What's good at the Asian grocery?
May 20, 2013 9:43 AM   Subscribe

There's a giant Korean supermarket not terribly far from where I live (the mega Hmart in Burlington). It's enormous--big enough to have small aisles dedicated to different Asian groceries--a Thai aisle, an Indian aisle, a Japanese aisle, etc. It's far more than I'd ever be able to explore on my own. What items available in a truly excellent Asian supermarket should I seek out? This is pretty much a pan-Asian free-for-all, so if you have a favorite Indonesian mustard, or an unforgettable Cambodian pickle, please share here. Bonus points for sous-vide-able items!

I've always loved supermarkets, and I've been buying stuff from Asian markets since I was a kid, so I'm hoping for recommendations that are more off the beaten path than sriracha or Pocky sticks.

So, for instance, in the Japanese soy sauce aisle--saishikomi-shoyu, dashi-shoyu, etc. Which of the different types should I seek out? What of the many different fermented bean pastes should I try? Unusual spices?

If you can share a link to a picture, or the name in the original language, or include a phoenetic spelling, that would be great. Generally, most products have only the import label in English, and everything else is in the relevant foreign language.
posted by Admiral Haddock to Food & Drink (54 answers total) 104 users marked this as a favorite
This is sort of like asking "what's good in the [regular] supermarket?" Everyone is going to like different things - after all, that disgusting canned spam/strange kale/weird bread/gross cookie that you hate has enough fans that the store stocks it.

Maybe you can narrow down your questions a bit? What type of food do you like to cook? Do you like spicy food or salty food or sweet food? Do you want to focus on one cuisine or preparation type?
posted by Kololo at 9:51 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Off the top of my head,
- explore the tea section. I love solomon's seal tea (a kind of nuttier, more complex-tasting flavor than barley tea)
- explore the Korean laver (roasted seaweed) options. The cheapie ones are often cheapie for a reason
- explore the frozen food section. Koreans have come up with a nice variety of frozen dumpling (mandu) types. I like the "mul-mandu" the best - the teeny ones that are meant just to be boiled.
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:53 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you have a use for agar-agar, it's MUCH cheaper in Asian groceries than in more generic health-food stores. It's a great alternative for gelatin in vegan recipes.
posted by tigerjade at 9:57 AM on May 20, 2013

You might look at this question: Interesting foods in ethnic groceries?
posted by Houstonian at 9:57 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I usually buy salted tamarind candy (more tart and sweet than salty) and pork floss (which is somewhat like shredded jerky). My HMart doesn't have an especially good selection of teas (except for folk medicinal teas and old-lady teas like chrysanthemum), so I usually just get a box of gunpowder green for like $3. I'd buy the tubs of fresh seaweed salad more often, but the small tubs are expensive for their size and the big tubs are too much for one person.
posted by Nomyte at 9:58 AM on May 20, 2013

Personally I appreciate the Korean market for the veg and cuts of meat you normally can't get from a western supermarket.
- Tofu: firm for stir fry, soft for soups
- napa cabbage: to make kimchi and also good for soups and stir fries
- thinly sliced pork and beef for home made hot pot
- my Korean market does pre-marinated bulgogi, spicy pork and LA style galbi and it's delicious and convenient
- I am also a sucker for instant noodles. So bad but so good. Anything spicy or kimchi flavored! Can't go wrong with Neogouri or Shin brands.
- I also pick up my quick fix sauce packets from there like Mabo Tofu (House Foods brand) and Golden Curry
- Big bottles of soy sauce as its much better value (Kikkoman for me)
posted by like_neon at 9:58 AM on May 20, 2013

Pine nuts and dried mushrooms are both much, much cheaper in Asian grocery stores than at the Safeway.

Produce and seafood are usually the big winners at HMart. And the fresh banchan in the deli section tends to be pretty good - you could just try a new one every time you go.

OH AND many HMarts rent booth space to small businesses - check and see if there is a ppongtwigi (rice cake snack) stand or a fresh tofu booth in yours, or some other interesting street food-type thing.
posted by peachfuzz at 10:00 AM on May 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

There should be many varieties of natto in the freezer section! (picture of some packages)
Grab some dried wakame for your soups etc.!
You should be able to find miso soup in individual serving packets, that way you can toss them in your freezer and slowly use them up, instead of having a big container get old in your fridge!
Grab some Japanese curry for super-duper easy meals!
Get some tins of sanma and other fish to make easy rice balls etc! (picture of some packages)
Grab what you need for zarusoba, including the buckwheat noodles, the chopped nori, and the tsuyu! (the tsuyu: on the side it will indicate how much water to add for dilution. Don't buy the ready-to-use stuff, that's just paying for water)
posted by damo at 10:02 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Get the ingredients to make Spicy tiny anchovies! This is my favorite banchan/side dish! I've had success with the Korean recipes from the site. Also try the "deli" prepared foods, you can figure out what you like and then try to make it.
posted by Swisstine at 10:03 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, last time I went I saw frozen packets of cleaned an gutted squid. Didn't buy it but would defo get that next time I go. Also Ox tail comes more in a pack, yum!

