We've lived in Winston-Salem for three years now, roughly. Being the explorers we are, we drove around the city when we first moved here, taking stock of everything it offered. It was during the first year that I visited Asia Grocery for what would be the only time for a long time.
I don't know what made us forget but we didn't go back for two years. Interest in culinary art and gourmet food laid buried under interest in recovery food for endurance mountain bike training: brown rice and beans, steamed veggies, tons of eggs and fish as the only meat. Taste-wise, it was a boring, barren time for us and we didn't even know it.
Then one week last summer, we watched a marathon of Top Chef. My husband's passionate nature took over and he decided that he not only wanted to eat better, he wanted to learn to cook well. We quickly discovered that it was something we loved to do together and where we previously wondered if there were any hobbies we could share, we now knew cooking would be it.
It was six months before we turned to Asian cooking, particularly Thai. Before we married, Steve had never really been exposed to Thai, my father's signature style. I'd spent many a happy high school day eating spring rolls, phad thai, and the many editions of fried rice that my dad experimented with, searching for authenticity. I'd watched him lovingly oil the wok and massage it like the hard-working tool it was.
Then one day, Steve and I tried a new restaurant, Sushi Thai. Being fans of sushi, we stopped in and were blown away, not just by the quality of sushi but by the quality of the Thai food. It was phenomenal, and light bulbs lit up everywhere. We decided we simply must learn how to make this delicious food!
Cooking authentic Asian food requires authentic Asian ingredients. Yes, you absolutely may substitute lime zest for kaffir lime leaves, ginger for galangal, and ketchup for tamarind -if you're okay with an American knockoff. But if you want to feel like you're sitting on the floor of your Korean friend's home, trying to appear innocent as you tell her grandma that you're there to study while poised over a coffee table laden with noodles, kimchee, and dumplings with chopsticks in your greedy fingers...
You will need an Asian market.
When we realized this, we remembered that we had one! We armed ourselves with a tom kha recipe and sought out our local Asian market, the aptly named Asia Grocery. When we walked inside, it was as if we were two kids discovering a candy store for the first time. *Gasp!* "They have rice noodles! We can make real Pad Thai!" *Gasp!* "They have a whole tea section! Mmm, smell the Jasmine!" *Gasp!* "Look at all the soy sauce and rice vinegar! Look at all the snacks! Look at all the funny drinks! Look at all the dishes!"
We spent a good hour walking the six tiny aisles, peering into hand-labeled cardboard boxes full of Thai coffee and dehydrated jellyfish, checking out crammed shelves full of canned cooked duck eggs and rice pudding drinks, and peering into freezers full of whole fish and yellow pickled daikon that came with a saccharin warning.
The best part about Asia Grocery was their comparable prices. Our tin of Jasmine Tea was 3.49. It's loose-leaf and definitely better than any of the kinds you can get at an American supermarket. It smells wonderful and accompanies our Asian dishes so well. I can buy a multi-pack for 4.99 and have enough soba noodles for 12 servings. Soy sauce, rice vinegar, more kinds of rice than you can shake a stick at -all these things were either cheaper or the same price as Walmart. So where I previously bought cans of beans and tubes of ground turkey meat when we needed to be "economical," I can now buy rice noodles, hoisin and oyster sauce and stir-fry a tasty meal every night of the week.
(On an ironic note, we later found out that the Asian demographic that shops there complains because the prices are higher than Asian markets in surrounding cities.)
My only complaint was that they didn't have mirin. They had a mirin-style seasoning sauce that we ended up buying, but in the end I found mirin at Harris Teeter, of all places. Apparently, you are quite lucky if you can track down some of that stuff.
Here is where I would like to impress something very important upon you, if I'm able. Many an aspiring cook would love to make a stir-fry like they serve at a favorite hole-in-the-wall Chinese takeout, but is afraid to seek out the necessary ingredients at a local Asian market because of the foreign-ness of the store. The labels are often symbols with a smattering of English words. The organization may not make sense, or may even be haphazard, as our market is. You may be afraid to ask questions because of a possible language barrier.
But you can do it! Research your ingredients! If you need kecap manis, then make sure you know what it is! It will give you a clue where to find it (with other soy sauces) and you won't be clueless if asked a question. (I was asked, "Do you want tamarind for soup bases or concentrated tamarind?" I gave the guy a blank stare.)
It also helps to determine to find the ingredients yourself. Walk up and down each aisle, taking stock of what they have and where they keep it. Noodles, tea, rice, soy sauce and rice wine are all pretty familiar things to Americans. Find them and then check out what's inbetween. I say helps, though, because even after a dozen trips, I still have trouble finding things. When you walk in, make sure to say hello to the person running the store, and I guarantee, after looking for yourself, if you have any questions, they will be happy to show you where things are. And you may need to ask. I can't get lemongrass unless I ask for it.
There you have it! The Eastern culinary culture is a strange, exciting, tasty world and I encourage you to explore it.