The aisles of your local Asian supermarket feature many ingredients you need to cook the ultimate Chinese dinner banquet at home.
But if you’re a Chinese cooking novice or from a non-Asian background, there’s a chance that you might need extra help to navigate the vast selection of foreign products stacked on the shelves.
“We get a lot of Caucasian customers who come into our store with a recipe and are looking for ingredients and sauces that they want to cook with,” explains Carman Chan, store manager at G’day Asian Grocery in Sydney’s Neutral Bay.
“Sometimes they don’t really understand what the ingredient they want to buy actually is. Or, there might be a few different names for the same kind of product they are supposed to buy.
“They might also feel intimidated at all the different products in the shop. Some people feel too embarrassed to ask for help. But that shouldn’t be the case. They should go and talk to the staff because they know the products. There’s no judgement. We like to [help] them out.”
Chan, who was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to Australia as a child, encourages people from all cultures to buy Chinese ingredients at their local Asian supermarket because it’s the best place to buy authentic products.
“An Asian supermarket is more likely to sell the products and brands that are most likely to be in a home pantry owned by Chinese or other Asian families,” explains Chan.
“The kind of sauces we import are from local producers, based overseas, meaning that the product has a more authentic taste to it than the same sauce you might find in a mainstream supermarket in Australia.
“For example, Lee Kum Kee is one of the brands of cooking sauces they use a lot in Hong Kong. But they don’t tend to sell that at mainstream stores. They sell the Ayam brand, which is not as popular with Chinese people living in China and Hong Kong.”
Product navigation 101
Chan breaks down the flow of the standard Australian-based Asian supermarket, explaining that shoppers can expect to find a range of vegetables, frozen foods, fresh ingredients in refrigerators, sauces separated by country, and packet, jarred and tinned products. Some supermarkets may even have an organic section.
"Some people feel too embarrassed to ask for help. But that shouldn’t be the case. They should go and talk to the staff because they know the products. There’s no judgement.”
Here are some of the Chinese products you should expect to find.
“You can buy regular tofu, firm tofu, silken egg tofu, classic tofu, bean curd and fried tofu puff,” says Chan.
Then there’s fermented tofu, a Chinese condiment made up of a preserved bean curd. “It can be fermented in a strong flavour like chilli paste. Some people use it for stir-frying vegetables with mince meat. Just by using one small piece of it in a dish, you will add a lot of flavour.”
Shoppers can expect to find the full range of Asian herbs and spices like turmeric, ginger, Thai basil and lime leaves in an Asian supermarket.
You can also pick up many types of fresh mushrooms – from oyster to shiitake, chestnut to enoki – and dried mushrooms to use in Chinese cooking.
Green Chinese vegetables that are also stocked include gai lan, water spinach, bok choy and watercress. “We get our vegetables in fresh every day from the farm. We keep a lot of our green veggies in the fridge, sold in bunches of three, in the fridge where they will keep better so they are fresher and better quality.”
The frozen section of a standard Asian supermarket sells everything from fish balls to noodles, dumplings and other dim sum delights.
Oils, vinegars and rice wine
Asian supermarkets tend to stock a vast range of oils you can cook with: soybean, vegetable, chilli, black bean chilli, Sichuan and peanut.
So if you’re unsure which one to choose to work best with your dish, Chen says, just ask a staff member.
Vinegars that are usually stocked include sweet bean, Chinkiang (or Zhenjiang), black and white.
“It’s also traditional to use Shaoxing in Chinese cooking. It is wine, fermented from rice and adds flavour to whatever you cook.”
Sauces and pastes
“You can also buy pre-made, packaged cooking sauces from Hong Kong that you can’t find anywhere else in mainstream supermarkets. You get your meat and vegetables prepared, and then you just add the sauce to the pan. It’s very simple to use.”
Asian supermarkets also sell chilli paste, sesame paste, broad bean paste or doubanjiang, and soy sauce paste, which are used in Chinese cuisine.
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