Cooking a meal is one of the quickest and most enjoyable ways to immerse yourself in the culture of a different country without hopping on a plane. Getting to know the flavors, ingredients and cooking techniques embraced abroad provides insight that can't be gleaned from reading a book or watching a movie.
In recent years, the international aisles of supermarkets have grown and vastly improved, making culinary exploration easier and more accessible. But there is still no substitute for shopping at a market that specializes in a particular cuisine. The food of Asian cultures, especially, often requires ingredients that can't be found just anywhere.
Fortunately, in and around the Baltimore area, numerous Asian grocery stores carry ingredients that are difficult to find in regular grocery stores. From the famously smelly durian fruit and unusual types of tea to dried jellyfish and seemingly infinite varieties of noodles, Baltimore's Asian shops — and their shopkeepers — have you covered.
"There are basic ingredients that make up most Asian dishes," said Chaw Toung, the manager, and son of the owners, of Asia Food, located just south of Govans in Woodbourne-McCabe. "Just ask, and we'll give you advice."
The Baltimore area's Asian grocery-store scene is strongest in Catonsville and Howard County, where three large supermarkets — H Mart, Lotte Plaza and Great Wall — serve a diverse community with pockets of immigrants from several Asian countries. Those stores are worth the drive from anywhere in the area, but the smaller shops that cater to local communities also carry thoughtful selections of ingredients from countries across Asia.
Even the small shops carry a wide variety of certain products, such as noodles. At larger stores, hundreds of noodle options are available. Like Italian pasta, Asian noodles come in different shapes and sizes and they may be either dried or fresh. Some are made with wheat, others with rice, and a few types are made from something else altogether (mung bean threads, used in Thai and Vietnamese cooking, are made from mung bean paste, for example).
Some of the most commonly used wheat noodles include soft, yellow lo mein and skinny crispy chow mein, both of which are made with eggs and are frequently used in Chinese cooking. Other wheat noodles include thick udon, often used in Japanese soup; the Japanese buckwheat noodle called soba; and ramen, the well-known noodle that is both a cheap, quick, instant food and associated with trendy noodle bars.
In the United States, delicate rice vermicelli is a frequently used ingredient, as are the flat, long noodles used in pad thai, soups and stir fries. The flat noodles have different names, based on their width, and are most often used in Thai or Vietnamese food.
Asian cooking novices may also be wowed by the aisles of sauces. Though soy sauce, the dark, salty sauce made with wheat and soybeans, is a familiar sight, several other sauces play major roles in Asian cuisine.
Fish sauce, which results from the process of fish fermentation, adds intense flavor to savory dishes (but be warned: on its own, fish sauce does not taste good); oyster sauce, which derives its flavor from oyster shells, is thick, salty and sweet.
The Chinese sauce hoisin is sticky and sweet and is typically used as a glaze for meat or as a cold dipping sauce.
Mirin, the low-alcohol Japanese rice wine, adds sweetness and slight acidity to dishes.
And rice vinegars, of which there are many types, are used to add acidity to dishes across Asian cuisines.
The next time you're in search of a specific ingredient — or simply some inspiration — check out one of these Asian markets in and around the city:
A-Mart Food Market
2025 E. Joppa Road, Parkville, 410-882-8328
This shop, which opened in October 2012, has a small produce section but a wide array of snacks and dry goods. One refrigerated case near the produce is particularly well stocked with great finds, from steamed buns to lotus seed cakes.
5224 York Road, Baltimore, 410-323-8738
Open for 43 years, Asia Food is one of the oldest Asian groceries in the area. Though the owners, the Toung family, are Taiwanese, the shop carries an impressive selection of Thai ingredients. Asia Food also does a strong wholesale business, and don't miss the aisles of reasonably priced cookware and dishes.
Great Wall Supermarket
5510 Baltimore National Pike, Catonsville, 410-788-8888
The Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Great Wall chain has several Maryland locations, including one in Catonsville that opened in 2013. The store feels enormous and comprehensive, with ingredients from multiple Asian cultures. From sausage to jellyfish to an aisle stocked entirely with different types of dried mushrooms, the selection at Great Wall is mind-blowing. It also stocks live frogs: In Chinese cooking, live frogs are sometimes fried, whole and alive, in hot oil, seasoned with garlic, ginger and other spices. In Japan, frogs may be eaten raw, as sashimi. In the United States, both practices have caused controversy; for a brief time in 2010 and 2011, the sale of live frogs was prohibited — in part for ecological reasons — in California.
800 N. Rolling Road, Catonsville, 443-612-9020; 3301 North Ridge Road, Ellicott City, 443-574-3456
H Mart's full name, "Han Ah Reum," means "one arm full of groceries" in Korean.
The grocery store chain has multiple locations in Maryland and is frequently lauded for its Korean specialties, from prepared foods to marinades to meat that has been pre-sliced and rolled in preparation for cooking in a hot pot.
Ha Ha Food Market
7501 Pulaski Highway, Rosedale, 443-730-1405
This Rosedale grocery has the largest selection of Asian products on the north side of the city. The look is no-frills, with many items still sitting in cardboard boxes, but the mix of products is great, including goat meat, unusual cuts of beef and a variety of live seafood, swimming in tanks in the back of the store. Ha Ha's in-store restaurant earns high praise, too, for its Cantonese specialties including roast duck and pig.
