I headed over to one of my favorite places recently: The Super 88 grocery store and food court in Allston. Relatively easy to get to, but feeling as though you have stepped into another world, it always guarantees a mixture of good food, inexpensive surprises and frustration.
I headed into the supermarket with a list in hand. This time I was planning to cook from two great cookbooks: Seventh Daughter by Ceclia Chang and Land of Plenty by Fuschia Dunlop. Both required similar but overlapping ingrediants: Sichuan wine, black beans, 3 types of preserved vegetables, fava bean sauce, lotus root and sushi rice.
I always begin in the produce aisle, picking up fruits and vegetables that seem like bargains, but that are occasionally overripe. I often hesitate at the vegetables, trying to decide if I should be so risky as to pick a vegetable that was unfamiliar or stick with the known (e.g. Thai basil) or stick to my list. And this is where my challenges begin: I couldn't find lotus root. I knew what it looked like. I knew where it would be. But I didn't see it, surrounded by taro and malanga. Alas, the first employee didn't know the term "lotus root." As I don't know any Chinese, communication failed. Luckily, I spotted it.
The more significant issues came up with the remainder of the list. No less than 6 different employees tried to help, but none knew the English terms. And the few employees that knew English, didn't know the Chinese ingredients!
So, I meandered the aisles, trying to decipher the jars, while avoiding the msg and other hidden items ("shrimp flavoring") that lurked inside.
I made sure to buy more familiar things: a few packets of our favorite dried mangoes (the best are imported from the Philippines), some frozen rice dumplings and steam buns (great quick desserts and breakfasts), a few bottles of delicious soy sauce (Pearl River brand) and some sweet potato noodles for jap chae.
But by the end, I knew that I had missed the mark on a few key items.
Thus, by the next trip, this time to CMart in Chinatown I made life easier: I brought Dunlop's book which lists the ingredients...in Chinese!