What We Love to Buy at our Local Asian Market
While Charleston doesn’t boast quite many Asian markets as some larger American cities, we do have some solid options for those looking to while away an hour (or several) perusing the aisles in search of certain precious condiments, teas, frozen goods, produce, and other treats that standard American groceries just don’t carry. To us, it’s hard to top an afternoon spent slowly filling a cart at our Asian market. For those that perhaps haven’t had the pleasure of this experience, we’ve compiled a short list of some of our favorite items to serve as a guide on your first adventure. Enjoy!
Tea – While there’s a vast world of teas to explore at any Asian market, one particular tea stands out to me as something that every sweet tea-loving Southerner should try, especially tea-loving Southerners that might be looking to step down their caffeine intake a bit. Mugicha, or roasted barley tea, is a favorite “at home” tea in Japan – many families keep a pitcher of it in the fridge (particularly in summertime) in the same way that Southern families might keep a pitcher of sweet tea on hand for sipping or serving to company. Made from hulled barley, mugicha has a pleasantly roasty flavor, reminiscent of bread, comforting when served hot, and refreshing when served cold. Sold in bags for steeping, like your typical Luzianne or Lipton, mugicha can be served sweetened or not. Its lack of caffeine means that the entire family – from already-plenty-energized children to overstressed, insomniac parents – can enjoy it without worry. Mugicha is purported to deliver a host of health benefits, but I just think it tastes darn good, and is as appropriate for a sweltering Charleston July as it is for a sweltering Tokyo August.
Ramen – Anyone who’s found themselves short on grocery money knows where to find the Top Ramen and Maruchan at their local store. And while these standard brands can actually deliver a pretty satisfying bowl of noodles (with a little finessing of toppings and added protein) I’m delighted to inform you that a universe of far better, and often equally affordable, instant ramen options exists in the ramen aisle of your Asian market. There are so many brands, flavors, and types of noodle available that I won’t give you specific recommendations, but I’ll certainly recommend my personal method of ramen shopping: Grab whatever looks good and try new stuff. What makes ramen shopping so fun is that most are sold by the individual pack, so you can roll the dice on whatever catches your eye without risking too high of a buy-in. You’ll find flavors written in English on the label. If you’re like me, you’ve probably eaten enough chicken-flavored ramen to last you a lifetime, so branch out and grab those exciting-sounding flavors!
Fish sauce – If you don’t already have an open bottle of fish sauce in your fridge that you’re using to add some oomph to all manner of dishes, you’re missing out. Made from fermented anchovies, most folks who haven’t tiptoed too far out of standard American fare might be initially put off by how “fishy” fish sauce smells. But that condensed briny essence makes fish sauce an amazing umami punch to add an extra layer of flavor in any number of dishes. Charleston foodies will recognize it in the delicious dressing for the Thai salad at Leon’s Oyster Shop, and I always, always add it to my cups of instant ramen, no matter what the ramen flavor happens to be. It’s a great secret weapon in marinades, soups, sauces, and stir fries and the high salt content means that a bottle basically never goes bad. Red Boat is a popular brand, but grab whichever label strikes your fancy!
Produce – Asian markets tend to be known for both wide produce variety and great prices. If you’ve ever felt a little disappointed while picking over the “exotic fruits” section of your local Harris Teeter, you’ll be relieved to know that many more options are available to you at your Asian market, and often at much better prices. I won’t provide any specific recs, because I always seem to find something new while wandering the produce aisle, but recent purchases include some excellent oyster mushrooms (that go for double the price at my regular grocery, when they even have them), fresh lemongrass, and Asian pears. Don’t sleep on this section and keep an eye out for great deals!
Dried mushrooms – If you’re anything like me, you’re guilty of buying aspirational vegetables, a.k.a. vegetables that you have every good intention of using in this or that healthy dish, only to forget about them, or be tempted away by an offer from your significant other to just grab some takeout from that new place you’ve been eyeing on Instagram. The vegetables languish in your crisper until they wilt into throw-awayable despair. Dried mushrooms, able to be stored in your cabinet practically indefinitely until you’re ready to rehydrate and use them, are a perfect fix for this common domestic tragedy. If you’re also like me in that you share meals with someone who isn’t a big mushroom fan, dried mushroom’s long shelf life also mean you can keep them around until you can make a dinner for just your fungi-loving self, or until you make a dish that they can quietly disappear into, like a shepherd’s pie or lasagna. Just chop ’em small! You’ll be surprised at how meaty a shitake can taste when incorporated in a rich, red-wine based sauce.
Kewpie mayo – I know, I know, you’re loath to part from your beloved Duke’s. But there’s no law against keeping two different mayos in your fridge, and if you haven’t treated yourself to some Kewpie, your mayo game is seriously lacking, friend. Made with only egg yolks (instead of the full eggs that go into American mayo) and rice or apple vinegar, this Japanese variation on the condiment is richer and slightly sweeter than what you’re used to spreading on your Sunday afternoon turkey sando. Devotees report a smoother, more velvety mouthfeel with Kewpie, and the distinctive soft bottle is super satisfying to squeeze. While I, obviously, keep Duke’s on hand for my family pimiento cheese recipe and for sandwiches, I turn to my bottle of Kewpie for almost any other use, but especially the poke-ish rice bowls I became fond of making during lockdown. They’re a perfect topping if you’re experimenting with at-home okonomiyaki, but feel free to give it a shot in slaws, potato salads, dipping sauces, or anywhere you might use your standard mayo. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
If you’ve enjoyed this brief guide, I’d hazard a guess that you’d also enjoy hearing about fresh, local, and in-season Charleston-area produce from a Charleston chef, while cooking a meal from farmer’s market selections you picked out yourself! Sound fun? Check out our Farm-to-Table Experience and prepare to deep dive into the wide world of South Carolina’s finest locally-grown!