When I first started cooking Chinese food in the mid-1960s, getting any ingredient more exotic than soy sauce involved a trip to New York’s Chinatown. A decade later in Cambridge, my housemate and I had to trek to Belmont for an Indian grocery. When I moved to the Pioneer Valley in the late ’70s, there was a deli in Northampton that carried some Chinese staples, but for the most part, I had to stock up on my trips back to Cambridge or New York.
In the 21st century, things are different. The supermarkets all have international foods aisles so the by-now-familiar Chinese sauces are laid out for you along with some Thai, Mexican, Hispanic, Polish, British, Jamaican and Jewish favorites. But the selections are limited to the brands with larger distribution. If you want a better selection or something more than hoisen or oyster sauce, you’ll have to visit the ethnic food markets that dot the area.
There are a number of Asian markets along Route 9 in Hadley and Amherst. In the last few years, they have evolved to fit the needs of the community. The new model mixes Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Southeast Asian and often Filipino and Hispanic foods. The difference between shopping at one of these markets and in your supermarket’s international aisle is variety. The stores carry staples and specialty foods that haven’t made it to the American mainstream. For example, instead of the one or two familiar soy sauces, there are a dozen brands and half a dozen types of soy. Most of the labels are in languages other than English, which is often translated haphazardly. If you are trying to minimize your intake of processed foods, coloring agents and preservative chemicals, you’ll have to check the labels closely. The amount of choice works in your favor here since you can usually find something that contains only natural ingredients.
The layout of the stores is similar: You enter to an array of phone cards, Indian videos, over-the-counter medicines, scents and packaged snacks. Most of the stores take credit cards. The aisles are roughly divided by country or by food type. Typically, there is a row of dried noodles ‘ rice, wheat, cellophane (pea flour), fat and thin ‘ and spring roll wrappers. The soy sauces, oyster sauces, Sriracha hot sauces and fish sauces fill nearly an entire aisle. There is aisle of bulk spices, dals (lentils) and canned fishes. Half the merchandise seems to be Asian and Indian convenience foods ‘ packaged soups and sauces, boxes of mixes, etc. ‘ catering to the student kitchen as much as the busy family. There are sacks of rice and another aisle filled with cooking and serving pieces.
The Asian stores typically have a fresh foods case with some harder-to-find items such as Thai eggplant, curry leaves and lemongrass, as well as bags of bean sprouts, pea pods and more familiar vegetables. Often there are fresh noodles, soy milk and several types of tofu. There are also refrigerator cases and freezer cases filled with dumplings, a dozen kinds of frozen fish and other straight-from-home delicacies.
Driving from Northampton, the first market you come to in Hadley is TRAN’S WORLD FOOD MARKET at 50 Russell St., on the left just past Bay Road. Relocated from its old spot by the Coolidge Bridge, Tran’s is the largest of the local markets. It has a full range of Asian, Indian and Filipino foods.
Next, on your right, is KIM’S ORIENTAL MARKET at 111 Russell St., which is part of the Korean restaurant next door. It is the smallest of the markets and seems to focus on Japanese and Korean foods.
Like Tran’s, ASIAN INTERNATIONAL IMPORTED FOOD MARKET at 206 Russell St. is large. It seems to have more Indian food and less Filipino, but it has a full selection and I’ve been a regular there for years.
Going past Amherst center toward Belchertown is MOM’S HOUSE at 318 College Road in Amherst. Mom’s is a little smaller, but it has some different brands and the best fresh vegetables, making it well worth the trip. Mom’s also sells excellent homemade Chinese food to go, and the portions are enormous.
You’ll want to walk the aisles no matter what you’re looking for. If you are a cook or you have a list, you know what you want and the question is which brand to choose. Asking questions of the help can be a problem, but that’s due to different culinary expectations rather than a language barrier. Price sometimes indicates quality, but not always. Sometimes the choice comes down to fewer additives. Trust your instincts.
If you’re just getting your feet wet, consult cookbooks or do an Internet search for recipes before you shop. Pick up some bags of frozen dumplings to steam or saute. Try chutneys, especially with some pappadams, but keep in mind that there is a big difference between mango chutney (sweet and mild) and mango pickle (salty, sour, and much hotter).
Originally published Daily Hampshire Gazette on: Friday, August 25, 2006