Happy Friday everyone. Today’s post is Part I in the two part series: Grand Asia Market. We have our own little China Town in Cary, but few people even know it exists. It may not be 20 blocks long or taking over the Cary Little Italy but it does have anything and everything you could desire for Asian (and oddly Mexican) cooking. As the title shows, Part I will consist of imagery and explanations of my favorite items from cookware, produce, and the fish counter.
The Grand Asia Market, located off of Buckjones Road across from Jellybeans (the home to some of my finest middle school moments, sigh…), is an Asian superstore, a culinary field trip every time you go. Let’s start with walking thru the front door (above): hanging Chinese lamps float above the crowd of Asian, Mexican, and random confused White folks searching for the unknown while the cashiers shout in Cantonese (I asked one of them what they were speaking one time). Before you even enter the greater section of the store there’s a large lunch/dim sum set up selling freshly steamed dumplings, Peking duck and roasted pork belly, along with tons of pastries (I wasn’t expecting it either). There’s also a medical booth with an assortment of statues, parchments, and dried up roots of various shapes and sizes to cure god knows what, I need some clear direction before delving into these.
Before you get to far, to your immediate right, is the newest section of the market stocked to the brim with Asian cookware and dining supplies. Woks, rice pots, glazed bowls and tea cups, and hundreds of little ceramic saucers in bright, sexy colors. Best of all are the cheap but sturdy butcher knives and artfully crafted sake pitchers, so small and delicate they look like they should cost a fortune…oh what’s that, you’re only $6, yes I will take you home!
Straight ahead, the produce section. This is a regular wonderland of root veggies, greens, herbs, fruits, and the unimaginable from all corners of Asia. My biggest question, and one some friends of mine have asked, is where the hell all of this incredibly fresh produce comes from? Does anyone know? Because I am flipping baffled, the herbs and greens look as though they were pulled out of the ground only hours ago. The potatoes and starchy plants are firm and heavy for their size, a clear indicator of quality and freshness. Is there some collection of farms in eastern NC focussing solely on Asian produce or is everything cryogenically frozen and shipped across the planet? Really, I don’t care because they’re so damn delicious and cheap, a bunch of Cilantro will run you 50 cents!
There are 3-4 different types of baby bok choy (above top), herbs and variations of greens I’ve never heard of or seen before like Chinese Spinach, my go-to green when I stop by this carnival of a grocery store. Baby Leeks: never seen before, Indian Eggplants: very hard to find, Carrots the width of your arm: kind of disturbing (above bottom)…the list goes on and on. The fruit’s are a whole other story, various citrus’ and bananas from around Asia and Polynesia, durian – not for the faint of heart, dragon fruit, and most upsetting of all: Chestnuts for $2.99/lb…remember the $6.99 I paid at Whole Foods. Bad news, they were almost all rotten, good thing they were so cheap.
Facing the produce section is also a refrigerated aisle holding tons of tofu, fish balls, tempura items, and miso pastes. You could spend an hour just on this 40 foot section trying to decide what style miso you want to fold into your steam buns…what to choose, what to choose…
At the end of the store is the real reason I love this place so much, why I continue to come back week after week: the fish counter. It’s broken into 3 parts:
First Part (above): in front of the actual counter is usually a collection of shellfish like live crabs, manila clams, snails, conch, and sometimes even soft shell turtles crawling around in balsa boxes completely unaware of the soup they will soon become…sorry little guys, I didn’t invent the dish. There’s also a frozen floor cabinet with frozen cuts of fish as well as other frozen goodies like fish heads for stock or cockles, like a clam but sweeter.
Second Part (above): live tanks and shrimp section. Among the live tanks are hundreds of live tilapia (a pretty flavorless and unappetizing fish but cheap and good for frying), sea bass, catfish, dungeness crabs, and lobsters. At the far right side of the fish counter is what we call the shrimp section, a collection of 5-6 different size and varieties of shrimp, calamari (babies or huge ones), baby octopus (on of my personal faves), salmon and mackerel steaks, large prawns, and bait fish like smelts and sardines (also a personal fave).
Third Part (you get it): the actual fish counter, a long ice covered shelf full of 10-15 different varieties of fish. Among the best are black sea bass, beautiful flounder, big eye snapper, and grouper. Among the strange (to me anyways, have to give them a shot one day) are belt fish, pompano, buffalo fish, mullet, and the occasional baby sand shark. Above the counter is a series of pictures, each with a number, depicting how you’d like your fish to be handled. You could have it simply gutted all the way to butterflied or fully filleted. Our typical choice is #1, gutted and descaled, leaving the head intact – the cheeks are the best part, especially on a large sea bass or grouper.
Why is this fish section better than the counter at your local grocer? Two reasons: 1, you can tell just how fresh the fish is because you can pick it up and smell it yourself. The eyes are clear and the fish smells of the ocean, not “fish”. 2, the price! Some of the larger fish like sea bass or snapper are not too far from the store price (even tho they’re much higher quality) but the shrimps, clams, smaller fish, and other tentacled options are dirt cheap as long as you don’t mind doing a little cleaning yourself. It’s an awesome array of fish, I’m lucky I make it out of here with any money at all, it’s so cheap it’s not a problem tho.
Well, that concludes Part I. Hungry yet? I am, just talking about this place makes me gitty with excitement about trying a new herb, grilling a fascinating fish, roasting some odd, over-sized tuber, and buying a cool porcelain plate to serve it all on. And that’s only half the fun, we haven’t even gotten to the 5 full aisles of jarred and canned goods or the mysterious and intimidating meat section. The fun won’t stop dudes!
Everyone have a good weekend, stop by the store if you’re dying to see if for yourself, or just tune in next Monday for Part II of our culinary expedition thru the Grand Asia Market.