East Meets West in Aisle 5

32 Comments 19 May 2010



Remember the scrumptious green papaya salad you bought from the street vendor in Thailand? She asked you how spicy you wanted it and your cringed and said “Thai spicy” – knowing you may regret it later when you couldn’t feel your lips. When you came back to America, you decided to relive the experience so you went to the ‘best, most authentic’ Thai place in town and ordered the papaya salad. Utter disappointment.

After living in Vietnam for a year, now I’m back in America in search of good Asian food – but the search seems to be futile. It’s just not the same. The Pho is bland, the herbs are different, and it all seems to be ‘Americanized’ (the bigger the portions must equal better food).

I gave up searching for good Asian food, I decided that I would simply start making my own. I would channel my inner little Asian woman and fire up my wok and use excessive amounts of garlic and fish sauce – I would be cooking up Vietnamese feasts in no time!

The Asian section

With my first stop at the grocery store I hit a big roadblock. American grocery stores are very limited with Asian cooking supplies. It’s hard to believe that in the ginormous, wide aisles of an American grocery store they don’t have rice vermicelli noodles, lemon grass, or fish sauce in a bottle larger than 8 oz. However they have prepackaged boxes of Pad Thai…just add water…ugh.

Sure, some grocery stores carried some of the products I needed, but most of them carried none of the products I was looking for. In fact, in the small towns of the Midwest I couldn’t even find basil, mint, or ginger! I went down the ‘ethnic food aisle’ and was greeted by La Choy Chow Mein. I immediately had flashbacks of celery drenched in sweet and sour sauce served with crunchy noodles. Puke.

However my frustrations ceased the day my sister and I walked into Dragon Star Oriental Foods in St. Paul, Minnesota. We had heard there were ‘authentic’ Asian grocery stores in St. Paul, thanks to the large Hmong population in the area. We took our big grocery list and finally made a trip to go see if it was just a myth. My sister, who had spent the last 5 ½ years living in Singapore, was as frustrated as I was; we had low expectations of this St. Paul adventure.

We pulled up to the moderate sized building and were greeted by flags of various Asian nations…hmmm, that’s different. Then we walked inside, and just like that, I was a minority again. The aisles were filled with customers of various Asian decent. We took a little cart and our hopes gradually grew.

After going through the produce section and finding Asian eggplant, lemongrass, green papaya, Vietnamese mint, dragon fruit, and durian…yes, durian…I knew I was going to enjoy dinner tonight. Cyndi and I went down every aisle like giddy, young girls in the Barbie aisle of Toys R Us pointing at products, laughing, reminiscing, and salivating!

Saucy in the Sauce Aisle

It was as if I had walked through a black hole and ended up in this mixed up world of Asian food products with American-sized choices. Normally in Asia, you go to a local outdoor market and purchase your various sauces. There’s one choice and that’s what you buy. But in this East meets West grocery store we walked down aisles filled with Fish sauce…just Fish sauce; there must have been at least 25 different brands. All of them imported from Asia with words that I didn’t understand. The whole aisle of sauces (oyster, hoisan, fish…) was like walking down an American grocery store’s chip aisle. It was overwhelming.

The bizarre just kept coming. The butcher department seemed like any American grocery store; nice glass cases, refrigeration, organized. But then you looked closer and you saw the Asian twist; pig heads and cow feet. There was also plenty of live seafood swimming around.

On the flip side, these packed aisles of products didn’t include any cheese and about 3 choices for cereal. I sat and stared at the 3 cereals and just laughed. I had been living in Vietnam for a year and traveling through Asia for another year – as much as I love the place I needed a break from it. However like most things, you don’t realize how much you LOVE the place (or the person) until it’s gone. Standing here in the Americanized Asian market made me miss Asia terribly.

At one point I had déjà-vu as I was scouring the wafer aisle looking for my favorite coconut butter wafers. I used to do this every week in the An Phu supermarket as you were never guaranteed that they would get a constant inventory of a product there. Today, when I found my wafers, I squealed in joy…it was even the same brand I used to buy in Vietnam!

Cyndi displaying Frozen Bugs

We spent an hour going up and down every aisle. Taking pictures of the frozen bugs for sale in the freezer case, and reminiscing about our favorite curries and spring rolls. Then as we rounded the corner towards the checkout, we came to the bakery/deli. They had cooked food there to take home. I looked at the sign and it advertised a bubble tea and papaya salad special. They didn’t have hot dogs, pizza, or soda…just Asian choices…the things I would normally buy outdoors at a street vendor. Now there were here in the deli department!

