Walking into an Asian grocery store for the first time can be a daunting experience. Many of the labels aren't in English, or the English is misspelled or indecipherable. You're left with reading tiny type on the back or trying to mime to someone who may not speak English fluently.
But don't be intimidated by these obstacles. We've broken down what grocery stores carry into a few categories, so you'll realize it's much simpler than you thought.
I've been going to Asian grocery stores with my Chinese-Indonesian mother since I was a small child. I asked her to point out some items that were must-haves for someone looking to make Asian food in their own kitchens. From fresh produce to canned goods, these are her recommendations to start your journey into Asian cuisine.
SAUCES, VINEGARS, OILS
Hoisin sauce — Used in cooking, as a condiment and as a marinade, this sauce is sweet, thick and savory. Try dipping roasted duck in it or brushing it over salmon before grilling.
Chinkiang vinegar — Also known as Zhenjiang vinegar, this rice-based black vinegar is used in cooking and as a dipping sauce. Its sour, slightly sweet, earthy and pungent flavor is great for dumplings and as a base for other sauces.
Oyster sauce — It's often used as a topping for steamed vegetables, like gai lan (see below). Just drizzle the sauce on top after steaming. Done. The savory sauce is slightly seafood-y with a caramel-like taste and texture.
Sesame oil — A little goes a long way for this fragrant, nutty oil. Great for stir-fries and braising. Use a tiny amount, and add more if you dig it. Don't forget to refrigerate it, so it doesn't go rancid.
Rice wine — Another heavy lifter, rice wine can be used in pretty much everything. Try mixing it into dumpling filling, making a sauce with soy sauce or flavoring cooked noodles for chow mein.
PRODUCE AND MEAT
Gai lan — Often referred to as Chinese broccoli or Chinese kale, it has a slightly bitter flavor similar to broccoli rabe and pairs well with savory side dishes. You can stir-fry it with ginger and garlic, or steam it and add a drizzle of oyster sauce. Packed with vitamins A and C, iron, potassium and calcium, it's an easy way to add a green, leafy vegetable to your diet.
Snow pea tips — One of my favorite Asian vegetables, these are crunchy with slightly hollow stems. The flavor is similar to a snow pea, but slightly more aromatic with a fresh, sweet, grassy aftertaste. Try stir-frying them with garlic and serving as a side.
Chinese chives — A little garlicky, a little onion-y, a little leek-y, this versatile and flavorful vegetable is often stir-fried with eggs, wrapped into dumplings or mixed in batter for a pan-fried pancake. If you're around people who are sensitive to pungent smells, tie up the bag you put it in.
Live fish — Momma Wong typically goes for the tilapia, which is thwacked, gutted and scaled in the store. At home, she rubs it down with some salt and then steams the entire fish in ginger, green onion, garlic and soy sauce. If the prospect of dealing with a whole live fish is challenging, you can also find packaged versions.
Oxtail — This is a cut used in many cuisines around the world, but my favorite two styles are braised or in a soup. The oxtail cooks down nice and tender when braised. In soup, the fat creates a silky broth that is comforting and satisfying. Try making oxtail soup with a simple preparation of carrots, celery, potatoes and tomatoes.
JARRED AND CANNED
Pork floss — This dried-pork product can top congee or is used as a filling in buns and wraps. As a child, I would just eat it by the spoonful. Think of it as a fluffier version of pork jerky.
Water chestnuts — You can choose fresh or canned, depending on how you're going to use them. If you're just looking for the crunch factor, the canned version will save you some work. Try them in fried rice or dumpling filling.
Wheat gluten — I'll admit that this item isn't essential, but it's a big part of congee culture. Pickled cucumbers and wheat gluten are bright, sweet toppings for hearty, comforting congee.
Lao Gan Ma — This chili oil has a cult following for a good reason: It tastes great on everything. Fried rice, noodles, sauces, scrambled eggs, whatever. Mix in a little or a lot _ this tingly, crunchy, salty, umami chili oil with preserved black soy beans is the real deal.
Five spice — This powder is made of ground cumin, star anise, cinnamon, peppercorns and cloves, and is used heavily in meat dishes as a dry rub or part of a marinade. In the Western Hemisphere, it's used in drinks and baked goods, as well.
Dumplings — You'll find myriad brands, styles and flavors of dumplings at any Asian grocery store. Some are fully cooked and just need to be heated up, while others need a little more work because the filling is raw.
Wonton wrappers — When you're feeling ambitious and want to make your own dumplings, save a lot of time by buying wonton wrappers. They come thinly sliced and ready to fill with your own creation.
Noodles — Dried rice noodles, vermicelli, egg noodles and flour noodles are staples that are easy to rehydrate and cook. Try putting rice noodles in soup or stir-frying egg noodles with vegetables and sesame oil.
Dried shiitake mushrooms — Rehydrate by putting them in some water for 10 minutes. Then, slice and toss them into a stir-fry, fried rice or a filling. They're also great in breakfast frittatas with some goat cheese.
Snacks — The choices are endless. Try honey crisp bars (which are crunchy and sweet), crackers (try something with a seaweed dust) or White Rabbit candy, which was my favorite candy that had the flavor of a vanilla milkshake and the texture of a Starburst. Pick a bag, go nuts.