Evan’s Review: Come for the vegetables, stay for the animal heads.
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Q-U-I-N-O-A. If I have to spell it for the store clerk, I automatically assume the store doesn’t carry it or doesn’t educate their staff. Sometimes they know it, sometimes they don’t. It’s all part of the game I play when I’m having a grocery store adventure. When I get to the check out with my carefully chosen exotic vegetables, the cashier will sometimes ask, “What’s this called?” Parsnip. Rutabaga. Fennel. I often have to report exactly what’s in the bag if a store code is not attached. Once in a while, curious checkout personnel might ask what I do with the flax meal or how I cook the Brussels sprouts. I don’t mind educating them. I want them to be brave enough to give it a try in their own kitchens. I’m looking forward to the day I find kohlrabi in the produce section. Even I might have to Google what to do with that one despite my many years of playing with food.
I fondly remember the days when I went grocery shopping with my mom. I’ll be honest here, I love grocery shopping, so these memories are good ones. My mom went to Pathmark when I was a teenager. That was her grocery stop and no other would suffice. I assume, at this advanced distance from those days, that price was the key factor in store choice. We lived just a few blocks from the pricier A & P, but drove a couple towns away for our weekly shopping. Store employees were mostly familiar with all the mundane produce way back then. The Guess This Vegetable Game evolved over time as I increased my own plant-based knowledge beyond carrot and potato.
Grocery stores have grown in size since I was a kid eagerly tagging along to the Pathmark with my mom. Not only have stores gotten larger, they have expanded into mini-cities with bakeries, delis, samples for nibbling, beer and wine offerings, international cuisine and even cafes. With these expansions, mainline grocery chains are adding more exotic (or previously unknown to the population of home cooks) items. Food fads come and go, and it is advantageous for stores to stock up on growing trends in order to cash in and provide me with a suitable playground. I’m still finding untried foodstuff when I make my weekly visits and continue to test the knowledge of the store clerks.
Grocery shopping has always seemed more like treasure hunting whether the store is mega-sized or a tiny bodega tucked away in the corner of a shopping plaza. I take the time to enjoy a leisurely root around, especially if I have never been there before. Our local Asian markets are great examples of vendors who offer a wide assortment of unfamiliar yummies (or yuckies). When I first moved to Asheville, I entered one of these establishments near my home in search of fried tofu pockets. If you’d like a satisfying, adventurous trip to a store, never tell the store clerk what you’re looking for, even if they immediately ask. You want the time to roam and browse. At this particular little Asian shop, I think they are very familiar with my type of shopper since they wait until I’ve been in there 30 minutes or so to see if I need their assistance.
The store is tiny, about the size of one of those sleek athletic shoe stores you might find at the mall. This one has about five aisles packed to the rafters with every imaginable edible (and for me some not-so-edible) type of merchandise. Whenever I enter this place, I challenge myself to come away with at least one thing I have never eaten before. This is an easy contest since they have such an extensive inventory of excellent groceries. My last conquest was a tin of massaman curry paste, which I have decided to stock up on as a staple in my pantry—that’s a win! The pickled mango, in theory should have thrilled me, but that was a one-time purchase which gained notoriety in the back of our refrigerator.
During my first visit to this delightful little store, I paced the noodle aisle several times. I found the incredible variety of noodles that exist in the world jammed into this one tiny shop. Noodles are stacked high on both sides, so it takes time to peruse them all. I tended to favor Japanese buckwheat soba, but was willing to try the rice sticks or chow mein noodles as I busily stacked up the packets in my cute mini grocery cart. Noodles are standard fare, so on the first visit, I pushed myself to delve deeper into the shop to find that one extraordinary gem.
The first thing I learned was to not go too deeply into the shop. That’s where the butcher hangs the meat. In regular grocery stores, the butcher shop is always in the back of the store and I know how to avoid ending up face to, well, if not face, then choice bits of animal parts. In the little Asian market, faces were definitely available for the seeing, so I quickly learned to backtrack as a strategy for skirting stuff I didn’t want to confront. I also discovered some disgusting things in the freezer cases, but the encounter was not as graphic or as traumatizing as looking someone’s meal in the eye.
At this point, I think my grocer sensed my vegetarian look of panic and approached me to ask if I needed help. I politely inquired about the fried tofu pockets. She hesitated, thinking, then briskly walked me to a door in the frozen foods section and pointed out something fried and tofu. She told me I should try it, so I put it in my cart even though it didn’t appear to be the exact thing I wanted. I’d learned about these tofu pockets from Vivian, my previous boss, who was from Hong Kong. One afternoon in Houston, she took me on a tour of a sprawling Asian market about the size of her home town. She located the fried tofu pockets and explained how I could lightly boil them and stuff them with rice and other goodies. I stood in front of the freezer case in the little market in Asheville, reminiscing how wondrous it had been to have had a personal tour guide through the mysterious ingredients from many different countries. In the name of the game of expanding my culinary repertoire, I was eager to try this product which resembled the fried tofu pockets but wasn’t actually fried tofu pockets.
Then I spied the cans of jackfruit. I’d heard of it, but had never seen it. I quickly scanned my phone for what could be made from it and found a lengthy article on how to harvest the goodness from the fresh fruit, which is a bizarre spikey yellow beach ball. Skinning, preboiling, seed removal, cutting and re-boiling seemed like a lot of steps, leading to a lot of work, so I eyed the canned variety with an appreciation of the effort that had gone into getting it to that stage. I tossed a couple cans into my cart and proceeded to the check-out. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in that store. My jackfruit crabby patties and ramen bowls are popular here at the Hobbit House.
I hurried home, anxious to try the fried tofu thing recommended by my friendly neighborhood grocer. It was not what I had been looking for and I wasn’t sure how to make it function as a tender stuffed delicacy. I had to do a lot of cutting and guesswork, but I finally managed to work some of it apart to stuff with my rice and lentil pâte. An old scrap of rawhide might have worked just as well as a stand in for what was supposed to have resulted in a chewable little package of deliciousness, but wasn’t. Sometimes there is no substitute. I have tried other stores in town, but have not yet been successful at locating the fried tofu pockets. I have since discovered the Japanese term is abura agé. I only hope I don’t have to spell it (or pronounce it) in the store.
Since I got vaccinated, the grocery store games are expanding as I wander further from home to seek out new purveyors of items which feed not only my body, but also my imagination. I’ve come a long way from the Pathmark days when I beseeched my mother to spend a little on something we’d never tried before. That was around the time my family discovered tacos, a previously unknown crunchy delight in our New Jersey home. I can’t take the credit for introducing them, but I sure was a pest at insisting they stayed on our dinner plates! Think I’ll try the pickled okra next time I visit the Asian market. They’d be perfect on jackfruit tacos!
Always playing the game,
Guest Editor Evan was so helpful in nudging me into tightening up the sentences and thinking a little harder about keeping the readers from being confused. I’m happy he thought animal heads were a good inclusion in this story.