• Work your way around the aisles and you'll find pantry-stocking gold for your kitchen. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
This non-intimidating 101 helps you through your local Asian supermarket, so you can supercharge your pantry and dinners at home.
Yasmin Noone

3 Dec 2018 - 12:11 PM  UPDATED 12 Dec 2018 - 1:26 PM

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.”

Fresh produce

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.”

Frozen foods

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

Chinese-style sauces available include oyster, soy (premium, light, dark, seafood and mushroom-flavoured), black bean, brown, garlic, peanut, char siu, hoisin and sha cha.

“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. 

Bask in a Chinese food bounty like no other in Adam Liaw's brand-new series Destination Flavour China airing 7.30pm Wed nights on SBS, with an encore Sun 9.30pm on SBS Food (Channel 33) and then after broadcast via SBS On Demand. Join the conversation #DestinationFlavour on Instagram @sbsfood, Facebook @SBSFood and Twitter @SBSFood. Check out sbs.com.au/destinationflavour for recipes, videos and more! 

Destination Flavour China is sponsored by Cathay Pacific. For more information, please visit cathaypacific.com.au

Raid your (Asian) pantry
Fish sauce is the saltiest offender of all the Asian sauces
A new report shows that one tablespoon of fish sauce contains 96% of your daily salt intake.
Mrs Jang’s home-style fried eggs

Where Westerners have fried eggs and bacon, Chinese people have fried eggs with chilli, oyster sauce and spring onions.

Boosted soy sauce

I use this soy sauce in place of normal light soy sauce for absolutely everything. It’s lighter and less salty, but has a richer and more balanced flavour.

Sa cha noodles

Is the peanutty soup in this recipe the original satay sauce? Hailing from the Fujian city of Xiamen, and meaning ‘sand tea’ in translation, the flavours in this seafood-and-spice-packed noodle dish certainly bear similarities to its distant Malaysian cousin. Which makes sense when you consider many of the Chinese migrants to Malaysia historically came from Fujian province. Either way, it’s pretty darn good.


Try making your own hoisin for use in weeknight stir-fires, Asian-inspired omelettes and for dipping!

Where to buy: Japanese
Whatever you're in the market for, whether wasabi peas or squeezy Kewpie mayo, nori sheets or mochi cakes, you'll find the Japanese goods at the following grocers.