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Old 08-14-2005, 09:28 AM   #1
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How Do You Learn About Exotic Ingredients?

While on vacation this week we took a trip into Boston. We live about an hour outside the city and while that is not far we find we just don't get into Boston very often anymore now that we are no longer going to clubs and bars like we did when we were younger.

One of the things I wanted to do was go to Chinatown as I had not been there since I had become as interested in cooking as I now am. I wanted to find some new ingredients that I had never tried before and expand my horizons. Well I found a Chinese herb shop that was fascinating. The workers spoke next to no English so I could not ask them what anything was and nothing was written in English. Some things were easy to figure out like the mushrooms and fungi. I did not know exactly what they were, but I knew they must be some sort of fungi. Other things I had absolutely no idea what they were or how to use them.

We then found a large Chinese market. This was a blast and I could have spend hours there. Of course my wife had to find a bathroom and it was time to eat dinner so I did not get to pend a lot of time in this market, but I will be going back for sure. There were row after row of jars and cans of things that I just had no idea what they were or how I could use them. There were other things I was familiar with. I found lechee nuts (one of my favorite things) and bought some cans of those. I had ironchefs Spicy Lychee and Mango Relish in mind for those. I also bought a few other things I had heard of, but never tried. The produce section was amazing. There were all sorts of veggies that I did not know what they were, but they looks great. All the signs were in Chinese and no one I saw spoke English.

OK here is my question. How do I go about learning what these things are? I don't know what they are called or what they are used in. I don't have any Chinese friends who I could take with me to translate. I know what some things look like (some of the produce I might be able to describe), but other things like the stuff in jars might just look like a black liquid or something nondescript. I want to lean about all these interesting things, but don't know where to start.

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Old 08-14-2005, 09:39 AM   #2
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I learned a lot about Chinese food when I was living in Hong Kong and Singapore.

Many of the vegetables look 'similar' (but not the SAME) as English veggies - eg Bok Choi is obviously from the cabbage family and I cook it in the same manner - quickly and with only a little water to add 'steam' to the dish!)

It's the sauces..... that's the killer! Most of the Chinese at the market would probably be able to speak a little English - just ask.... they LOVE to tell you what the foodstuffs are...
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Old 08-14-2005, 10:45 AM   #3
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We have a Chinese market in our town and most often the clerks don't or won't speak English. Once in a while, there's someone ther who can help.

Sometimes I'll take a product name off a jar and google it. Often, there is no English on the jar, just pictograms-so I can't even do that.

The same is true of some of the fresh produce - they have signs in Chinese telling the customers what they are! Lot of help that is!
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Old 08-14-2005, 12:11 PM   #4
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I found this website that has an A-Z glossary with pictures. Perhaps it will help.

http://www.chinesefood-recipes.com/g...ngredients.php
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Old 08-14-2005, 01:17 PM   #5
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GB, The Herb shop you stumbled on was probably a traditional Chinese herbal medicine store. You can find some wild and wonderful (and not so wonderful :( ) things in there, but I think most of them are used in combination as a tea, or to be ground into a powder for medicinal purposes.
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Old 08-14-2005, 03:51 PM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Constance
I found this website that has an A-Z glossary with pictures. Perhaps it will help.

http://www.chinesefood-recipes.com/g...ngredients.php
That's a pretty good site. GB I've also seen books that have the different types of herbs, fungi, tubers, etc. that you've probably seen. I'm sure that a Borders or Barnes and Noble will carry something like that.
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Old 08-14-2005, 04:19 PM   #7
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Constance that site is great! Thank you so much. Within 2 seconds I found one of the things I was looking at and now I know what it is and how to use it (Bitter melon). I will be referring to this site often I am sure
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Old 08-15-2005, 03:22 PM   #8
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GB!! GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR

I would have loved to show you around the Super 88 in South Bay, which is the best asian market in Boston. You could spend hours there and they have EVERYTHING. Except fresh galangal :-(

Actually I went there on Saturday, too. Was contemplating a Penzey's run, but it was hot and I got lazy.

I learn about asian ingredients mostly by reading cookbooks (I have a ton of them) and eating at good and authentic asian restaurants. You get to know both the ingredients and how they are prepared as well as how they are supposed to taste and smell.

Side note: they did a story in the Sunday Globe magazine on the folks who run the Super 88 and the story suggests that they are going to start carrying more and more American food and less of the really authentic (read: strange to westerners) stuff.

Also, I think the Globe food section did a feature on bitter melon recently. It's become a pretty popular ingredient in mainstream, non-asian restaurants this summer.
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Old 08-15-2005, 03:34 PM   #9
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Jenny I am going to take you up on that one of these days! The store I went to was a market on Lincoln St (I think). I can't wait to go back.

That stinks about the Super 88 carrying less authentic stuff. We have enough regular American markets. We need more authentic ethnic markets!!!
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Old 08-15-2005, 05:11 PM   #10
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Many Asian cookbooks have a sort of glossary section, sometimes complete with pics or diagrams. I've bought many for pretty cheap at discount tables in bookstores over the years. I buy and use a wide variety of Asian ingredients. Some of the fungi are a bit weird, but husband loves anything I try, so .... The worst that has ever happened is that occaisionally something is more fishy than I care for, but even so, we have fun trying. I love foreign grocery stores, and don't hesitate to try a new condiment or product ..... gotten some weird results over the years. The fungi are the easiest. You pour boiling water over them, let them reconstitute, then decide if you like the flavor (my favorite is tree ears ... love that crunch) and use accordingly.
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