My sister and I picked out some fresh sesame balls from the bakery case and happily pushed our overflowing cart to the checkout. We excitedly planned our dinner for the night – lemongrass chicken with stir-fried bok choy. I clutched my coconut butter wafers to my chest as we got in the car; I could hardly wait to open them up and taste the memories that were so vivid in my head. The trip to this Americanized Asian market was a chance for us to relive our love of Asia – and that was worth any price.

Hungry yet?  If you want to read more about exotic foods – check out Wanderlust and Lipstick’s Wanderfood Wednesday!

Your Comments

32 Comments so far

  1. Margo says:

    that’s so true, how it’s hard to come back to “almost authentic” after having experienced the totally authentic. You’ve inspired me to go check out our local Asian market. Since we have so many restaurants here in Myrtle Beach, I guess there’s a chance it’s decent. First I”ll head over to the meat counter and see if there are any pigs heads. I’m glad you only took pictures of the bugs! And I hope dinner was fabulous!

    • admin says:

      If you have a thirst for travel, a good way to quench it is to find the international feel within your own town! Going to an Asian market feels like a trip to Asia for me…minus the 18 hour flight! I hope you have fun exploring Myrtle Beach – let me know what you find!

  2. I hear you. It is definitely hard to find equivalents of nearly any foreign food back here in the states. When we do find a fantastic ethnic restaurant, we really try to be loyal if we can. Good luck on your Asian food endeavors.

  3. We live in a county with a very large Asian population, and there’s a chain of markets to meet their needs called Ranch 99 (there’s also a Japanese super store called Mitsuwa). I don’t know what most of the stuff is because I can’t read the labels, but one time I tried the durian. I don’t think I’ll be trying it again anytime soon. I like Mitsuwa much more; they display those crazy Japanese toilets that put on a water show.

    • admin says:

      A grocery store that sells toilets…how great! I tried Durian while in Vietnam – hmmmm – words can’t describe it!

  4. Vala says:

    In this side of Ontario, we have a fairly large Asian population and grocery stores such as T&T and Ocean’s offers authentic fare. The prices are pretty reasonable so all nations of people flood there for the fresh, excellent priced food. I also cannot read many, many of the labels and that is just fine. I have never had “authentic” Asian food but if I ever do, I have a great number of sources here to help me replicate the meals.

  5. JoAnna says:

    What an exciting find! I knew that that area of the Midwest had some good Asian grocery stores because I grew up in that area, but I never went into one.

    I actually just booked my tickets for a trip to Vietnam this year and everyone here is telling me that pho is really good. It’s funny because the people telling me that have never been to Vietnam and have only ever had the American-ized version. I’m curious to try it in Vietnam, and then compare with the state-side version when I get back.

  6. Janelle says:

    What a great post! I am already dreading going back to Buffalo for the summer without my Asian fixes! Let me know if there is anything I can bring back from Taiwan. I’m going to try to get my sister some good cooking stuff from here. What do you think is hardest to find in the States that I should bring back?
    Hope you are well!

    • Sherry says:

      Can you bring back Mango Ice! :)
      The stuff I have trouble finding is the rice paper rolls that I use for fresh spring rolls. Can find in bigger cities here, but not sure abt Buffalo. I also have trouble with little tiny chili peppers (thai), and some spices like 5 spice and the stuff I need for pho. The real problem is fresh produce and herbs – but those are hard to bring home on a plane! I did find a great recipe for dumplings though!
      You need to let me know what dates you are back and we MUST hook up this summer! I’m constantly on the move – and off to Europe in Aug. – but hopefully we’ll work something out!

  7. Alison says:

    Wonderful find! I love Asian grocery stores. There’s a large one here in Bxl with the unfortunate name of KY market. You just never know what you are going to find lurking in those aisles. It’s so fun to explore :)

  8. What a great adventure. I live in Korea and travel regularly in SEA and take cooking classes. Guess what? I get back to Korea and can’t get any of the ingredients, especially the fresh stuff. I’m sure your supermarket has more fresh SEA foods than all the supermarkets in Korea combined. I love Korean food, but there are so many times that I want a fresh, authentic papaya salad!

    Wonderful post.

    • Sherry says:

      Nancie, I never would have thought about the fact that you couldn’t find what you needed in Korea for Asian cooking…specifically SE Asia cooking! Then again – the climates are so different I guess it’s not surprising! I guess it just continues to give you a great reason to HAVE to travel to Thailand…for the papaya salad alone!!

  9. Laura says:

    This is great! I love the picture of your sister holding up the bugs. I can feel your excitement, as I know there are some foods that I miss when I’m back home. Sounds like a fun day!

