All Asian Culinary All Stars
August 17, 2011 11:33 AM   Subscribe

I would like to compile a list of "must buys", or perhaps "must trys", for the next time I go to stock up at an Asian supermarket.

I want to jazz up my culinary life with incredible but obscure products like chiu chow chilli oil. I get to easily overwhelmed by choice, and frustrated by obscure product labels. Point me in the direction of your tastiest Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Thai, Malay and Vietnamese food and drink products.
posted by roofus to Food & Drink (44 answers total) 131 users marked this as a favorite
I get these kind of processed fish balls that come in the freezer department. They're probably the Chinese equivalent of Turkey Twizzlers, but they are very tasty in any kind of fishy dish. I make noodle soup with them.
posted by emilyw at 11:41 AM on August 17, 2011

Sour soup base. It comes in a glass jar and is red-orange. It's thai and/or vietnamese and is pretty much concentrated Tom Yum flavoring. Add it with some sugar and fish sauce to broth to virtually guarantee a decent Thai soup.

Dried Chinese sausages are sweet and salty, and are really good if diced and put atop a dish with steaming hot sticky rice.

Dried rice noodles: the trick with rice noodles (and they never tell you this anywhere on the packages!) is to soak them in lukewarm water for half an hour, until they become edible on their own. Then they can be added straight into the wok without boiling and cook up perfectly. Or just plopped into hot soup for less than a minute, and they're done.

Don't discount frozen dumplings and steam buns. Pick your favorite fillings (mustard greens are especially good).
posted by Jon_Evil at 11:44 AM on August 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

Ajinomoto gyoza and dipping sauce!
Also try the sweet corn ice cream and Magnolia Coconut ice cream.
posted by Soliloquy at 11:45 AM on August 17, 2011

Oh, shit! and Jufran brand Banana Ketchup (spicy or mild). It's Filipino, but I've found myself using it as a secret ingredient in pretty much every fried noodle dish I've made this year.
posted by Jon_Evil at 11:45 AM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Pickled plums (umeboshi), so good! Kewpie mayonnaise, Sky Flake crackers, aburage (thin sliced, deep fried tofu), Happy Panda cookies, sweet chili sauce, frozen korokke (croquettes), fish sauce (nuoc mam) ... go crazy! Oh, and try some delicious mochi ice cream!
posted by Allee Katze at 11:54 AM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Don't discount frozen dumplings and steam buns.

This. I've had frozen BBQ pork buns that were almost as good as the fresh ones you'd get at a dim sum place (plus, they're super easy to prepare, just steam them for a few minutes and you're good to go).

I also like to go down the junk food aisle and pick up some flavours that you can't get at your standard Safeway -- prawn crackers are probably an obvious one, but I recently discovered curry-flavoured potato chips that are just fantastic.
posted by asnider at 11:55 AM on August 17, 2011

I like to buy:
garlic chili sauce (for tom yum soup, pho)
frozen unpeeled edamame (for salting and boiling, yummy)
green tea powder (or "matcha" powder; I have this in a smoothie with frozen yoghurt, milk, ice, whey protein, blueberries, and greens powder every morning)
fresh seaweed salad (in the fridge; apparantly there are too kinds. The one that smells sweeter and (usually) has more sesame seeds is the one you want; the other is very bitter)
lychee nuts
bean paste, dashi, and shredded seaweed for miso soup
fish sauce (made out of sardines? for making pho)
thick rice noodles (also for pho)
Almond cookies (delicious)
Aloe chunks in syrup (for dessert)
Aloe juice with chunks (for drinking)
Sesame oil (for salads)
Enoki mushrooms
posted by Acer_saccharum at 11:56 AM on August 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

The first thing off the top of my head is pu-erh tea. I usually pick up a known pu-erh, then carry it around the aisle and find other pu-erhs by comparing the lettering.

I also buy different rices (black, red, etc.) there, fresh fish, and a whole lot of different produce. Ginger's not exotic, but it's almost always cheaper. Other produce might include fresh lychee fruit (and I get canned when it's out of season), long beans, various types of mushrooms, and different varieties of eggplants.

I like to make a point of getting at least one thing that confuses me when I go, too, usually candy, a drink, or some snack thing. I've only been horrified by the results maybe once or twice.
posted by ernielundquist at 11:58 AM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Everything above plus Thai tea for making Thai Iced Tea, which is the drink of the gods.
posted by jquinby at 11:58 AM on August 17, 2011

Thai chili paste with soya bean (prik pao), Pantainorasingh brand: not very hot, sort of jam-like and sweet, great in everything.

