Depending on your age, you may remember a time in America when there was no fish sauce at the supermarkets. That was my family’s experience in 1975, when we found ourselves cooking and eating with La Choy soy sauce. (Shudder.) Our food wasn’t quite right until we bought a car and drove to Chinatown in Los Angeles to seek fish sauce and other Viet staples. My mom recycled one of the small La Choy bottles as a fish sauce dispenser, which she still keeps on her dining table today.
Nowadays you’re likely to find a bottle of Thai Tiparos in the “Asian” section of mainstream grocery stores. There are galangal and fresh turmeric at Whole Foods. That said, sourcing ingredients to make good Asian food is still a bit of a scavenger hunt.
I have first-hand experience because I live in Santa Cruz, a coastal town in Northern California with seemingly few Asian food resources. Since moving here in 1998, people repeated ask me where I find Asian ingredients. I used to always say, “San Jose at the Asian markets” but in recent years, I’ve found myself making fewer 1 1/2-hour roundtrip drives to grocery shop. I can get decent stuff closer to home.
That notion intrigued journalist Tara Duggan of the San Francisco Chronicle. She asked me about how I source ingredients for Asian food. I invited her over to show her what I meant and she reported it in this story published in Sunday’s paper.
For many people, the major obstacle to preparing Asian food is getting the ingredients. I’ll be honest with you by saying that I'm an outlier. Our very deep hallway closet lined with shelves filled with food and cooking equipment. The garage is where the freezer and more equipment reside.
Like my parents taught me, I stock up at Asian markets on hard-to-find ingredients like pandan leaves (to flavor or color food), wheat starch (for dumplings) and Sichuan chile bean sauce (dou ban jiang, for killer mapo tofu!). I also grow stuff because that level of freshness impacts my food. In my garden you’ll see Vietnamese herbs, lemongrass, Chinese chives, kaffir (makrut) lime leaf, or curry leaf.
But I'm a professional home cook. For most folks, they want to find ingredients within walking distance or a 15-minute drive of their home. For the past few months, I've been snapping shots and noting where I've found ingredients. Here's my report: