What to buy at an Asian market

what to buy at an asian market

So you have decided that you want to start cooking at home a bit more and that you want to expand your palate. You decide to go to Whole Foods because it’s convenient. Eight dollars for ponzu sauce?! Six dollars for soba noodles?! Twelve dollars for dried seaweed?! Who the hell shops here?!

Those are all proper reactions to the prices at Whole Foods Market. While it’s a great resource for exotic and organic food, it’s prohibitively expensive. If you really want to shake things up in your kitchen and fill your pantry (or whatever Ikea item you are currently referring to as your pantry) with exciting spices and foods to make delicious meals you really need to go to an Asian market. There are probably HUNDREDS of Asian markets in the 5 boroughs. Some of them are right around the corner and others are in a galaxy far far away only accessible by the D train and a bus that starts with Q. For those of you who don’t live in New York city, Q stands for Queens and that means it’s FAR.

Going to an Asian market might seem stressful, dirty and confusing but I promise you that it can be FUN! And the best part? It’s DIRT cheap. Most of the sauces you are going to purchase will run you $1-$4 in Chinatown, compared with $4-$10 at fancy health food stores.

For a helpful guide to a few of my favorite markets, please visit my ethnic grocery stores post here.

I’ll re-hash a lot of that information below for your convenience.

So, you’ve decided to make the trip. You are armed with canvas tote bags and and open mind.

While there are many MANY Asian grocery stores in NYC, I recommend starting with one of the biggest and English-friendly stores in Manhattan’s Chinatown: Hong Kong Supermarket. While it’s not the BEST store, it’s easy to navigate and most the people working there can help you in discernible English.

Hong Kong Supermarket is located at 157 Hester Street between Mott St. and Bowery, near the B, D, J, N & Q trains. The 6 is not too far as well.

It’s a monster. Once inside the first set of doors  you’ll find a strange little shop that seems to sell DVDs and Hello Kitty bedding. Go through the second doors and you’ll feel like you stepped into another world. It’s not a HUGE store, Manhattan can’t sustain suburban-sized SUPER markets but it’s fairly extensive.

Hong Kong is a Chinese market but you can find many important ingredients for all types of Asian cuisine. Don’t forget to check out their produce annex, located just to the left when you enter the store. You can find almost ALL of the products I’ve listed at any large Asian grocery. The packages may look strange with not an English word in sight but read the ingredients label. Thanks to the FDA all food that is imported and sold in the US MUST have nutritional information and an ingredients list in English. This is just a starting point, a primer if you will.

Shopping List For Stocking your Asian Pantry 

Pantry 

bonito flakes

bonito flakes

Bonito Flakes 

Also known as Katsuobushi, these delicate shavings are made from a dried and fermented tuna fish. Bonito flakes are often served as a garnish on tofu dishes or appetizers. They have a delicately smoky flavor and melt in your mouth.

Try putting a small pinch of bonito flakes on hot-off-the grill vegetables such as shishito peppers or eggplants. The flakes are so paper-thin that they will writhe and wiggle when in contact with the hot food. I love eating bonito flakes right out of the bag, but they are delicious on a block of cold silken tofu with dashi broth and chopped scallions.

Recipes: Tofu Salad with Bonito Flakes  – Spinach Bites  – Agedashi Tofu 

Coconut milk

Sold in 14 oz. cans, coconut milk is always good to have around along with curry paste for a quick meal. I like to use the “light” coconut milk in my curries.

Recipes: Chickpea and Coconut Curry with Sweet Potatoes Thai Curry with Salmon and Eggplant Vegetable Curry

Curry Paste

Curry paste and coconut milk go hand in hand to make fiery Thai curries. The ingredients list will usually feature some combination of chili peppers, garlic, cumin, onions, galangal, shrimp paste and citrus. I like the english-friendly brand “Thai Kitchen.”

Recipes:  Thai Curry with Salmon and Eggplant – Vegetable Curry

dashi

Dashi

Dashi is what makes miso soup so delicious. It is a smoky stock that forms the basis of most Japanese soups. You can make your own by boiling dried bonito and konbu seaweed or you can just buy Dashi powder in convenient single serve packets manufactured by Ajinmoto.

Recipes: Agedashi Tofu Miso Soup with Glass Noodles and Lime 

Dried Shitake mushrooms

Dried shitakes are perfect for flavoring soups. Rehydrated in some boiling water, they take on a slightly spongey, yet flavorful, form that’s great for stir fries.

