How To Shop A Chinese Supermarket Like A Pro
Given that so much of Chinese culture is centered around food, it makes sense that our supermarkets are more than mere stores, they're cultural hubs.
In addition to cans of Cambell's soup and boxes of Frosted Flakes, Chinese grocery stores typically boast aisles stocked with dried noodles, freezer cases filled with fish balls and sections dedicated to plastic stools, incense and red envelopes. But the choices are vast and they can be overwhelming. Where do you start? In the San Gabriel Valley, the heart of Los Angeles's Chinese community, at a popular chain such as 99 Ranch, 168 Market and Shun Fat. Here's your basic shopping list.
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Chinese supermarkets aren't the place to get organic, free range, omega 3-fortified eggs. Instead, the selection at a Chinese supermarket typically goes beyond basic chicken to include duck, quail and goose eggs. Some are raw, others are cooked or preserved. Pí Dàn, or century egg, an egg that has been preserved in a mixture of salt, lime, clay and ash until it turns black, may look unappetizing but it's delicious when sliced and served alongside a bowl of porridge. Balut, an egg dish that originated in China but is now a shared delicacy throughout Asia, is a half-developed egg embryo still in its shell. These items will sit next to the "regular" eggs in the fridge but you'll occasionally find them next to the cashier as you check out.
In the dried herb aisle, look for an area with dried mushrooms in vacuum sealed packages. Large markets carry many kinds of mushrooms. Many, many kinds of mushrooms. "Black fungus," despite its unappealing name, is a good place to start. It's frequently used in dishes like vegetable stir fries and hot and sour soup as well as in medicinal preparations. It's sold dry and rehydrated during the cooking process when it turns into an edible jelly with a faint crunch. Black fungus doesn't have much flavor. Instead, it acts as a sponge, absorbing the flavor of whatever it's prepared with. It's the perfect quick addition to a salad, and you'll often see it in wood ear and cucumber salads.
Any respectable Chinese supermarket will have multiple sections dedicated to tea. Some even have a dedicated tea counter staffed full-time by its own clerk. Served with every meal, tea was once considered a status symbol and it remains a staple in Chinese culture. There are six basic types: green, white, yellow, oolong, black and dark. Each is processed in its own way, has a unique flavor profile and supposedly confers unique health benefits. While preparing and serving tea can be an art, you don't need to be a connoisseur to enjoy it. A great starter tea, especially if you've spent most of your life drinking the bagged stuff, is Sunflower's jasmine tea. The orange and gold tin of loose leaf tea is a classic in Chinese households and restaurants. The branchlike leaves give off a soft, floral scent and pair well with a meal of dim sum. Yamamotoyama's bags of sencha green tea have an earthy, slightly nutty taste and they're packaged in a simple, bright green box. If you're looking for a tea with a more complicated flavor, try Wong Lo Kat's herbal tea drink, which is sweet and earthy. Most supermarkets will sell this as a drink in its iconic red and black can, but sometimes you can find it as a small white bag of leaves and herbs you can brew at home.
Many Chinese supermarkets boast in-house bakeries and they generally make bread that's much better than what you'll find in the aisles — especially if you score it fresh from the oven. The loaves have a soft, pillowy texture, and they're perfect when toasted, swiped with butter and served with coffee. These bakeries don't stick to plain bread. They play with textures and ingredients to offer a menu of sweet and savory options. Grab a taro roll, a small bun with a slight purple tint that's stuffed with taro, or a round of custard bread, a golden pastry filled with egg custard. If you're not looking for dessert, try a hotdog encased in flaky pastry dough and flecked with green onions or a maybe a roll baked with mushrooms, bacon and a layer of cheese.
Chinese cuisine features a variety of soups with long lists of ingredients ingredients, complicated flavors and recipes that demand hours of cooking. To shorten that process, markets offer bases for wonton noodle soup, egg drop soup, oxtail soup and other classics. These bases can come in packets of spices or canisters of loose powder. You'll also find soup bases specifically for hot pots. They include mellow mushroom, pork bone and spicy flavors. Add ingredients like vegetables, seafood, dried noodles and raw meat to make it your own and eat communally.
Monosodium glutamate, commonly known as MSG, is a chemical compound that enhances the taste of food. Discovered in the early 1900s by a Japanese biochemist who was trying to duplicate the flavor of edible seaweed, it got a bad rap when people started claiming it caused headaches, nausea and cancer. The science is clear. MSG doesn't cause any of those things but the racism driving the demonization of MSG is very real. The flavor enhancer is common in Chinese cooking and you can find bags of it in the spice aisle of most Chinese markets. It compliments savory, salty and spicy flavors, adding a layer of umami. That's why you often find it in chips, canned soups, deli meat and many other prepared foods. The compound also occurs naturally in foods like mushrooms, tomatoes and cheese.