Not food, but check them out for kitchen gadgets. I got a basic in-pot steamer cage like my mom has from there. Also really good Tupperware because they sell stuff that tries to keep kimchi smell out and you know that's gotta be professional grade to keep that stink out. And good chopsticks if you don't have any. Oh and those exfoliating cloths that sloughs off dead skin.
posted by like_neon at 10:05 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Pearl River Bridge light soy sauce is my favorite soy sauce. The light refers to the color and type of soy sauce - it's not low sodium. It is apparently $7 on Amazon, but usually around $2 at an Asian market.

I love furikake on rice, but also on everything. There will be lots of different choices - buy a couple that look good to you and experiment! My favorite ones usually have bonito flakes, seaweed, and sesame seeds only.

I like buying fermented black beans. Something like this, so good in stir fry. I think this is the brand I've bought before. They basically keep forever so it's fine to buy a big container.

I love Oyster Sauce. The Mae Krua brand is very good.

I also highly, highly recommend these blog posts for ingredients for Chinese cooking specifically - she mentions some specific brands.

- Staple Ingredients of a Chinese Pantry
- Intermediate Ingredients of a Chinese Pantry
posted by insectosaurus at 10:08 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: This is sort of like asking "what's good in the [regular] supermarket?"

Completely understood (and intentional)--I cook pretty much everything, and I'm just on a fishing expedition here. Of the 10,000 products available at my local Whole Foods, I'd probably only say five or fewer are really worth making a trip for, though many are delicious. (Gruyere, good olive oil, dry aged beef at WF, for example.)

People's tastes are different, but if someone wants to recommend 2-3 things out of the 10,000 things on offer, I'd definitely give it a shot, regardless!
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:09 AM on May 20, 2013

The larger asian groceries I've been to have had much better seafood selection than a comparably large regular grocery store. Wider variety, but more importantly, more fresh since they do a much higher volume and have a quicker turnover. Their prices are also generally better as well.
posted by skewed at 10:09 AM on May 20, 2013

For Filipino barbecue, my go to is Mama Sita's BBQ marinade. Steak, chicken, pork - soak whatever meat you have on hand in this marinade for an hour and then grill it up. YUMMY.

Just the other day, I saw that ribs were on sale at my local grocery store, so I used some of this sweet chili sauce to make this off the hook, oh so stupid easy ribs recipe that only needed 4 ingredients.

I highly recommend Steamy Kitchen for anyone who wants to try easy Asian recipes.
posted by HeyAllie at 10:10 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

HMart will season and fry any seafood you buy from the meat counter while you wait! My super lazy dinner trick is to go to Hmart, buy some veggies for sides and have them fry up a fish for me. There's no extra change for cooking it, and then your place won't smell like fried fish.

Head home and cook the veggies, you're ready to eat!
posted by Arbac at 10:14 AM on May 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

I love Hmart.

Hoo Roo Rook Nong Shim. It's in the Ramen/noodle aisle.

Malaysian Curry sauce. Make it with chicken and sweet potatoes. (Coconut milk too ) serve over rice. Get the frozen Roti pancakes to dip in the sauce!

posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:16 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Check out the storage containers and kitchen utensils. You'd think storage containers would be the same in any country, but I find so many useful and excellent quality ones at my local Asian store and lots of handy little gadgets.

I also love to buy rice there too, I really think there is a difference in the quality, though the prices can be scary.
posted by wwax at 10:18 AM on May 20, 2013

All the ingredients to make pidan doufu.

Ssamgyeopsal and other special cuts of meat.

Fresh fish. Sashimi (although I wouldn't get it from H-mart).

Gallons of fresh soymilk, fresh tofu if they have it.
posted by acidic at 10:19 AM on May 20, 2013

Bitter melon is, um, an interesting experience. I have no desire to ever eat it again but I'm glad I tried it, if only so that I'll know what it is should I ever encounter it as an ingredient on restaurant menus; I would never have believed that anyone would try to consume that as food.
posted by XMLicious at 10:24 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Pickled ginger is my favorite staple-- nothing cleanses the palate like it.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:28 AM on May 20, 2013

If you use a lot of sesame oil, getting it in massive bottles at H-mart is sooo much more cost-effective than the tiny ones you see in most other places.
posted by ActionPopulated at 10:31 AM on May 20, 2013

The ingredients to make Okonomiyaki. It is a Japanese pancake that translates to "what you want", I serve it at least once a week.
posted by nanook at 10:37 AM on May 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Coconut oil. Great for frying, but also as a lube, skin oil, hair oil.