Recipes: Miso Beef NoodlesKorean Glass Noodles Warm Soba in Shitake Broth 

Fish Sauce

This stuff smells rank but tastes amazing. It adds zing to dressings and illusive salty freshness to curries. Have you ever ordered fried Vietnamese spring rolls? You know that clear sauce they come with that you can’t get enough of? FISH SAUCE! Keep this on hand for any Thai or Vietnamese cooking.

Recipes: Bahn XeoThai Curry with Salmon

Gochujang

This Korean hot pepper sauce is going to make you re-think barbecue sauce. It’s smoky and complex like barbecue sauce, but has another layer reminiscent of the best Italian tomato sauce. I put gochujang on everything from chicken to quesadillas. It’s sold in large tubs but keeps in your fridge forever.

Recipes: Korean Tacos 

Kewpie Mayonnaise

Once you have Kewpie, it’s unlikely you’ll go back to regular mayo-okay maybe homemade once in a while. It’s mayonnaise whipped with MSG. This fluffy white condiment is amazing on burgers, noodles, sesame pancakes and really anything. It’s the star ingredient in really good spicy tuna.

Recipes: Spicy Tuna on Crispy Rice

Japanese curry

Japanese Curry

This comfort food is sort of the hamburger helper of Japan. It’s a sweet and creamy curry mixture that comes in solid blocks. Just add water and vegetables for an insanely good meal.

Recipes: Japanese Curry with Chicken Katsu 

Mirin

This versatile Japanese cooking wine is an essential ingredient in many dressings and sauces. While you may have never heard of it, it’s good to have on hand if you plan on making anything Japanese. It’s flavor is mild and is often used to balance the acidity of soy sauce.

Recipes: Agedashi Tofu 

Miso

If you’ve only ever had miso in soup, now is your chance to expand your pallet with this salty, rich paste. There are MANY different kinds of miso for different things. Usually white or shiro miso is used for “miso soup” and red miso is usually used for cooking. I keep both red and white miso on hand but if you had to choose, I’d go for the white.

Miso Beef Noodles – Miso Soup with Glass Noodles and Lime 

Ponzu

If you get one thing at the asian market, it should be ponzu. This amazing sauce is like soy sauce mixed with lime juice. It’s got the tangyness of fish sauce without the smell and the zestyness of a fresh squeezed lemon.

Rice (brown, sushi)

Brown rice from the health food store can run you $5 to $10. Nishiki brand brown rice is about $3 at Hong Kong. Also stock up on sushi rice. To make the perfect sushi rice, add 1 cup rinsed rice to one cup cold water in a medium sauce pan. Cover (do not remove the lid, EVER) and bring to a boil over nigh heat. The pot will start to shake in about 3 minutes when the water boils. As soon as it boils, turn the heat down to a simmer and cook for exactly 16 minutes. Remove from heat and let it steam for at least 5 minutes. Serve immediately.

Recipes: Ochazuke Spicy Tuna on Crispy Rice

Rice Paper Discs

These round discs are used to make spring rolls. At first they appear firm with ridges but when soaked for a few seconds in warm water, they immediately become soft and chewy. Stuff them with vegetables and herbs for a cooling snack.

Recipes: Dill Salmon in Rice Paper Vietnamese Summer Rolls 

rice noodles

Rice Noodles

Also known as “glass noodles,” rice noodles are incredibly versatile and gluten free. They come in thin angel hair-like strands that are perfect for soups and linguini-like flat strands that are perfect for Pad Thai. I stock up on different shapes and sizes for a quick meal. Rice noodles usually cook in about 5 minutes. Toss them with soy sauce, sesame oil and top with scallions for a fast snack.

Recipes: Miso Beef Noodles – Spicy Miso with Glass Noodles – Pad Thai

Sesame Oil

The workhorse of asian cooking. It’s great in stir fries, noodle dishes, dressings, and even desserts.

Recipes: Black Garlic Soba NoodlesKale Salad with Miso Dressing – Detox Carrot Ginger Dressing 

shrimp chips

Shrimp Chips

My mom used to make these for me as a kid and I have never stopped loving them. Essentially these are rice crackers with shrimp flavoring. Uncooked, they are clear hard disks, but when added to hot oil, they immediately puff up into a fluffy cracker.

togarishi

Sichimi Togarishi 

This Japanese spicy red pepper powder is a must-buy. It goes on rice, in soups, on meat, in salads, on anything. It adds a distinct flavor without overpowering sort of like Old Bay.

Soba Noodles

I always keep soba noodles around for a quick weeknight meal. In the summer, you can live off cold soba noodles dipped in tsuyu (soba dipping sauce made from mirin, dashi and soy sauce). Usually made from buckwheat, soba noodles have an interesting earthy taste that seems to pair nicely with garlic. I also like green tea flavored soba noodles for something a bit different.

