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Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson serves up the best info and tips on Northwest food, cooking, dining and restaurants.

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April 3, 2009 8:26 AM

Why I love our Asian Markets

Posted by Nancy Leson

Today, in my Ticket roundup, I profiled five Asian supermarkets, among them places I regularly shop to feed my family, my fridge and my pantry. As I've said before, I'm an equal-opportunity shopper. And while you might enjoy hitting the sales at the malls for bargains on clothes, shoes or techno-toys, my idea of a great time is roaming the aisles of an international market -- as entertaining and enlightening a trip as any found on a shoestring budget. Passport to India? Who needs one? Ditto for Japan, China, Korea, Southeast Asia and every other spot on the globe I've yet to visit.


I'm no armchair traveler. Instead I head out to those markets with my eyes wide open, without any preconceived notions about what a "foreign" grocery store and its cornucopia of ingredients should look like, or even smell like:



If I don't know what something is, I'm not shy: I'll ask. Which is exactly what I did while shopping at Mayuri in Redmond (conveniently located around the corner from Malay Satay Hut). These bright little vegetables looked really good:



The sign said "tendura," but when I asked the Indian guy shopping beside me what they were, he said he didn't know the English word -- and then he likened them to okra. I took home half a pound, sliced and steamed them and found that they tasted more like a cross between a cucumber and a baby squash. Anybody care to enlighten me, since I've yet to find a proper introduction, either online or in my vast array of cookery books?

I'm all for shopping locally while cooking globally, but sometimes the bargains at these places -- to say nothing of the vast array of meat, seafood and produce -- can't be beat. Check this out:



The greenery scenery at H Mart, in Lynnwood


Yes, you read that right: five bunches of scallions for $1. A little olive oil, some salt, a few minutes outside on the grill or inside under the broiler and you've got a simple side-dish for a crowd. And when was the last time you saw cipollini for $2.99 a pound? That's three bucks less per pound than I usually pay elsewhere for the privilege of roasting and eating those sweet Italian onions.



If you're a Vietnamese and Thai food fan, you've probably eaten green papaya salad, right? Well, why not make it at home? You'll find the unripe fruit at places like Viet-Wah, but also at 99 Ranch Market and many Korean groceries as well:



One of the wonderful things about our Asian markets is that though they may cater to people from one part of the globe, everyone's welcome to shop there. This signage -- at Viet-Wah on Martin Luther King Way in South Seattle -- proves my point:



Ditto for this side-by-side cultural exchange at H Mart, where you can buy both nopales (a Latin American staple) and bitter melon:



Let's say you have no use for the spicy chili powder dear to Korean cookery. You can always turn your back on it and opt for something sweeter, which is exactly what the Birk family did while comparing prices on honey at H Mart:



photo: John Lok/Seattle Times


And I realize you may have no taste for snake head fish in a jar, like this sale item found at Viet-Wah:



Nor any interest in the dried and salted seafood that so many cultures appreciate:



Salted croaker at H Mart



But I love the sweet little dried fish often presented among the panchan (side dishes) served at Korean restaurants. Which is why I bought the pack above at Maruta, in Georgetown, a popular quick-stop for Japanese take-out (they've also got an adjacent Chinese food to-go shop, open weekdays):



What do you mean the idea of eating teensy fishes freaks you out? Oh, stop! How many times in the past month have you had a Caesar salad?



Fish cakes on a stick might be a delight to some (but not my husband, who grew up eating fishcakes on Friday):



But he was more than happy to eat the softshell crabs (widely available in the seafood freezers at Asian markets) I fried in panko (the best breadcrumbs ever), and he loved this cheap-veggie stir-fry:



Don't get me started about the meat and poultry at these places: You want quail, goat, frog legs, beef tongue, pig-parts galore? Step right up! Head to your nearest French bistro for a salade avec lardons, but come to my house for the pork-jowl version, which fries-up right in a good old-fashioned American cast-iron skillet:



And if you ever need some cross-cut short-ribs to throw on the grill (here's how I do it), or the proper marinade ingredients for a fabulous kebab, to my thinking, there's no better place to find everything you'll need than an Asian market. That also goes for making do-it-yourself sushi and my version of home-cooked Dungeness crab:



DIY Dungie, Asian restaurant-style


Each time I'm out shopping, I try to buy something new -- an experiment that's easy to do when an intriguing condiment or jar of something unusual strikes my fancy and costs less than a latte:



Recent purchases -- aha! young peppercorns, just like they use at May in Wallingford!



Wok-fried red-curry catfish, garnished with green peppercorns at May


Sure I've been skunked -- an appropriate word, as far as I'm concerned, when it comes to the jar of spicy fermented tofu I bought at 99 Ranch Market not too long ago. But more often than not I'm surprised and converted.

Among the many Asian foodstuffs that have a permanent place in my pantry are dried noodles and dried mushrooms of many kinds, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, tamarind paste, coconut milk, dried seaweed and dashi:



Abracadabra! A well-stocked pantry is a magical thing


I buy my peanut oil, Kikkoman soy sauce and rice in giant-economy-sizes at discounted prices at Asian markets. And I'm never without Thai curry pastes of every hue; lime pickle and Major Grey's chutney (to complement my friend Vijay's Sri Lankan beef curry recipe); and Mae Ploy chili sauce (as a side-dip when I make Vietnamese summer rolls):



Vietnamese rau? Wow!


I also keep Vietnamese fish sauce around (for adding that je ne sais waaaah? to everything), sriracha hot sauce (because Mac's addicted to it), quail eggs (fried for Nate's favorite breakfast-sandwiches) and mochi ice cream. Another thing about these markets? Housewares! No, I'm not likely to buy a ceramic crock in "Three Bears" sizes for fermenting my own kimchi:



Put a lid on it!



My pals Russ and Chino Yip's mom's recipe, just in case I change my mind


I regularly replace my drain strainers and chipped "ice cream bowls" (OK, they're rice bowls), found in the housewares aisles at Asian markets everywhere:



And seeing as I'm coveting a new rice cooker, I know just where to look to find one. Did I mention I came this-close to buying a stove-top chapati grill at Mayuri? And a new set of sturdy interlocking boxes to replace my reusable-but-disposable Zip-Lock versions at H Mart? And though Nate's really fond of his Yoshi slippers, it's nice to know they're selling these "replacements" at Maruta:



In addition to perusing the housewares aisles, I rarely leave an Asian market without checking out the restaurant kiosks, cafes and other meals-ready-to-eat: everything from sushi, to Chinese barbecue to Chicky Pub! to bahn mi:



The food court at H Mart



The take-out counter at Viet-Wah in South Seattle

But of course, you already know how I feel about delicious and inexpensive Asian takeout foods.

Now take it from me: If you haven't already done so, you need to join me on my journey, paying a visit to these -- and any other "ethnic" markets you've yet to explore. Greater Seattle has so many, and they've got so much to offer, particularly now when so many of us are watching our wallets.

And for those of you who subscribe to my theory that our little corner of the Northwest is an international food-shopping paradise, feel free to chime in. Where do you shop? Which "exotic" ingredients hold a dear place in your heart -- and find a permanent home in your kitchen?

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