supermarket, which all cater to an all-inclusive Asian customer base.
Wu, who hails from Wuxi (by car about two hours west of Shanghai), did not experience stores this big even in China. “Some of this is new to me,” Wu said, “because it’s not all Chinese. There’s Thai, Japanese, Korean …”
The idea is a one-stop shop for ingredients for cooking the food of all of Asia. Aside from the usual produce used all over the world – celery, onions, carrots, lettuce, garlic, ginger, parsley, green beans, apples, citrus – there are fresh curry leaves for Indian cooking, candlenuts (Bali), roasted red curry paste (Thailand), prepared sambal condiments (Malaysia), and banana leaves for wrapping shrimp, whole fish, meats or rice into a packet that can be steamed or grilled.
The only way to start is to walk in and take a look.
In the hot foods area, whole roasted ducks and chickens are on display hanging on hooks, harking to little Chinese shops from the 1950s. In the back of the store, whole fish swim in tanks or lay flat on ice within reach of any customer.
The group discovered that the counter staff is helpful and will cut the head and feet off the poultry or remove the head from the fish. Why these items are sold whole in the first place is traditional. “We just believe in something complete,” Wu said. “To be whole means good fortune and perfection.”
Around the corner from the hanging ducks is hot dim sum. Potstickers, siu mai, har gow and more are folded and pleated at the store. But in the middle of the store, a bigger variety of dim sum is sold frozen, ready to heat up at home when the craving strikes. Rice balls, Chinese egg rolls or Philippine lumpia, Chinese pork buns, Japanese gyoza, shrimp wontons, black mushroom-shrimp dumplings are imported from a half-dozen countries.
“It saves time,” Wu said of the frozen options. “Put them in the freezer, then take them out and steam them.”
It’s impossible to get through the produce department without ad hoc cooking advice. Louie held up a fresh water chestnut with a seemingly impervious shell. “Peel it with a potato peeler, then freeze them in a single layer. When you need some, slice off what you need. So much better than canned.”
The soy sauce aisle is confusing, even to Wu. “It’s because there are so many brands,” she said. The store’s buyers make no distinction between low-quality and high-end soy sauce, or thin/light soy or dark/thick soy, even though brands and styles vary markedly and serve different purposes in cooking. That’s why they take up an entire aisle.
After it was over, several in the group left with purchases of organic tamari (Japanese soy sauce typically not brewed with wheat), sesame seeds and dried tofu skin.
Tour member Malcolm Ettin had tried shopping here on his own. “I bought some candy and left,” he said. “It was just too mysterious and overwhelming.” But after the tour, he took home a package of frozen Chinese spinach buns.
Elaine Corn is an award-winning cookbook author and former newspaper food editor.
Here are five tips to help the uninitiated shop in an Asian market.
1. Go in with a list.
2. Bring the recipe you want to make – or the cookbook. Asking for help is easier if you can show a clerk the ingredient’s name in the recipe.
3. Stock up on typical condiments: oils, soy sauce/fish sauce, oyster sauce, curry pastes.
4. Take a friend with you who’s a good cook or has shopped at big Asian supermarkets before.
5. Enjoy the journey. Walk the store and look around. Most signs are in English.
Ranch 99 Market: 4220 Florin Road, Sacramento
(916) 429-8899, www.99ranch.com
Shun Fat Supermarket: 6930 65th St., Sacramento, and
and 4562 Mack Road, Sacramento
(916) 392-3888, (916) 395-6868, www.shunfatsupermarket.com
Wing Wa Seafood Supermaket: 6021 Stockton Blvd., Sacramento
Seafood City Supermarket: 6051 Mack Road, Sacramento
(916) 393-8900, seafoodcity.com