Cheap mesh bags of shallots

Chinese black vinegar
posted by neroli at 12:02 PM on August 17, 2011

dashi stock
seaweed, the kind that you soak and swells
kombu leaves, for flavoring soups
bok choy, specially the baby ones, they are delicious and healthy
MOCHI! full of ice cream, bean paste or fruits (daifuku)
aloe vera drinks
udon noodles, they are a little bit more chewy, and delicious with japanese style soup
seasoning for rice (it comes in a shaker, in different flavors)
rice vinegar (you can use it to season rice sushi)
also, the round rice paper that you soak in warm water and use to make "light" spring rolls
bonito flakes, for fishy stock
sushi rice, of course
the fish also tends to be very fresh
sesame oil
rice flour (glutinous) to make dango desserts (REALLY easy)
I also like to buy a variety of ramen flavors, for a quick exotic fix
fresh lemongrass (you can put it in water and have your own lemongrass plant!)

also, for recipes and ideas, watch Cooking with Dog, on you tube. I learnt lots from that lady and her dog.
posted by Tarumba at 12:18 PM on August 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

mooncakes are delicious, comrade robot!
posted by Tarumba at 12:19 PM on August 17, 2011

If you have a sweet tooth, then candied Winter Melon is to die for!
posted by Hanuman1960 at 12:46 PM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Big block of tamarind pulp ... absolutely essential for pad thai and adds a nice to tart note to lots of things. (I used a bit this year in my Thanksgiving turkey gravy.)
posted by cyndigo at 12:49 PM on August 17, 2011

Ginger honey crystals. They come in little pouches, instantly dissolve, and make a delightful hot or cold drink. I especially like them in bubbly water.
posted by Invoke at 12:52 PM on August 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

pocky. the 'pocky for men' kind is best, no mater what your gender identity.
posted by genmonster at 1:00 PM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Korean: powdered pomegranite, black rice vinegar, twelve blend grain mix, bumpy lemon paste, seconding shallot, gai lan (Asian broccoli), Lemongrass marinade spice packet.
posted by effluvia at 1:06 PM on August 17, 2011

Mooncakes are delicious, but 1. extremely calorically dense (ie, like 800 calories a cake) and can have some unusual flavors and contents, like hardboiled eggs. The red bean and the melon ones are very tasty, but it's tricky to restrain yourself from eating a week's worth of calories at one sitting. I share them with like-minded friends. With mooncakes you often also get an attractive tin.

Kombucha squash - my favorite squash!
Tamarind also comes in a paste/semi-liquid which I find easier to work with
Little bottles of white pepper, hot oil and mixed pepper in the Japanese food aisle for topping ramen and broth
Thai ginger, which is smoother skinned and knobbier than the usual kind but can be subbed in for a different flavor
Sapporo Ichiban - Japan's Number One Ramen! - in the various "Japanese style" flavors
Fresh udon noodles
Pea tips - stir fry with just a little soy sauce or salt, use quickly
Local asian pastries - our place gets mostly vietnamese ones.
Japanese rice crackers - I have no brand advice; I get various flat salty/sweet ones and some flat ones with wasabi that have a big piece of seaweed on top of each cracker (those are the best)
Little tins of masuman (peanut) curry to mix into cocunut milk.
Lotus root
Tea-flavored hard candy, lychee flavored hard candy
If you're not vegetarian:
Tako-yaki, or japanese octopus dumplings, which can be microwaved. Mmmm. I miss those.
Those weird little cookie-chocolate things that look like biscuit mushroom stems with a chocolate cap - they contain lard.

I make an insta-curry with this canned red thai curry (comes in a blue can, contains pumpkin - no idea what the brand is but it's widely distributed) thus: chop onion into large pieces; saute in neutral oil until soft; add lots of minced garlic and maybe some ginger; add any long-cooking vegetables (Kabocha squash, for example, but you'll need to lid the pan to steam the squash). Chop mock duck. Add mock duck, curry and quick-cooking vegetables; simmer.
posted by Frowner at 1:09 PM on August 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Furikake rice seasoning is delicious.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 1:16 PM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Most of mine have already been said

But things I stock up on everytime I go to an Asian Grocery are

Sweet Chilli sauce. Great for everyting from tossing in a stirfry to pouring over potato wedges with sour cream.