All the ingredients for sushi. If this store is as good as you say, they'll have a lot of the toppings for nigiri in the freezer: ebi, tako, unagi...
Plus ready-made wakame salad. It's lovely.
posted by Too-Ticky at 10:39 AM on May 20, 2013

Furikake is amazing on just about everything. Like eggs.

Seriously, crack an egg over a bowl of leftover rice, microwave for a minute (until the egg's cooked through -- probably want to poke a few holes in the yolk first) and then sprinkle generously with furikake. Delicious lazy breakfast!
posted by Narrative Priorities at 10:40 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Manis Pedas sauce - it's like a sweet spicy ketchup. Great on burgers and hot dogs.
posted by matildaben at 10:44 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I stock up on Pho spices at my HMart. Big bags of star anise, cinnamon sticks, cloves, cardamom, fennel seeds, etc.

Super thinly sliced top round (often frozen) is something I find pretty convenient and unique to asian markets. Same with fish balls. Great deals on frozen shrimp too.

I will always grab a few trays of frozen fried fish flavored tofu. They're an awesome snack to have around. You can heat them in the microwave.

If I had unlimited pantry space, I'd try every Furikake made. I like my wasabi-seaweed one now. It makes a very simple dish of rice even tastier.

This isn't food but I haven't found a western equivalent. I love these little safety razor eyebrow trimmers. I can only find them at asian stores.
posted by fontophilic at 10:47 AM on May 20, 2013

Korean cookies can be pretty awesome. There's a kind of ginger cookie that my local asian market carries, which look like little roll-ups. They come packed in a round tin with a clear plastic top. They're sweet and tasty, and they're a little bit hot. (I find that nearly everything Korean is at least a little bit hot. The soup I bought that was labeled "mild" was much too hot for me.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:50 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

gochujang for dipping all the things in (korean fermented soybean/red pepper paste SO GOOD)
posted by par court at 10:50 AM on May 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

light soy sauce
different oils
frozen small spring rolls (I only buy the veggie ones)
kitchen utensils
different types of noodles because we love soups

I want to try their frozen dumplings, but haven't yet

I hate the instant miso packs, though.
posted by mumimor at 10:56 AM on May 20, 2013

and the sweet chili sauce, of course
posted by mumimor at 10:57 AM on May 20, 2013

Manis Pedas sauce

Oh yes, this.

Also, look for the Thai curries that come in soup-can size cans (as opposed to the little cans). They're super convenient--cook a little chicken, onion, veggies in a frying pan, plop the can contents on top, and you have instant red, green or yellow/masaman curry.
posted by gimonca at 11:29 AM on May 20, 2013

I really like Quon Yick brand noodles for making Chinese noodle soup or chow mein type dishes.

From the produce section, fresh Thai basil can be substituted for other kinds of basil and is usually much cheaper.

A couple of tasty candies are White Rabbit Candy and Botan Rice Candy.
posted by unsub at 11:41 AM on May 20, 2013

Check out the drink cooler and entertain your friends with a bottle of Pocari Sweat sports drink, a small bottle of the "original" Red Bull, Thailand's M-150, or anything from Yeo's.
posted by lstanley at 11:41 AM on May 20, 2013

XO Sauce. Pricey by Asian-market standards, but well worth it if you like spicy, flavor-packed condiments.
posted by crLLC at 11:44 AM on May 20, 2013

Smoked tofu is pretty great. Also, experiment with miso -- a few tablespoons added at the end of cooking can turn a dull vegetable soup into savory magic. There are a lot of varieties, so you will need to try a few. I like red miso, but white miso is a lighter and less pungent.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:54 AM on May 20, 2013

Dried kaffir lime skin. It'll need some effort in the bashing crushing and grinding to a powder department before adding to just about any south east asian curry paste, but it's heaven on earth.
posted by Ahab at 12:43 PM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Salt! giant bags of salt! (along with Gochugaru and nappa cabbage!) to make Kim chi

Dangmyeon so you can make Japchae!

Hmart also seems to be a pretty good source for king and enoki mushrooms.
posted by vespabelle at 1:07 PM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I live in Canada so take it for what it is, but...when I've been to the asian market close to where I live, I check out the strange and wonderful candy section! Pocky, of course! But there is also these odd ginger chewy candies wrapped in rice paper which I can't get enough of! I think they are Thai... but I've only been able to find them at the Asian market...among other unusual cool snackies.
posted by MeatheadBrokeMyChair at 1:46 PM on May 20, 2013

Pick up some panko (the japanese version of breading crumbs) and make your own katsu. Use Bull-Dog tonkatsu sauce as the sauce.

