As the city's Chinese and Vietnamese populations prepare to celebrate Lunar New Year, it's clear that Americans are becoming increasingly literate about the nuances of Asian food. Chefs and home cooks are exploring geographic and cultural specializations -- such as the vast differences within regional Chinese cuisine -- in their kitchens.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Pittsburgh area's Asian population rose 54 percent from 2000-2010. While that number -- about 33,000 -- remains a small percentage of the overall population, there are several Asian markets that cater to the specific needs of both immigrant/first-generation Asians and to curious outsiders looking to expand their culinary horizons. But newcomers can find the first few visits confusing.
Chef Roger Li of Tamari in Pittsburgh and Warrendale spends several days of the week shopping at these markets for his restaurants and his family. Over the years, he's developed a keen eye for what makes these markets tick, and what makes each of them special. "You have a lot of the same basic items at each store, but when you look deeper, there are differences. It really depends on the owner," he says.
Here in Pittsburgh, four markets are big draws for the city's Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese communities. Lotus Food Co. at 1649 Penn Ave. is perhaps the most well-known. With its prime location in the heart of the Strip, and the allure of house-made tofu, Lotus attracts a diverse clientele. On a typical Saturday morning, customers stand shoulder to shoulder in checkout lines.
Wang Fat Hong, just up the block at 2227 Penn Ave., is another stalwart. Open since 1995, it caters to both restaurant and retail customers. Further down the Strip, shoppers are being courted by the newest Asian store, Many More Market, which is looking to appeal to students. And up on McKnight Road, three-year-old Oriental Market caters to suburban customers.
Wang Fat Hong Oriental Food Market is owned by Benjamin and Novell An. The couple is from Hong Kong, and he worked in the Asian Foods Division of Sysco before opening the market. Here, the aisles are cramped and crowded. Boxes of chestnuts, fresh tamarind and lotus root stacked on the floor make navigation a challenge. You have to weave around other shoppers like an Olympic slalom competitor.
"You don't get too many non-Asian people coming here. Maybe 10 percent. Most of them seem pretty lost," says Tamari's Mr. Li. Indeed, the atmosphere at Wang Fat Hong is the most "foreign" of Pittsburgh's Asian markets. Spirited conversations in Cantonese take place amidst the shelves, and if you're not paying attention, you might get run over by a grandmother on a mission to pick up the Vietnamese herbs at the back of the store.
The store does a brisk retail trade -- Mr Li says he shops for his family there -- but it's also very popular with the restaurant industry. Indeed, as Mr. Li is inspecting the produce for a special menu item at Tamari, Mike Chen, the godfather of Pittsburgh Asian restaurants, stops by the market to say hello.
"I shop here all the time. At the Chinese grocery store you find things you don't find everywhere else," Mr. Chen says. To demonstrate, he pulls a green vegetable that's nearly the size of his arm from a box on the floor.
"This is a Chinese loofah," he says of the ridged and wrinkled squash. He says it's a perfect ingredient for dumplings, because the vegetable is quick to absorb flavors. "As long as you use it right away," he says, it also can be treated in a similar way to zucchini or other summer squash.
To better serve the restaurant industry, big deliveries of fresh produce at Wang Fat Hong (and most of the other stores) are scheduled for Tuesdays and Fridays. And although these are the best days to shop for prime ingredients, be prepared to spend some time waiting to check out. "The lines here can get very long, especially on weekends and delivery days," says Mr. Li. "Unless, of course, you're Mike Chen."
Many More Market, at 3050 Smallman St., is owned by Xin Chen, 27, who emigrated from China when he was 15. He and his wife moved to Pittsburgh last year to open up the market. "We're going to keep growing the market to make sure it's one-stop shopping for the customers," he says.
"Once this places catches on it's going to get very busy," says Mr. Li as he walks to the back of the store to pick up a produce order for Tamari. Soft, harmonic Chinese Muzak plays on the store's speaker system.
At first glance, Many More looks like a traditional American supermarket, with wide rows full of ingredients. But a quick right turn and you'll find yourself in a row almost entirely devoted to instant ramen. Mr. Chen says that his store is attracting a large student clientele, so he's stocking a large array of packaged and frozen foods. "They want the taste of home, but they also want convenience."
In addition to the frozen goods, there's a small selection of prepared foods. Whole roasted Peking ducks are available for $20.99. Next to the ducks are plastic-wrapped foam trays of tripe, tendon, stomach and julienned pig ears. "This is home cooking. They portion it out, so you don't have to buy a big piece of everything. You can get something nicely prepared and not have to do all the work," says Mr. Li.
In the ramen aisle, there is a cornucopia of noodle flavors beyond the Nissin "Top Ramen" brand chicken, beef, and shrimp commonly found in dorm rooms. Craving chicken and abalone soup flavor? You can have it. And for the daring eater, there is a handwritten sign announcing that one brand is "3 times more spicy than SHIN!" (a brand of Korean instant noodles popular for its intense heat).
"Now this is more like something you'd find in New York and Philly. It's rare to find live frogs in Pittsburgh," says Mr. Li as he looks at two columns of mottled green bullfrogs, still as statues, staring upward from inside a shallow pool of water in a green plastic container. Next to them, seven soft-shelled sea turtles move lazily in bags of yellow netting. "You won't see these on menus [at local restaurants]," he adds, "You see these eaten in Chinese households."