Sesame Oil
Star Aninse
Jasmine Rice & sticky Rice.
Various noodles
Ketchup Manis
Various soy sauces
Fresh Bamboo shoots & water chestnuts - so much better than the canned if you can find them.
Any asian greens they are selling - half the time I don't know what they are but they usually taste great.
Fish sauce - great in stir fries doesn't taste like fish once it cooks a bit and adds a certain something.
Miso soups
Miso & Dashi & Nori
posted by wwax at 1:19 PM on August 17, 2011

I agree about Thai "insta-curry", it's convenient, easy and can be surprisingly good quality. There are the little cans and the big cans, the little cans are more concentrated, the big cans are more "pre-mixed". With the big cans, you can cook some meat and vegetables in a pan, splorp the can of curry over them, and voilĂ , you have a fairly tasty "almost homemade" curry.
posted by gimonca at 2:55 PM on August 17, 2011

Kewpie mayonnaise
posted by cazoo at 2:56 PM on August 17, 2011

The Kasugai gummy candies are really good and flavorful. Also beloved for their florid, quirky Japlish packaging copy.
posted by gimonca at 3:01 PM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you like kimchi, give zha cai a shot.

(If you haven't tried kimchi, you want to.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:07 PM on August 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you like rice crackers and your local shop has an Indonesian section, look for the bags of krupuk. They're probably in clear plastic packaging, if you're lucky, there will be several brands, sizes and styles available, from large cakes with individual rice grains down to quarter-sized colored smooth disks. These are not cooked, you take them home and deep-fry them yourself in hot oil. Fresh, hot, tasty, and also fun to make--they swell up and puff dramatically when you cook them.
posted by gimonca at 3:08 PM on August 17, 2011

Vegetarian fake duck breast is remarkably tasty. Instant ginger tea (read the ingredients list and go for the ones that say "ginger, sugar" or "ginger, sugar, honey") is good and helpful if you have any tendency to motion sickness or digestive distress. Thai green coconuts (chop a hole in the top, drink the coconut water, then scoop out and eat the coconut flesh). Mochi dim sum with peanut-coconut filling (don't know what the actual name is; "coconut mochi with peanut filling" is the best I've been able to do on Google).

And not edible, but under the heading of "things I can only find at the Asian grocery": Zheng Gu Shui analgesic liniment — excellent stuff.
posted by Lexica at 3:18 PM on August 17, 2011

Cuttlefish jerky. The spicy kind.

And the good, spicy korean instant ramen.
posted by shinyshiny at 3:24 PM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ginger Paste
I love this stuff in a stir fry - and it's faster/easier than processing regular ginger
posted by Schlani at 3:54 PM on August 17, 2011

Thai pastes - eg red curry, green curry, tom yum, sour coconut. These keep forever in the fridge & make a convenient base for a quick meal.

Little bricks of gago-gado paste, or similar peanut pastes - great for an easy salad or satay dish, so much better than using peanut butter.

Bags of tiny dried fish, eg whitebait - a Filipina housemate of mine used to fry these up with a bit of chilli & garlic for an instant tasty topping for rice, or a snack on their own. Tiny frozen shrimp (prawns) are very handy too, for things like stirfries.

Kalamanci juice or powder - another Filipino speciality, kalamanci is a super tasty kind of citrus.

Sambal oelek - Indonesian chilli paste, a condiment found on every table there.

Blachan - pungent fish paste, maybe not to everybody's taste, but used in a lot of Indonesian & Malaysian cooking.

Palm sugar - another Indo/Malay staple, brown sugar doesn't really substitute.

Coconut oil - yummy.

Fried shallots - sprinkle them on top of all sorts of things for cruncy oniony goodness.

(a bit of a SE Asian bent, there...seems to be more of a Northern Asian focus in a lot of the other good answers above)
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:55 PM on August 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

tang yuan aka glutinous rice balls are deliciously chewy and easy to make. You can put them in red bean soup or eat them with a bit of sugar. My favorite fillings are red bean, peanut, and sesame, though I also enjoy eating the tiny unfilled ones.
posted by millions of peaches at 5:07 PM on August 17, 2011

Also, pressed five-spice tofu, also known as dofu gan. You can slice it up and eat it raw or use it in stir fries.
posted by millions of peaches at 5:15 PM on August 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

Nthing Red Curry paste, along with Chaokoh coconut milk (Cook's Illustrated magazine taste test winner), limes, fish sauce,
with some vegetables, chicken and Jasmine rice, you've got yourself a damn fine curry or even Thai coconut soup makings.
posted by Jazz Hands at 6:41 PM on August 17, 2011

Oh my god, everyone here is wrong because they haven't mentioned Sichuan chili bean paste or Sichuan peppercorn! Sichuan peppercorn, in particular, is definitely a "must try" -- you've never had anything like it.

(The chili bean paste link is to Fuchsia Dunlop's site -- I really, really recommend her Sichuan cookbook, Land of Plenty).
posted by imalaowai at 6:58 PM on August 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have made green, red, yellow, jungle and masman curries from scratch in Thailand (Chaing Mai School of Cookery).

