You know how in school we went on field trips to connect the classroom to the real world? Well I decided to go on a food trip to connect my kitchen and desire to learn about authentic prepartations of ethnic foods with local, ethnic markets in my area. After hearing so much about Grand Asia Market in Cary on Yelp and various food blogs, I figured this was a good first food trip.
I went at around 3 PM on a weekday, and it was still buzzing with people, a definite positive sign. When I walked in, I immediately knew that this place is a foodies paradise. There are spices, food, and products from countries all over Asia: Thailand, Korea, China, Japan, Malaysia, and India to name a few. Also, due to Raleigh's growing Latino population, a few herbs and spices prevalent in Mexican and Central American cooking were also available. Plus there is a large produce, seafood, and meat section with the ordinary suspects as well as foods more extraordinary to the Western shopper. Given the size of the store, I decided to walk through before starting my shopping to get a feel of the place.
I started in the produce area, which is my favorite part of any store. Grand Asia carries "average" products as well as foods that I consider "Iron Chef" secret ingredients because that was likely the first time I'd heard of them. Among vegetables, potatoes, yam, onions, and cabbage were neselted alongside lotus root, water chestnuts, and daikon. And lychee, persimmons, and durian looked at home next to donut peaches, apples, and bananas. While on the subject of fruits, I loved how the pears at Grand Asia had fluffy pear protectors around them so they wouldn't bruise! Whole Foods, take a note. Of course there was kimchee, tofu, miso paste, and red bean paste in the refrigerated area of the produce section.
There were a number of herbs prevalent in both Asian and Latino cooking such as cilantro and parsley, but herbs and roots special to Asian cooking such as mint leaves, ginger root, and lemongrass were also available at an incredibly low cost. There were also various types of peppers and chiles used in Thai, Malaysian, and Latino cooking.
On to the back: the meat and seafood sections. The seafood section was quite impressive, boasting tanks filled with live tilapia, cat fish, lobster (both North American and Spiny), soft shell crab, and even soft shell turtle (this broke my heart because I have a little turtle...her name is Turbo). In addition to the tanks of seafood, there was also a large case filled with a variety of fresh fish (including my personal favorites: red snapper and salmon), squid, shellfish, and octopus.
I was shocked by how inexpensive the seafood was given its quality. Lobster was only $9.99/pound while I was there and the most expensive item were large shrimp, also priced at $9.99. Another perk is that you could buy the whole or parts of sea critters since there were shrimp and fish with heads on and heads off. Last point: Don't be intimidated by the whole fresh and live fish, they can either keep it whole or cut it however you'd like. Options include just scaling the fish to cutting it into various fillets, or into sashimi sized slices.
The meat section was much smaller and the bulk of the meat in the case seemed to be pork, so I didn't really spend much time back there because I don't really eat pork and most of the people seemed to focus their energy on the seafood, reinforcing my assumption that the seafood area is the star of the market. I did notice the usual, lamb, beef, and chicken. But if you ever need chicken feet, pig snouts and other parts, or cow uterus...this is your one stop shop.
The frozen and refrigerated food sections were interesting and filled with a number of prepared food products and cold treats from Asian countries. Being a lactose intolerant ice cream fanatic I was practically drooling over red bean and purple yam ice creams. The frozen food section is another place to find cooking herbs and roots such as Kaffir leaves and galangal. In both sections you can buy frozen, precooked dim sum, fresh noodles, and steamed buns that are prepared on the premises. The refrigerated section also had a variety of seaweed that could be purchased which was the first time that I'd ever seen such a thing, in addition to fresh noodles, dried fish,
Finally, the grocery section which seemed small when compared to the other parts of the store, but there was a lot of good stuff compacted on the shelves. Grand Asia's grocery section is filled with sauces, marinades, and spices from all over Asia as well as dried meats, noodles, and mushrooms. Canned and dried fish and meat were on display and a wide variety of tea, honey, milks, pastes, and jams had me wanting tea and dessert by the end of the aisle.
Of all the things in the grocery section, I found the giant bags of rice and bulk dried beans something to marvel. Personally, I lack the patience to cook dried beans, but if you don't this is a great deal.
With a good grip on the layout and contents of the store, I decided to start my shopping. For the most part, I had a mission as I plan to make Tom Kha Gai (Thai coconut soup). When all was said and done, I ended up with:
- 4-tier bamboo steamer (hey, I also want to try my hand at making dim sum one of these days)
- 20 lbs bag of rice (we eat A LOT of rice)
- 3 stalks of lemongrass
- 2 large bunches of cilantro
- 1/2 pound of large fresh shrimp
- large bag of star of anise (I can never find this in the store)
- Kaffir Leaves (also, never to be found at the store)
- Galangal (ginger is just not the same)
I got two steamed buns, one barbecue pork and one pork and quail egg, and a Taiwanese sticky rice wrap. The buns were pretty good and incredibly cheap. My only complaint that the bun to filling ratio was far too uneven with more bun than filling. The pork and quail egg one was my favorite as it was more flavorful due to the salty/sweet combo from the pork and creaminess and saltiness from the quail egg. As for the sticky rice wrap, I was not a big fan of the one I had. It had beans, pork, and onions in it...normally I got ones with chicken teriyaki or sweet pork inside, so I was a bit surprised by the contents. Either way, seeing that I spent less than $3.00 on these goodies, I was more than pleased. In the future I hope to try the fresh noodles from the "full plate area" because it looked amazing and everything is made fresh in front of you. If you can't tell, there is essentially a full service restaurant in Grand Asia, with tables and everything.
So I learned a lot on my food trip. I found out where to have dim sum in the Triangle, buy fresh noodles, and have a good authentic, cheap eat. So if you live in the area and have been trying to find out where to get your daikon or the freshest seafood, check out Grand Asia Market. Its located at 1253 Buck Jones Road in Raleigh.