Navigating an Asian food store

Recently, my dad showed me a Yelp review from 2012 of the Asian grocery store my family frequented when I was a child.He thought it was funny.

Below is an excerpt from this person’s 1-star review:

When I arrived it was 10 am, their opening time. I stood there baking in the hot sun for 10-15 minutes while the owner-lady was stocking shelves. She saw me there and ignored me for a good bit before finally letting me in, refused to look at me or greet me when she did… when I failed to find the mustard sauce and asked where it was, she aggressively stood up and started shouting/pointing from over where she was, “RIGHT THERE, RIGHT THERE, RIGHT THERE, RIGHT THERE” in a really volatile way… She was indicating the mustard powder. I was unfamiliar with it so I asked how to turn it into sauce and she screamed “I DON’T KNOW!”(of course she knew!), again never looking up from her shelf-stocking.

I believe I know which “owner-lady” this reviewer happened upon. If I remember correctly, she was the actual store owner’s mother, and wasn’t as proficient in English as her relatives. For many years, this store was the only Asian market in town, and although there now are a few others in town, I’ve noticed there’s a formula for shopping at these stores… you just have to know the math.

What my friends had to say

I sent a question out on Facebook to my friends asking for advice on shopping at an Asian food market for the first time.


Some had been to the rodeo


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Side note: Find my homemade dumpling recipe here.

Others remember their times being the overwhelmed shopper.

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The Verdict? If you know what you’re doing, shopping at an Asian market can be a very rewarding experience.

My advice

  1. Like items are grouped and then sub-grouped. Like my friends said, if you’re looking for something specific, it helps to have a list. Try doing a Google Image search of the item if you’re really unsure what you’re looking for. Generally, the aisles will stock similar items together. Look down the aisle. What do you see?
    • Lots of bottles? This is the sauce aisle. Here you will find everything from soy sauce to fish sauce, soy bean paste, rice vinegar, chili-garlic paste, etc. etc.
    • Small-to-medium-sized boxes? Coffee and tea. Mostly tea. Think about boxes of teabags you might see in a conventional supermarket. In this aisle you’ll find the wonderfully fragrant varieties of jasmine, ginger and green teas, along with black, Thai-style and chai teas as well.
    • Canned items? Many items used in Asian cooking are canned and imported. This is where you will go to also find items that are not in the fresh produce section (or you’re not in the mood for prepping the fresh ingredient): coconut milk, lychees, rambutan, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, canned meats…
    • Items in colorful, plastic bags? This will likely be the dessert or treats aisle, especially if it’s near the front: cookies, mochi, pocky sticks and the Meiji Hello Panda Cookies *drools*
  2. Frozen items are along the back wall. I don’t know why this is the case, but I assume it’s due to the location of the power outlets. Nevertheless, the frozen section is not to be discounted. There will likely be multiple freezer sections: one houses the pre-packaged items, the other houses the frozen cooking ingredients, especially fish and meats.
  3. Fresh produce will often be pre-bagged or sold individually out of the boxes in which they came. Seriously though, I’ve gotten some great deals on HUGE bunches of scallions.
  4. There will always be an aisle, usually on the side that sells non-food items. This is especially handy for cooking some of the dishes I have, or will, discuss in this blog. The bamboo steamer I used to steam dumplings was purchased at an Asian food market.
  5. Don’t be afraid to try something new. Many items you pick up will feature multiple languages on the label. Don’t let this discourage you. If you can read it, see what the ingredients are to get an idea if the item is sweet or savory. Or, Google it. You never know what you’ll like until you try it.

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