Thai basil is an excellent replacement for boring old Italian basil.

Korea has mastered the art of instant noodles. My favorite is Shin Ramyun (warning: spicy)

Lao Gan Ma: The ultimate condiment. I put it on almost everything these days.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 2:21 PM on May 20, 2013

Also: Kewpie mayonnaise is amazing.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 2:31 PM on May 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

We get Urashima Furikake (with sesame seeds, bonito and kelp)
I don't know what brand gojuchang I buy (but here's a taste test/rundown of different brands) but also pick up some of the milder, sweeter ssamjang in the green containers in the same aisle. On broiled meat, that stuff is amazing! There are also some rice noodle (or daikon maybe? I guessing) circle wraps that we buy to make wraps of meat, lettuce and ssamjang.

Also, here's a video of a food show covering this question. And different info in this podcast. (skip ahead to 41 mins)
posted by biscuits at 2:48 PM on May 20, 2013

If you drink, pick up a big econo bottle of Nigori sake That's the brand I buy. Nigori sake is unfiltered, you chill and it, and shake it up before drinking. It is incredible, like a coconut cocktail.
posted by nanook at 5:16 PM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Aloe Vera King is this yummy beverage that comes in a really tall container and tastes better than grape juice. Canned coffee beverages. Basil seeds with honey beverages. Pacori Sweat is a cool grapefruit drink from Japan that I bet would be great with Sambuca. Just...grab stuff that sounds neat and doesn't have sulfur dioxide in it. Because sulfur dioxide tastes gross.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:20 PM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Miso paste and tahini are great on toasted bagels. Spicy dried seaweed strips, the ones in plastic jars with red lids are great with chipotle hummus from trader joes. Asian markets are fun! Enjoy the journey.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:22 PM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Coconut milk is cheaper and better at Asian markets. Mark Bittman loves the stuff, as do I.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:22 PM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

trung nguyen coffee + single cup metal coffee filter + longevity sweetened condensed milk = perfect cafe sua da
posted by par court at 8:30 PM on May 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

HMart is where I pick up Indomie noodles, which are easily some of the best instant noodles around.
posted by painquale at 8:56 PM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding that. Indomie are indeed really good. Especially their premium range with slightly more exotic flavors - black pepper beef, dried fish, and as per painquale's link, RENDANG!!!

(In one of those mefi synchronicity moments I've just been to my local Asian supermarket for a ready made lunch box. While walking in to the shop I noticed they had a large pile of (presumably slow selling) uncommon brands and flavors of instant noodles displayed as discount items by the door. Mental trigger to this question, and I was all hey, I need to jump back in to say "Admiral Haddock, you should buy one of every brand and flavor of instant noodle in the store, cook them all as per the serving suggestion picture on the front of the packet, photograph and review the things, chuck it in a blog, and post it to projects!")
posted by Ahab at 11:59 PM on May 20, 2013

This is a good excuse for a party. When faced with the same problem I invited all of my friends to meet at the huge Asian/international market and to find strange foods and drinks to take back to my house and eat. The only rules were that the food must be new to us and no organs or animal heads. It was ridiculously fun we blind tasted a bunch of different juices/ sodas to guess what they were, ate a lot of strange snacks, made spring rolls, and experimented with cactus fruit and strange melons. We also made some cocktails out of the more palatable juices.
So we all got to try a lot of new foods none of us had tried before and know what snacks we like best.
posted by birdbone at 8:37 AM on May 21, 2013 [5 favorites]

Not super exotic, but I really like the lee kum kee sweet soy sauce (this one but I don't know why the online price is so high, I paid under 5$ per bottle). You might like it if you like sweet sauces like teriyaki.

I also like the vietnamese instant rice vermicelli soup packets - way more selection (and of other ramen-like noodles) than at the regular grocery store. I like to buy one or two of every brand to see which ones are good - some are completely awful (for my tastes anyway).
posted by randomnity at 9:02 AM on May 21, 2013

It's Japanese so I'm not sure if they have it at Hmart (we just got one in SD but I haven't been yet) but I love yuzukosho. Great on grilled anything, in sauces/stir fries, whatever.
posted by exceptinsects at 12:59 PM on May 21, 2013

Also previously.
posted by roofus at 2:29 PM on May 21, 2013

It is a Japanese pancake that translates to "what you want",

Technically, it translates to "what you want, fried".

Unfortunately, "what you want" traditionally translates to terrifying quantities of sweet sauce and mayonnaise.
posted by 23 at 2:44 AM on May 22, 2013

There is a variety of black rice vinegar that is made in Taiwan I really enjoy which I found in the Japanese section of my asian grocers.
posted by redindiaink at 9:10 PM on May 22, 2013

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