People sometimes ask me to help demystify the Asian grocery.
While wandering the aisles of an international grocery can provide hours of entertainment, the best thing to do is engineer something with a cookbook.
Are you interested in making kimchee at home? Shu mai? Ramen? Katsu? United Noodles makes it really easy, because they’ve divided the store by nation — Korea, Japan, China, Thailand, and so forth — so you can find just the right chile sauce or soy.
But I also like the Asian market for more typical things for regular use, a few odd items to have around to help carry an ordinary meal out of a rut, or to provide a bit of inspiration when you open that sad, sad refrigerator of yours:
1. Fresh miso paste
Miso is of course best known to Americans as the soup that arrives before the sushi, but miso paste (fermented soybeans with rice or barley) is an excellent base for unusual salad dressings, sauces, and marinades. Use it to add a light, floral umami (it doesn’t taste like anything but itself) where there previously was none.
Mix it to taste with butter for a rub on chicken or fish for an instant eye-opening way out of your chicken doldrums. You do have chicken doldrums, admit it. It comes in little cellophane bags that are easy to reseal, and it costs little more than a few bucks, lasting a surprisingly long time in the fridge (like months, maybe even years).
2. Korean cellophane noodles
Use these translucent, slippery noodles to make japchae, a Korean special occasion dish that incorporates a bunch of julienned veggies with a light soy-sesame dressing. Or use them anywhere you use other noodles for an interesting texture and change of pace.
Lucky Peach has a recipe for “economy noodles,” wherein “there’s almost nothing in them.” The deal is that you make use of soy sauce, fish sauce, sugar, garlic, and other ingredients that you already have knocking about. Then, finish it with a fried egg or a domino-sized slice of leftover meat, and you’ve got a far more special weeknight dinner than the one you were previously about to eat (corn flakes).
Having these in your pantry will make you feel like a grown-up, even if you are not.
3. Frozen gyoza
Surprise! Many of your favorite Korean and Japanese restaurants are serving you frozen gyoza. And that’s OK because they taste good, don’t they? A bag of these (United Noodles sells them in countless brands, fillings, and sizes) takes all the thinking out of a solo dinner, a quick appetizer for two, or a party snack. Even kids love them.
Whip up a soy-rice vinegar-sesame oil dipping sauce, and once these babies are poured out of the bag still frozen and then steamed, you’re eating.
4. Curry paste
In all but the very best Thai and Indian restaurants, they’re probably beginning your favorite curry with some kind of prepared paste. That's because these prepared pastes are awesome: fragrant, hot enough to make sweat beads burst from the brow, and gorgeously colorful.
Mae Ploy brand makes red, green, yellow, and massaman varieties that will literally last in your pantry for a year.
To make curry, fling a blob of it in coconut milk to taste with some lemongrass, keffir lime leaf, and stock (all available at United Noodles) until it simmers.
Or use it as a flavor enhancer for other soups, sauces, and dry ramen packs.
Just use it with care, because it’s hot as hades.
5. Kewpie Mayo
Not quite as ubiquitous as Sriracha when it comes to capturing American condiment loyalty, Kewpie Mayo has been a cult favorite for many years, and it should quickly make its way into your pantry for myriad reasons.
The creamy yellow cousin to standard mayo is probably best known as the mayo that goes into your spicy tuna rolls and other sushi preparations.
How much better can it be than Hellman’s? Try a taste and you’ll be an instant believer. The Japanese have been making it for almost a hundred years, and the impossibly rich and smooth base is boosted with rice vinegar instead of the more standard lemon, plus a secret ingredient: MSG.
Before you go running for the hills, know that the jury is still out on whether MSG in fact bad for you or not. The jury is not out, however, on what a flavor bomb it is. Use Kewpie wherever you use regular mayo to make your aunt June go bug-eyed at why your potato salad is going so much faster than hers at the potluck. Or use it my favorite way, as a dipping sauce for everything: karaage (Japanese fried chicken,) veggies, potato chips, whatevs.
At about $6.99 per bottle, you’ll use it more sparingly than Hellman’s.
6. General produce
Lest you feel like you need to run around to more than one grocery just because you’re heading to the Noodle, be disabused of that notion entirely, especially when it comes to the produce aisle that stocks all of your basics (onions, carrots, garlic) and many things less than basic (daikon radish, black garlic, bean sprouts), usually for less than the local big box.
A head of Napa cabbage the size of a German Shephard’s head for $1.99, a bunch of green onions for little more than two quarters, a jumbo carrot for 30 cents, and a pound of Shitake mushrooms for under four dollars.
Also, look to the meat and fish counters for a limited selection, but with head-on shrimp and boneless chicken thighs for a song.
Photo courtesy of United Noodles Facebook Page
7. Irresistible sweet and salty snacks
If you stroll past the Cookies and Cream Pocky, the shrimp-flavored potato chips, or the Every Burger Japanese cookies (dead ringers for mini-hamburgers, but made instead with chocolate and sugar), then you are just doing life wrong.
Keep a bag of rice crackers wrapped in nori around to boost any PBR into “cocktail hour,” or Korean chile paste to cloak.
2015 E. 24th St., Minneapolis