To me, there is nothing as sensually delightful as Asian grocery stores. They have their own character and are as organic and wild as Western groceries are sterile and packaged. As soon as you walk in to one you know you are no longer in the sanitized world of Dillon’s. Asian groceries can smell funky, spicy, and a little fermented. If they sell fresh seafood or meat you can smell that, too, a bass note of blood and sea to remind you that death and eating are vitally connected. Fruits of all sorts in varying stages of ripeness are jumbled all together, some softer and sweeter than others, some bruised, chosen for flavor instead of shelf life. Jars of salted pickles and preserves sometimes crystallize over their seals and add their perfume to the mix. It’s heady, for sure. Embrace the funk, and inhale deeply.
I shop at Thai Binh on 21st Street. It’s a cavernous, mainly Southeast Asian-style superstore that sells everything from 50 pound bags of jasmine rice to teeny little brassieres. Do you need a giant Buddha with glowing crystal eyes and a 16 pound catfish and are short on time? If so, Thai Binh is your store. Nearly everything edible in the world is represented in some form on their shelves. Like condiments? Two long rows dedicated to them. Need dried fish, mushrooms, tree ear fungus? Aisle three, just past the stinky tofu and next to the curry paste. Last week, I saw a woman picking up a single live blue crab for a presentation at the zoo. Talk about selection!
I sometimes pop into Thai Binh when I feel like I need a fun snack. They sell terrific headcheese banh mi and roasted duck. I am very fond of a pastel-colored fermented rice cake that’s like eating a soft, sweet-sour sponge. They are like Twinkies from Mars. In the morning, you can get one of the heaviest, gooiest ham and cheese croissants I have ever eaten, or a puff pastry filled with sweetened coconut and palm sugar still warm from the oven. Some of the things I’ve tried have been too weird even for me. But fortune favors the bold… culinarily speaking.