Ode to Asian Groceries

Monday, 9 March, 2015

One of the many delights of living in this sunburnt country is its rich multiculturalism, especially in Melbourne, where foods from different continents are readily available on any given street. The Asian supermarket is one such product of our cultural diversity; a magical place where bright colours and nonsensical labels vie for your attention. Oh, to peruse the Asian supermarket! Dried winter melon, anyone? Green tea Kit Kat? Mooncakes and mochi, or maybe even some anchovy potato chips? There are no limits in the world of oriental groceries, or so it often seems, to those who, like me, have wandered uninitiated into their local store in search of a shopping experience beyond that of Woollies or Coles.

Much of the joy of Asian grocery shopping comes from the process of guessing, based on labels written mostly in Chinese, Japanese or Korean what treats you are hold in your hand. You and your delighted noob friends will browse through packets of broiled eel, boxes of Job’s Tears Tea (is this the tea you drink after being fired?), soft drinks that say things like “taste for refresh” and bottles containing sweet, fizzy milk. Indeed, the “English” on some of the product labels are one of the best parts of the Asian grocery experience, especially if you are a grammar pedant. These labels almost enter the realm of abstract poetry: “Taste of relax” (chrysanthemum tea) and “sexier than water” (Japanese Sprite Zero) are two recent favourites. You and your newly converted buddies will stare agog at the products (and each other) while the sales assistant eyes you with exasperation. You will giggle like schoolchildren.

Novelty factor and cultural exploration aside, there is certainly something to be said for the actual quality and deliciousness of many Asian food products. For the sugar-fuelled, Pocky is a staple. A small pack of very thin breadstick cracker things dipped in chocolate, it also comes in strawberry and green tea flavours. When choosing lollies (you get to choose between flavours like peach, plum and taro), do a gentle and non-damaging squeeze before you commit; I always go for the squishy ones. That’s a universal preference, right? Japanese mochi, or daifuku, is also amazing–a mouthful of gelatinous, red bean heaven. If you’re looking for snacks, the chip and cracker aisle offers such gems as Shrimp Meat Chips, Green Peas Snack (essentially Twisties with pea flavouring instead of orange cheese), Cuttlefish Flavoured Crackers and Jolly Pong, a Korean puffed wheat caramel snack which looks and tastes a lot like cereal, but better. I also found Taro Fish Snack, which looks like thin strips of dried fish and features a happy-go-lucky fish cartoon on the packet (definitely on the future purchase list) and Banana Kick Banana Snack, which is kind of the same deal as the Peas Snack but with banana flavour, obviously. All of these snacks are as bizarre as they are satisfyingly delicious and awesome.

Asian supermarkets are one of the best things I have ever stumbled upon, and in Melbourne we are blessed with a lot of them. A quick consultation with Siri reveals three within two kilometres of me. So please, people, expand your horizons if you haven’t already; we all love mi goreng and its tasty ramen cousins, but there is so much more to be found in the Asian grocery store down the road.