How many times have you stumbled upon a gorgeous stir-fry recipe on Pinterest, or seen a delicious curry on TV, but the prospect of rounding up the ingredients made the idea of cooking the dish feel unattainable?
Let this guide demystify the isles making up our wonderful cities Asian markets, and help you gain confidence about to executing exquisite Eastern eats in 2018.
I hate missing out on a truly exciting meal, and that’s why I’m going to break down our local Asian markets, to hopefully simplify things a bit.
This is not a review of which market to go to, rather a practical guide that highlights the differences in each market. Let’s venture out of the grub-hub comfort zone, and cook delicious meals at home in 2018.
User-friendly: Pan-Asia Market
11940 Metcalf Ave. Overland Park
Pan-Asia is the new kid on the block, and right out of the gate it has established itself as a competent entry. The first thing worth noting in this market is the overall organization. It isn’t the largest, but it is easy to find most of the things you might need, in good shape, and clearly labeled.
The ease of navigating Pan-Asia is multiplied exponentially if you sign up for its newsletter and rewards program. The weekly specials will show up in your inbox and you can plan your trip before you leave. Also, if you utilize the deals and discounts from the reward program, Pan-Asia’s affordability increases. Using an accumulative point system, the card can shave several dollars off your final bill!
The fresh seafood selection is top-notch, with live dungeness crab for $11.99 per pound, it is easy to justify that decadent Singapore style chili-crab recipe collecting dust on your Pinterest board. Ruby-red cuts of salmon are only $5.99 per pound.
I would also credit Pan-Asia with the freshest produce, thanks to the impeccable rotation of fruits and vegetables. In the massive tea selection you will find technicolor jars of dried herbal teas picked at their peak. The chrysanthemum in particular is of a visibly high quality, with linen white petals unobstructed in their premium glass jars.
For bargain buyers: Hung Vuong Market
303 Grand Blvd., Kansas City
You may have never been to Hung Vuong Market. Its storefront is not the flashiest, tucked away in the River Market neighborhood. To step in this market is a more unforgettable experience though, with vibrant cakes and confections greeting you at the door. As the sign suggests, it is a little Saigon for Kansas City. This is especially noticeable as Chinese New Year approaches and the traditional treats and decorations come out.
Hung Vuong Market carries mostly Vietnamese fare, although there is still a formidable Thai, Indonesian and Filipino selection. The selection of breads and baked goods is expansive. Try the butter bread from the bakery, sliced and toasted, for your next jelly delivery vessel. You’re welcome!
I also recommend Hung Vuong for its bargain citrus selection, with pomelo priced at $3 each (rather than by the pound for this heavy cousin to grapefruit) and oranges are 2 for $1. This store is great for filling in the blanks in a meal.
For instance, if you’ve been wanting to make pho at home and haven’t thought of any sides, Hung Vuong has plenty of pre-made fresh Vietnamese side dishes such as steamed cakes, coconut strips, and sticky rice in banana leaf, all for around $3 each. They are made on-site.
My favorite takeaway from Hung Vuong would have to be the pandan-flavored layer cake for $2.29. Pandan, for the uninitiated, is best described as a leaf that tastes like a grassy vanilla and colors everything green. I love this ingredient in a nice spongy Indonesian cake and this version made by the Apollo brand hits the spot!
The Swiss army knife: 888 International Market
10118 W. 119th St. Overland Park
What does this place not have? If there is any concern that you won’t find what you’re looking for at just one spot, start at 888 Market. From crickets to cleaning products, or whole roasted pigs to live barnacles, you can come here and get lost.
For once, it’s okay to shop hungry. At 888 Market there is a full-service restaurant (note: cash only) turning out some pretty delicious food, like roasted duck and rice for $7 and comparable (in flavor and price) to similar dishes I’ve had from hawker stalls in Singapore! The duck is juicy and tender, served with a sweetened soy glaze and blanched bok choy. I grabbed some chili oil and hoisin sauce at the attached cafeteria and enjoyed a transportive dining experience.
Beyond the eatery, 888 excels in frozen goods, especially the hyper-fresh sushi grade variety. Here you will find vacuum-sealed octopus with vibrant purple skin, as well as seasonal white tuna, flash-frozen with precision before being flown in. There is a premium for such quality, with the white escolar tuna set at $25 per pound. Treat yourself!
Don’t be intimidated by the size of the place. I mean there are four isles dedicated exclusively to noodles — what’s not to like? One special caught my eye, a family-sized package of ginseng-flavored ramen for $3.59.
Leaving the dry-goods section you’re met with the highlight of 888: the equipment. There are so many different pots, pans, steamers, gadgets, plates, utensils, and general household items, you could outfit your entire home. Get a $20 wok that will last you a lifetime, and find a good deal on that sushi rolling set. 888 Market is the perfect spot to snag that last-minute housewarming gift.
Putting convenience back in convenience stores: Chinatown Food Market
202 Grand Blvd. Kansas City
Chinatown Food Market is that place I go before a road trip, or on my way to work. It is the perfect market to stop in and grab a quick something, especially if you haven’t even decided what that something is.
With a central location in River Market and a corner lot with parking to boot, it ticks off all of the bodega boxes. In less than a minute, you can grab a cold drink from the cooler by the register (like the mango Ramune for less than $2), a tasty baked snack (lotus cake for $1.69 anyone?), and a snack for later (big bags of green tea Kit Kats are $4.99 and worth it), and be on your way.
If you’ve decided to make mango sticky rice for the next big work party, please invite me, and also, you’re in luck! Chinatown Food Market offers case discounts for pretty much anything. That means buying a case of items, like mangoes, can save you up to 25 percent off of the individual price!
Side note: BEER! Chinatown Food Market has a pretty solid Asian beer selection, and remember that case discount? It may come in handy here.
The hidden ace: Oriental Super Market
10336 Metcalf Ave. Overland Park
Oriental Super Market is kind of a package deal, meaning that with the store you get the block. If you haven’t tried the circle of restaurants in the strip malls around 103rd and Metcalf, stop by Gangnam for some great Korean food, or Cafe Vie for a big bowl of pho, or shop in the surrounding gift stores.
With a focus on Korean fare, Oriental Super Market has quite the variety of kimchi, Korean miso, and even the vessels and equipment to start your own ferments. Making kimchi is a wonderful experience that is cheap, simple and rewarding. Oriental Super Market sells everything needed to get started for around $30. Ferments are touted for their health benefits, so at very least take advantage of the delicious pickles on hand, starting around the $3 range.
You can also pick up all the fixings needed for tteok bokki, a fiery Korean dish with loads of gochujang sauce. The pillowy rice cakes soothe the heat and the garlic and sesame oil really round the dish out. Toss in sliced fish cake, cabbage, and scallions to cover all of the healthy New Years Resolution bases too.
One particular thing I buy here, and only here, is my mandolin. Benriner vegetable slicers are an essential kitchen gadget. The version I replace every few years is about $40 and comes with several interchangeable blades, making time-consuming knife work quick and easy. Just watch your fingers!
We are fortunate, in our little slice of the Midwest, to have the many options for Asian markets that we do. Chances are in 2018 you can find whatever ingredient you are looking for, regardless of locality or seasonality. This means that by familiarizing yourself, and getting a little lost in the supermarket, you may never have to bail out on a spontaneous foodventure again. Now get cooking!
Jakob Polaco is a chef, writer and a recipient of Ink Magazine’s 30 Under 30 award. Follow along at his website https://www.spicevagrant.com.