Turtle soup is a dish often associated with luxury. Although the dish has waned in popularity in American regional cooking since its heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries (it remains popular in Creole cuisine in Louisiana), it's still an important part of Chinese cookery, especially during seasons of celebration. Mr. Li says that when simmered with herbs and vegetables, the result is a rich broth. Turtle, he says, tastes like short ribs mixed with seawater.
While all the stores have a small selection of fresh meat and a wide selection of frozen meat, it's worth a trip up McKnight Road to visit the butcher counter at Oriental Market. Says market owner Cindy Liu, "People come here looking for special Asian foods they can't find other places. We pay attention to what they like and what they miss from where they're from."
Here, a customer can find -- in addition to common cuts such as fresh ham and paper-thin slices of beef -- intestines, hearts, tongues, stomachs, half-hatched duck eggs, feet, blood (both cooked and uncooked), penis, and bung (anus) from pigs, poultry and cows.
While those cuts might seem frightening to many Americans, they represent an important part of a cultural culinary identity. Or, as Tamari's Mr. Li puts it, "We Asian people love innards."
Another feature of Oriental Market is the large fresh fish selection available on weekends. "Right now we have king mackerel, sea bass, tilapia, salmon, striped bass, flounder, oyster, snails, squid, shrimp, plus live lobster and live Vancouver crab," says Ms. Liu.
She also stocks a diverse selection of Asian greens. In fact, fresh greens are ubiquitous at all the Asian markets. "Eating vegetables is very important for Asian people."
Mr. Li says that greens are a great place for a shopper unfamiliar with Asian ingredients to begin his or her exploration of a market. Don't let names like Shanghai mue, dou miao, tong ho, or gai lan throw you for a loop. Bok choy sounded alien a few years ago, and now it's a go-to ingredient in our culinary dictionary.
Shanghai mue is quite similar to bok choy. "This one is very popular, and it's very tasty," says Ms. Liu. And it's easy to prepare. Simply rinse in cold water, stir-fry with a tablespoon of oil, small pieces of garlic, a little bit of salt and just a touch of cooking wine.
Aside from expanding your culinary horizons (and getting more vegetables in your diet), there's a financial incentive to shopping for greens at the Asian markets. "If you buy the vegetables here, you'll get a much better price," says Ms. Liu.
However, the super cheap prices -- and perhaps fear of eating unfamiliar organ meats -- do raise questions about the markets' supply chains. Ms. Liu says that the produce and the meat at Oriental Market come from a wholesaler in New York, but would not reveal the name of the wholesaler. "Yes, I know who they are," is all she would say.
Mr. Chen of Many More Market says that his produce comes from both New York and California, but "I can't tell you the name of our broker." He did add, "They supply most of the markets."
Mr. Li of Tamari recognizes that this can be troubling to a modern shopper. "Right now it's important for guests [at a restaurant or home shoppers] to know where people source their ingredients. It's difficult at these Asian markets because they're kind of all over the place."
Still, Ms. Liu says that, at least at Oriental Market, customers shouldn't worry about the quality of the food. "It has to be fresh, or my customers will get very mad and not want to come back. Fresh is No. 1, good price is No. 2."
Despite some language barriers, most Asian markets are eager to help lost newcomers. "I like to help people because before I opened this store I was a Chinese chef at a restaurant in Ohio. I can tell people how the texture is going to be, what seasonings to use, and what's the best way to cook it," says Mr. Chen of Many More Market.
Ms. Liu says that she's always interested in being helpful. "I want the customers to buy it, love it, and come back. And they should bring some friends, too!"
Mr. Li says that, because he's at Wang Fat Hong several days a week, he sees a lot of people exploring the store for the first time. "Most of them seem pretty lost. They'll ask for something using English, but they [the store staff] don't know the English name. I'm here a lot, and I do my best to help them because I can translate for them."
What doesn't need translation, says Mr. Li, is that love of food.
"Food ties everything together. It's a way of showing appreciation and respect for coming over. If you're coming in, you're family."
HOT POT BROTH
One of the most prominent winter dishes in Chinese home cooking is huoguo or hot pot. Hot pots are a fun and festive way to stay warm during the winter months. They work essentially the same way as fondue: a pot of flavorful broth is kept at a simmer, and a variety of meats, fish, noodles, and vegetables are quickly cooked in the broth. Ingredients for hot pots are easy to find at any of the markets in this story. Chef Roger Li says that "you can use any leaf lettuce, sliced meats, sliced fish, shellfish, or any root vegetables to cook in the broth" at the table. "Make sure meats and fish are sliced thin for even cooking."
2 quarts chicken stock
2 ounces dried Chinese dates
4 ounces dried shiitake
8 ounces diced daikon radish
1 ounce Sichuan peppercorns
2 ounces Sicuan dried chili
2 tablespoons salt
Simmer all the above ingredients in stock pot for 30 minutes and then keep broth at medium heat. Hot pots are traditionally served family-style, kept hot on a hot plate at the table, where you cook the other ingredients.
-- Chef Roger Li
Hal B. Klein: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ThisMansKitchen.