  10. Wanderluster says:

    Terrific post, and so true! Repatriating can be almost as hard as leaving in the first place when you start to feel “home away from homesick.” Thank goodness for ethnic grocery stores. Just walking inside and getting hit with the familiar smells can bring it all back for a little while.

  11. Stephanie says:

    Oh I completely understand!! It’s so hard to find authentic food upon returning home… sometimes the best way is to just find out how to make it yourself and get cooking! :) Although, I don’t think I’d go searching for bugs – I’ve eaten enough of them for a lifetime!

  12. Lynn says:

    The Asian food market in Austin made me get all teary-eyed. There is a little Japanese-Korean grocery store in Salem that at least has Golden Curry :)…we hear Lowell and Manchester both have good Asian markets…I think there’s one down south where you’ll be in Boston too!

    • admin says:

      We’ll have to plan a Boston Asian night! We can get all of the ingredients and make dumplings and lemongrass chicken! I’ll be there starting June 1st!

  13. Mark H says:

    Sounds like many US towns have an opportunity for Asian grocery businesses. I suspect smaller towns in Australia would be the same though cities such as Sydney are well served by grocery stores for various major cuisine groups/

  14. Lisa says:

    Awesome! Just yesterday, I shot a story in Mitsuwa Marketplace, this amazing mecca of all things Japanese in the suburbs of Chicago – basically a huge, Japanese supermarket. It’s the largest in the Mid-west (America and its superlatives!). I love it. Food, rice cookers, funny hand massagers, and yes, a food court with great Japanese specialties.
    :) LL

  15. Earl says:

    I know the feeling! I can’t wait to head to NYC in a couple of weeks in order to visit my cousin who lives next to the best Indian/Pakistani grocery store I’ve found outside of India or Pakistan. And I’ll have one mission…to buy a large crate of their freshly flown in mangoes! One bite of those mangoes instantly transport sme back to the fruit markets of the subcontinent and that alone helps me survive my visits back to the US!

  16. You just officially made me hungry. After spending time in Thailand, I had the same problem, but I eventually found an online store that shipped fresh ingredients overnight. How lucky you live in a place where you can go to this store.

    • Sherry says:

      Now Barbara…”live” is a strong word – and unfortunately I don’t “live” anywhere! But I am lucky enough to pass through Minneapolis/St. Paul quite often! However, everywhere I go I am always hunting for the good Asian Market. NYC and San Francisco were easy – however finding an Asian market in Lincoln Nebraska was a bit harder…but I was successful! My next stop is Boston – so hopefully I’ll find something there!

      • Amanda says:

        I came across this entry while looking up the address of an Asian grocery here in Lincoln. While we don’t compare to NYC or SF, for a medium-sized city in the Midwest there are actually a *ton* of Asian grocery stores here (due largely to a sizable Vietnamese population). Check out the half dozen or so on N 27th Street for starters next time you’re in town. One of the things I love about this city is how easy it is to get into different ethnic cuisines–we also have great Middle Eastern and Central/South American stores, plus a very good Indian grocery store.

        • admin says:

          I don’t know if this is just coincidence or not Amanda (as I can’t tell by the email if I know you personally), but I was just in Lincoln and I did shop in one of the Asian grocery stores there…it was GREAT! I took my niece and she loved the experience!

          • Amanda says:

            No, I don’t know you personally, I just stumbled upon your blog! I’m glad you found a good store in Lincoln. I’m a little bit of a cheerleader for the food scene in Lincoln–not the restaurants, which are limited (though there are some excellent Asian, Indian, and Mexican places), but for the disproportionately great ethnic grocery and local food resources. If you live in Lincoln and are serious about learning to cook, you can pretty much find anything you’re looking for. (I’d love it if you posted your favorite recipes, by the way!)

  17. Fida says:

    Lucky you. One year in food heaven 😉 I only spent 6 weeks in Vietnam; 3 of them in Hanoi. I was hooked on the food instantly. I love spicy food, but not so much the “Thai hotness”, so I was in love with Vietnamese food from the first bite onwards. Unfortunately, I can’t get many of the ingredients here, especially not fresh ones.

    • admin says:

      Yes – the fresh ones are hard to find – however I did find an good asian market in Lincoln Nebraska of all places…so you may be surprised!

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Sherry traveling the world

I'm Sherry, a corporate cube dweller turned nomadic traveler. I travel to off-the-beaten-path destinations to bring you unique travel experiences and photography. But it's not just about travel, it's also about life experiences of a middle age wanderer.
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Where am I and Where am I going?

Minnesota/Wisconsin -> Nebraska

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