Lotte Plaza Market
Multiple locations including:
6600 Baltimore National Pike, Catonsville, 410-455-0505; 8801 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, 410-750-9656
Lotte Plaza has a lot in common with H Mart: the stores are similar in size and are near one another, both include restaurants and both have Korean roots. Lotte Plaza also carries a fairly extensive selection of Indian and Latino ingredients.
321 Park Ave., Baltimore, 410-962-1510
This downtown Baltimore shop is small but friendly and well stocked. It caters largely to students who live in the neighborhood (the University of Maryland Medical Center and School of Law are both nearby). To meet the needs of the diverse community, the shop carries a wide range of products, and the owners are always willing to add new stock upon request.
Towson Oriental Food Market
8424 Willow Oak Road, Parkville, 410-665-8432
This Parkville shop is larger than it appears at first glance, and carries a variety of products, including many types of fish and meats. The market is located next to a Filipino restaurant and carries some specialties of the Philippines, including balut — a hard-boiled duck egg containing a partially formed embryo.
Recipes to try
For some, shopping at Asian grocery stores can be intimidating because the ingredients are often unfamiliar. A good way to jump in is by making one or more of these recipes, which range from familiar to advanced.
Korean-style short ribs
Local blogger and cookbook author Kathy Patterson (minxeats.com) praises Asian markets for their great selections of meats, which often include cuts that are hard to find in traditional grocery stores, and for the wide variety of interesting condiments available.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1/4 cup sesame seeds, toasted and cooled completely
1 bunch scallions, trimmed and finely chopped
6 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
3 tablespoons gochujang (Korean hot pepper paste)
1 tablespoon Asian sesame oil
6 pounds beef short ribs
3 cups water
1 2-inch piece peeled ginger, smashed
Grind sesame seeds to a coarse powder in spice or coffee grinder.
Reserve 1/4 cup scallion greens then whisk together remaining scallions, garlic, soy sauce, brown sugar, hot pepper paste, sesame oil and 2 tablespoons sesame seed powder in a large bowl. Reserve remaining sesame seed powder for serving.
Add short ribs to soy-sauce mixture, rubbing mixture into them.
Transfer ribs to a large plastic bag and seal bag, pressing out excess air.
Marinate, chilled, for at least 8 hours.
Transfer ribs to a wide 6- to 8-quart heavy pot and add the 3 cups of water and ginger. Simmer, tightly covered, until ribs are very tender, about 3 hours.
Transfer ribs to a platter using tongs and keep warm, covered with foil.
Skim fat from sauce and pour sauce through a sieve lined with a dampened paper towel, into a bowl, then discard solids.
Serve ribs with sauce in shallow bowls and sprinkle with reserved scallion greens and remaining sesame seed powder.
Chicken & broccoli
During his cooking classes, chef Thomas Casey, owner of For the Love of Food, helps people of all ages learn to have fun and feel comfortable in the kitchen. His recipe for the Chinese-American favorite chicken and broccoli is cooked using a wok (or two). Even smaller Asian markets sell specialized cookware, like woks, as well as dishes and chopsticks.
Makes 12-16 servings
4 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts
4 large egg whites
4 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup oyster sauce
1/4 cup light soy sauce
1/4 cup dark soy sauce
1/4 cup water
4 pounds broccoli
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon water
2 1/2 cups vegetable or peanut oil for frying, divided
8 garlic cloves, crushed
Salt, to taste
2 teaspoons granulated sugar, or to taste
1 to 1 1/2 cups water
Cut the chicken into 3/4 -inch to 1-inch cubes.
In a bowl, mix together the egg white, cornstarch and salt. To "velvet" the chicken, add the egg-white mixture to the chicken cubes to coat.
Marinate the velveted chicken in a sealed container in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
While the chicken is marinating, prepare the sauce and vegetables. For the sauce, mix together the oyster sauce, light soy, dark soy and 1/4 cup water in a small bowl and set aside.
In another small bowl, mix the 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch with water and set aside.
Wash and drain the broccoli. Cut the stalk diagonally into thin slices and cut the flowerets into 3 or 4 pieces.
Preheat a wok. Heat 2 cups oil in the wok until it reaches 275 degrees. (Test the heat by placing a piece of chicken in the wok; it should float.)
Add the chicken cubes and let cook until they just turn white, about 30 seconds, using a wooden spoon or chopsticks to gently separate them.
Quickly remove the chicken cubes from the wok as soon as they turn white, and drain in a colander or on paper towels.
Drain the oil out of the wok or preheat a second wok on medium high to high heat. Add 2 tablespoons oil.
When the oil is hot, add the crushed garlic and stir fry for 10 seconds.
Add the broccoli, sprinkle the salt and sugar over, and stir fry briefly, turning down the heat if necessary to make sure it doesn't burn.
Add 1 cup of water and cook the broccoli, covered, for 4 to 5 minutes, until it turns a bright green color and is tender but still crisp.
Remove from the wok and drain.
Clean out the wok and heat 5 more tablespoons oil. Add the broccoli and velveted chicken, stirring and tossing to cook the chicken through.
Add the sauce and cornstarch mixture to the center of the wok and stir quickly to thicken.
Mix everything together and serve hot over steamed rice.
* This article has been updated to properly indicate the sourcing of the Korean-style short ribs recipe.