The premade bags from Nittaya Thai Curry Products Co Ltd far surpass anything I did those three weeks by hand. And they are concentrated and last forever (at least, two years in the fridge).
posted by digitalprimate at 7:04 PM on August 17, 2011 [6 favorites]

Dried persimmons. Good Nori (seaweed). Black sesame toppings for rice. Seconding the ginger juice powder. Shitake mushrooms.
posted by effluvia at 8:46 PM on August 17, 2011

- In the produce aisle, pick up Chinese long beans.
- Lap cheong are sausages that you can steam with rice. They are on the shelf (not refrigerated or frozen).
- Khong Guan Sultana biscuits are cream crackers with raisins.
- Mr. Brown Iced Coffee is probably available at any neighborhood grocery, but it'll be in an Asian grocery, too.
- Similarly, Calbee Shrimp Chips may be in any grocery in your area.
- The jasmine tea in a yellow box is my favorite of all green teas.
- Gold Kili Ginger Drink will be with the teas. They are individual packets of dried granules that you mix in a mug of water (or warmed milk!). The granules are honey and ginger.
- Preserved plums are in the candy aisle.
- The canned fish with sauces (especially mackerel) are good, but I cannot remember the brand name. If you look in the canned fish aisle, these are smaller cans that are round, and the one that is especially good has grated ginger in the sauce.
- If the store has a Chinese bakery, you want one of each. And if you see those ducks, you really want some of that, too.
posted by Houstonian at 9:12 PM on August 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

After you get tired of the different varieties of Thai curry, make sure to check out Japanese curry! Maybe it is not the first country that you think of when you think curry, but it should be! In particular I recommend the blocks of spices sold as S&B Golden Curry. The spicy is not at all spicy, so feel free to go for that.

Cooking? Cook up some onions, add potatos, carrots, meat if you like, and anything else you want along with the spice block. Boil. Stir once in a while. Serve over rice often with fried pork cutlet (katsu-kare). Tastes great with cheddar cheese or colby jack on top.

Other brands are also good, but S&B is easy to find overseas. I do not as strongly recommend the tasty-bites versions, with a foil pack and sauce and such already made. It's okay though.
posted by whatzit at 3:05 AM on August 18, 2011

XO Sauce. It's a spicy Chinese condiment made from dried shrimp and scallops, garlic and chilis, but it's not fishy. It's more like umami in a jar, and you can just add a bit to something stir-fired. Green beans work really well, as does seafood.

If you go to a Japanese market see if they have chocolate MeltyKiss. They're sort of like the old Ice Cube chocolates, but way better.
posted by Room 641-A at 3:13 AM on August 18, 2011

The fish sauce with three crabs on the label.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:22 AM on August 18, 2011

Why not have a look at the drinks fridge? No nasty surprises here, and it isn't much of a loss if you don't like the flavour.
  • Grass jelly drink - my favourite! Tasty bits of grass jelly in a light, refreshing beverage with a distinctive flavour. Remember to shake before opening! (Getting the last morsels of jelly out is an art in itself - the key is to swirl the can gently while tipping the last of the liquid into your mouth.)
  • Vitasoy - sweetened soy milk in handy tetrapaks. You can get them in different flavours but I think the original blue is the best.
  • Yakult - a sweet and slightly sour milk-based drink. I don't know about the supposed health benefits, but they taste really nice anyway.

posted by fix at 6:51 AM on August 18, 2011

Oops I meant to link to Google Images so you know what to look's only a click away:)
posted by fix at 6:53 AM on August 18, 2011

previously. not exactly the same but i'm sure there's overlap.
posted by ifjuly at 10:15 AM on August 18, 2011

Ube jam, purple goodness that's great on a toasted roll.
Pre-marinated frozen milkfish: Broil it with some fresh diced tomatoes and onions for a simple fast dinner.
Red Bean Bread: This is my kryptonite. So good fresh with the red bean jam baked in and sesame seeds on top.
Chinese eggplant: more surface area to flesh ratio compared to European eggplant, if you like the flavor of eggplant skin. Broil it until soft, shred it with a fork, flatten it, then fry it with ground pork and egg (Tortung talong)
posted by benzenedream at 4:08 PM on August 18, 2011

Trung Nguyen gourmet blend ground coffee
(although Cafe Du Monde will do in a pinch) and
Longevity brand condensed milk and a phin filter

to make orgasm in a cup, if chilled and poured over ice aka
Cafe Sua da

posted by lalochezia at 7:40 PM on August 18, 2011

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