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Oh the Things You Can Find at an Asian Grocery Store

written by Thu Tran, MD,FACOG
on Wednesday, 1st January ,2014

Have you ever gone to one of the giant Asian grocery stores? In the suburbs of Washington, DC, they seem to be everywhere now. Going to one is like traveling to Hong Kong or Chinatown. This past Saturday, after bootcamp, we had a holiday breakfast in Dr. Daphne Keshishianʼs kitchen. We each brought an item for breakfast. As usual, I brought “Baby Bok Choy and Mushrooms in Oyster Sauce”, a very popular dish among the healthy but gourmet foodie boot campers (see the recipe below). To get ingredients for this delicious dish, I always go to one of the Asian “mega” grocery stores scattered between Rockville and Germantown. Not only do they offer so many vegetables with several types of bok choy alone, their prices for these items is astonishingly less expensive than what you find in an American grocery store. My favorite store lately is “GW” on Rockville Pike, not standing for “George Washington”, but an abbreviation of “Great Wall”

Do not feel intimidated about going to an Asian grocery store if you are not Asian. The minute you walk into the store, you will feel as if you are in a United Nations Conference. True, there are many Asians around you and, just kidding, although we might all look alike to some of you, we come from many different parts of Asia or South Asia. Your trip to an Asian grocery store could be fascinating and amusing at the same time. The music on the loud speakers, for example, could be some popular Latino tune or Chinese music in a Korean store.

Prepare to see many vegetables that you canʼt identify or choose to avoid - forever! I find it fascinating to see fresh garlic stems or chives, the long slender vegetable with “arrow head” flowers. Obviously, some people eat “salad roots”, as shown in one of the photos. I was adventuresome one day and bought some lotus roots and have been “hooked” on this root ever since. Or, if you love cucumber, you will be in for a treat: Israeli, Korean, English, Persian, or “regular” cucumber - which one today? March over to the aisle where grapes are displayed and you, like me, will want to buy a few grapes from each type just to see how they taste. Asian grocery stores are the only food stores where I find tiny green grapes, almost as small as raisins. They look like bundles of shiny green pearls stacked up against the giant purple grapes the size of big cherry tomatoes. The same for potatoes. At Great Wall market, almost a whole aisle is devoted to potatoes and sweet potatoes and “their starchy family”, from taro to yucca. For adults and children, shopping here is like being in a candy store surrounded by all these bright colors in different shapes and sizes.

The tropical fruit aisle is fascinating for westerners who do not know how delicious these fruits taste: longan, a sweet white fleshy fruit covered with thin brown skin, or mangosteen, also juicy sweet white flesh fruit with a thick purple skin, or dragon fruit, in the family of cactus, and several types of mango ranging from the big Mexican mango to the very small yellow mango loved by southeast or south Asians.

Like me, you may marvel at the fish tank in GW market, and stare at the many kinds of fresh fish displayed in the seafood section. There's great salmon, and you will find different kinds of snails used in a variety of Asian dishes. The fish counter at GW is an entertaining section for children who like to see “moving” crustaceans or swimming fish. In the GW market in Fairfax, Virginia, I once saw a big group of children gathering around a small tank full of live turtles, each one the size of a walnut. Several weeks later, in the Washington Post, there was an article in the Metro section about GW facing criminal charges by the state of Virginia for illegally selling wildlife such as red-eared slider turtles (the ones we had been looking at), large mouth bass, bullfrogs and eels. There was a big debate about whether the state of Virginia should be more sensitive to “cultural” cuisines. To many cultures, anything “live and mobile” is fair game for eating! When I was in Beijing in 2012, I took photos of the night food market showing spiders and snakes, silk worm larvae, and star fish kabobs which made my American friends tremble. They were probably excellent sources of protein, I jokingly told them.

To survive a stroll around an Asian grocery store, you have to be alert and assertive in guiding your cart around or you will get stuck in an aisle for a long time or get slammed from the rear from someone elseʼs cart. Expect hundreds of mostly women racing around with their carts full of exotic vegetables and fruits. Do not expect the little old ladies to apologize when their carts bump into you or your cart. They expect you to stay out of their way! Also, do not be bothered at the fruit stand where you see people blatantly exchange mangos from different boxes in front of a big sign “Please Do Not Exchange Fruits!”. You will see Asian women taking time “examining” fruits by squeezing, smelling, or holding up to the light their tomatoes, peaches, mangos etc. as if they are doing a self breast exam! They are probably the major “tiger moms” at home, the perfectionists! You should, however, take your time to look at the fruit and vegetable aisles and enjoy the rainbow of colors around you. Look at how many kind of pears you can bring home to show your kids! Stroll into the area of condiments and sauces. You might find a few containers of ketchup and mustard but I hope you will not feel overwhelmed by the hundred of sauces you can use to stir fry your vegetables or marinate your meat.

These aisles show you how many cultures are living in this area, and how beautiful diversity is as we all live in a big mixing bowl. Be adventurous and buy a few “strange” looking fruits. Chances are you will fall in love with their scent and taste and will be back for more in the future. Over the years, I have learned to try many new items; to cook with and eat different kinds of vegetables to make my healthy meals more interesting and appetizing. There are only a few kinds of meats in the western diet. When it comes to vegetables, however, you do not have to limit yourself to Caesar Salad or steamed broccoli. Try Shanghai tips or oyster mushrooms, lotus roots or fresh water chestnuts and you will see how easy it is to have a great meal full of tasty vegetables.

For 2014, be adventuresome! Walk into an Asian grocery store and pick some vegetables you have never tried before. Pick a basic stir-fry sauce (black bean or oyster sauce), and create a dish! You might fall in love with your new dish like I have and you might find yourself loving a new vegetable as I have many times. Do not, however, buy bullfrogs or red-eared slider turtles. They are not to be used as pets and you will not find me posting any recipe using their meat! Here's the baby bok choy recipe I promised; in the future, I'll be posting more recipes using different vegetables found in Asian grocery stores.

Baby Bok Choy and Shiitake Mushrooms in Oyster Sauce


1 lb of baby bok choy or regular bok choy
1 lb of fresh Shiitake mushrooms (can substitute with Crimini), sliced. 4 cloves of garlic, chopped. (garlic amount depends on your taste)
1 inch of fresh Ginger, chopped (optional)
2 stems of Scallions, chopped.
2 tsp of Oyster sauce
4 tsp of olive or vegetable oil
Black pepper to taste
1 Tsp of butter (optional)


1) In a hot frying pan, pour in half of the oil and half of the garlic until golden brown. Add the mushrooms and stir occasionally. When mushrooms are almost tender, add half of the Oyster sauce and stir well. Remove mushrooms and put on a plate.

2) In the frying pan, add the rest of the oil and butter. Add garlic and stir until garlic is golden brown. Add bok choy and as it turns bright green, add the remaining scallions and oyster sauce. Continue to stir occasionally until the bok choy is tender.

3) Add the mushroom mixture and turn off heat. Sprinkle in some black pepper. Remove from frying pan and put on a plate and serve.

Note: for those who own a very large frying pan, you can combine the two step-process above into one even quicker process. You should stir fry the mushrooms first since this step takes longer. Once the mushrooms are tender, toss in the bok choy as it turns green and is ready after just a minute or two.

Enjoy this healthy dish!

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