East Meets West in Aisle 5

May 19, 2010 32 Comments »



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!

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