Recipes: Black Garlic Soba Noodles – Soba Noodles with Sesame Sauce 

Soy Sauce

Most asian dishes contain at least a drop of soy sauce. It’s great on everything from noodles to steak. Soy sauce seems like a basic ingredient but there are so many varieties to choose from so be careful when selecting your soy sauce. I like Japanese soy sauces or “shoyu” which tend to be lighter in flavor and Kikkoman is a good brand. Kikkoman also makes these beautiful metal jugs which you can store in a cool dry place for up to a year. Tamari is another type of soy sauce, made by a process that doesn’t involve wheat. Chinese soy sauce is great for flavoring a stir fry but may taste harsh if you try to use it as dipping sauce. Did you know that you can buy “white” shoyu…an almost clear liquid. Got money burning a whole in your pocket? Try an artisan soy sauce like Kishibori. Want to taste the truffle oil of Japanese condiments? Pick up a bottle of smoked soy sauce from Dean and Deluca and add a few drops to a small bowl of rice. It’s heaven. I could do a whole post on soy sauce so I’ll leave at that for now.

Remember to refrigerate your small bottles of soy sauce. Beware of generic brand supermarket soy sauces as they are often made with chemicals and salt instead of aged soybeans.

Tea

This is your opportunity to stock up on cheap tea. You can find lots of high quality loose green tea and cheaper, perfectly acceptable varieties of jasmine, ginger, black and green. I love to buy boxes of ginger crystals, which when added to hot water make a delicious sweet drink.

Tsuyu

Tsuyu is a versatile soup base for udon and soba noodles. You can make it yourself by combining mirin, dashi and soy sauce. I like to buy it in the bottle…it’s just SO easy to pack in a small jar with soba noodles and scallions for a summer lunch; try the Kikkoman brand. This one might be hard to find, but check in the refrigerated section near the fresh noodles.

wakame

Wakame 

This dried seaweed is versatile and quick-cooking. Simple re-hydrate it in warm water and add to soups and noodle dishes.

Recipes: Spicy Miso with Glass Noodles

Wasabi Powder

Real wasabi is grated from a green root that grows in cold mountain streams. It’s very expensive to buy fresh. Most asian markets sell wasabi paste which is wasabi powder mixed with fillers. I like to buy the powder to control the spice level myself.

Recipes: Wasabi Mashed Sweet Potatoes  Spicy Tuna on Crispy Rice

Yuzu juice

Yuzu is an ugly little citrus fruit that produces a delightfully sour juice. You can sometimes find fresh yuzu, but I find the slightly salty bottled version does just as well. I throw it in cocktails, in soups and on salads.

Recipes: Yuzu Broccoli Rabe Yuzu Sorbet

Fresh Produce

Daikon radish

This GIANT radish has a delicate flavor. It’s often served with fried foods to balance the heaviness. Use a microplane grater to finely grate the radish and serve in a little pile on your plate of fried food.

Recipes: Broiled Yellowtail Collar Japanese Curry 

Ginger

Fresh ginger is essential for many asian dishes. It’s dirt cheap and keeps for a while. I like to sip fresh ginger, lemon and honey with hot water before bed.

Frozen and Refrigerated Foods 

Burdock Kinpara

This strange looking bag is sold with the frozen vegetables. It’s pre-sliced burdock root and carrots. Throw the frozen vegetables in a pan with sesame oil and soy sauce for an incredibly healthy treat.

Recipes: Burdock Kinpara Rice Bowl 

Packaged dumplings

Don’t leave without picking up a package of vegetable and pork dumplings! Obviously…

Tofu 

Tofu is one of my favorite foods. I eat the silken variety cold and plain with a dipping sauce and I eat the firm variety in noodle dishes and soups. There are too many brands of tofu to list here. Tofu packaged in water is sold in the refrigerated section and vacuum-packed tofu is sold on the shelves and stays fresh for a year unopened.

Recipes: Bahn Xeo Tofu Salad Pork Buns 

Liked this post? Try these:

Best Ethnic Markets in NYC 

A Chinese Takeout Gem in Greenpoint 

Broiled Yellowtail Collar 

14 thoughts on “What to buy at an Asian market

  1. Love this entry, and all the products that you recommend..The “rice noodles” you are referring to are actually mung-bean noodles, a bit healthier and lower on calories that ricenoodles. 🙂

  2. Thank you so much! I especially liked your descriptions of the different sauces, they always seem so exotic to me and now I can use some! Especially that soba sauce.

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