Bittermelon, which looks sort of like a cucumber, is one of the most unique vegetables you'll find. What differentiates this bitter gourd from its better known cousin is its rough and bumpy skin. As its name implies, this vegetable tastes bitter and people rarely eat it raw, on its own. It's usually stir-fried or served in soup to compliment salty and savory flavors. Chinese people also swear by its health properties. It supposedly strengthens your immune system, boosts your liver health and improves your eyesight. Ask Chinese adults how they feel about bittermelon and many will tell you how they were forced to eat it as a child for the sake of health so now they're used to the sharp taste.
In Chinese, huǒ lóng guǒ directly translates as "fire dragon fruit." People appreciate the beautiful cactus fruit for its bold pink and green color, its spiky shape and the dotted black and white pattern when it's cut open. Although it stands out in any fruit bowl, it has a subdued flavor. Dragon fruit is subtly sweet, like a cross between a pear and kiwi. It's usually sliced and served raw. Dragon fruit can also be made into a jam or incorporated into baked goods, particularly during the fall around the harvest moon festival when it's baked into mooncakes.
In a Chinese supermarket, peanuts aren't sold in the snack aisle. You'll usually find bags of raw, fresh peanuts next to the produce. They can be enjoyed as they are but it's traditional to boil them in water with different spices, such as cinnamon and star anise. Some markets will also sell pre-roasted peanuts or flavored ones they make themselves (garlic and chili is a common combo). They make a great snack or pre-meal appetizer. Fresh peanuts let you enjoy the legume's natural flavor and you can cook them according to your own tastes.
Shacha sauce is used as often as soy sauce or chili oil in Chinese cooking but it doesn't get the same recognition. Also known as satay sauce or Chinese barbeque sauce, it's a thick, savory paste with a spicy kick. Its richness comes from the combo of soybean oil, garlic, chilis, brill fish and dried shrimp. You'll find it in the condiment section, next to the hot pot broth bases. Shacha and hot pot go hand-in-hand as it's a popular dipping sauce used throughout the meal. It's not just a condiment. Shacha is a key ingredient in many Chinese dishes including braised chicken and beef chow mein. It can also be used as a base for soups, a barbecue rub or a seasoning in stir fries.
Congee is a rice porridge and it's served in several Asian cuisines. The canned version is a breakfast staple for many Chinese families but it can be served any time of day. It's also a great on-the-go snack. Plain congee is bland so the canned stuff is always mixed with other flavors such as red bean, taro or yams. You can top it with brown sugar and red bean, peanuts and milk, and mung bean and longans, that are worth trying. Look out for cans of eight treasure congee, or bā bǎo zhōu, a traditional porridge made with sticky rice and eight different kinds of beans and nuts.
When you need your daily dose of greens, consider trading spinach or kale for gài lǎn. The green vegetable, also known as Chinese broccoli, has a thick stalk that thins out into long, flat leaves at the top. When left raw, it can be very tough and bitter. Cooked gài lǎn offers a balance of textures between the crunch and tenderness of the stalk and the soft, chewiness of the leaves. The classic preparation of the vegetable is either steamed or boiled with oyster sauce drizzled on top. It's typically served as a side dish.
This popular Chinese candy made from hawthorn fruit and sugar has a sweet, tart and almost tangy taste, similar to a Fruit Roll-Up. Parents have been known to give their children haw flakes when they're sick to drown out the taste of medicine. If you don't find any haw flakes in the snack and candy sections, you might see them in the aisle for medicine and herbs. Keep an eye out for the red, pink and yellow packaging. Aside from the flavor, what makes this candy so great is its shape. Haw flakes are typically thin, flat disks that are stacked to form a small cylinder, which you can break apart and pop in your mouth. They come in packs of ten, but that might not be enough.
Lap cheung (aka Chinese sausage), pronounced là cháng, translates to dried sausage. At its most basic, it's made with pork, salt, soy sauce, sugar, spices and alcohol then left to dry in the sun. Chinese supermarkets offer lap cheung in an array of meats and flavors. You'll find sausages mixed with duck liver, rice and pork blood. Lap cheung tastes sweeter than Italian sausage and is typically used as a flavor component in dishes. Lap cheung is often used in stir fries, fried rice and turnip cakes. If you want a quick and delicious meal, slice the sausage, throw it on the frying pan and enjoy it over a bowl of rice with a side of sliced, raw garlic.