By Elaine Wolff
In rural Minnesota in the mid '70s, my Irish-American mother managed to serve up a reasonable facsimile of a Chinese dish: chicken chow mein made with canned ingredients - chicken and celery excepted - purchased in the miniscule Asian food section of Duffy's grocery store. Filled with mechanically consistent slices of crunchy water chestnut and reedy hearts of palm, it was easily the most exotic dish in her repertoire. For young children who spent more than a few hours stretching the corners of our eyes in imitation of the almond-shaped eyes we envied (our mother told us that if we kept it up they would stay like that - oh, how we wished), it was a passport to someplace exotic, where junkets sailed under fireworks, hairstyles were a form of sculpture, and duck was served regularly.
For all the growth in food imports, the boom in cookbooks and cooking classes, and the '90s emphasis on authenticity, for non-Asian Americans dabbling in the region's cuisine, the supermarket experience is essentially the same. The lighting and the marketing are noticeably flashier, the shelves contain a few more brands from which to choose, and best of all, fresh produce such as lotus root and Chinese cabbage are regularly available. Yet, ingredients from the Orient are still largely segregated, and the "shelf-stable" brands carried by Whole Foods and H-E-B are homogenized for more pedestrian American tastes. No jars of tiny whole fishes packed like Rockettes in flashy red sauce.
The $400-million American market in Asian grocery products may serve Western palates and the estimated 1.7 million Americans who reported Asian as one of multiple identifying ethnic groups in the 2000 census, but the Asian population as a whole now totals more than 4 percent of the U.S., a stunning 72 percent increase since the 1990 national head-count.
That acceleration looks slower than molasses in January compared to the 1990 census, when the number of Asian-Americans increased by 99 percent over their 1980 count. Sixty-six percent of those more than 6 million souls reported themselves as foreign-born. While the majority of the Asian-American population is still comprised of Chinese, followed by Koreans, Vietnamese, and Japanese, it also includes Filipinos, Asian Indians, Cambodians, Laotians, Thais, and Hmong. Assuming that four noodle choices and five sauces don't satisfy the cravings of more than a dozen countries and hundreds, if not thousands, of regional variations, where are all these folks wheeling their misaligned shopping carts?
Texas is one of five mostly Western states in which a majority of Asian-Americans live, and that's probably not news to residents of Houston and Dallas, numbers 4 and 8, respectively, in the top 10 major cities with the largest populations. A gang-related murder case in a criminal defense class taught by the almost-legendary Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin, hinted to me of a world replete unto itself, with internecine customs and private variations on urban American plagues.
In San Antonio, though, with its emphasis on Latino food and culture, it's easy to miss the large Filipino population, or to fail to notice the many churches with names such as Central Korean Church of God of Prophecy. A friend whose Korean War-vet father met her mother in-country, introduced me to homemade kim chee, the fermented cabbage salad so pungent with garlic and chili that detractors have been known to avoid the kitchen entirely when a fresh jar is opened. Eaten in modest amounts over steamed white rice, the flavors snap-crackle-pop on your tongue, and it keeps the vampires away.
When my friend moved back to Wisconsin, I had to find another source for the addictive, stomach-burning pickle, and I did, in the form of a small shop run by another vet-Korean couple, just south of Fort Sam Houston on North New Braunfels. Part fleamarket, part grocery, the dusty storefront shadowed delicately painted bowls and screens alongside old cast-iron pots. If the wife had been feeling well, there were jars of handmade kim chee in the cooler. That little place closed some time ago, but a dozen or so more are listed in the phonebook, an official record that, like the census, may miss many shops known only to those who love them.
A grocery-buying trip to an Asian market - Hung Phong Oriental Market on Remount for instance - is both exotic and familiar. Green Grass Jelly and Bird's Nest Drink are unfamiliar, but wandering the loosely organized aisles, over worn VCT tile floors, among disorderly stacks of bulk jasmine rice and dozens of noodle variations in family-size packages, is like time-traveling to an old neighborhood grocery, or shopping the storefronts in New York's Chinatown. A half-dozen types of soy sauce are available, of course, but so is the quart bottle of Silver Swan Coconut Vinegar. Soft bags of water chestnut and rice flours breathe powders so fine that they seem to disappear in the air.
Hung Phong, like many businesses that serve a largely immigrant population, is an ersatz emporium. Shiny, sherbet-colored lady's unmentionables are proffered in baskets near the video section - whose Magic-Marker labels suggest a giant loophole in copyright law. On a recent visit, I snatched up a bag of roasted chestnuts, a clear plastic jar of pastel coconut "cookies," and a canned coffee. Canned coffee, addicts will be happy to note, is a popular Asian item but while their brands are generally only half the price of the Starbucks Double Shot, they are only one-third as good. Recommended instead is canned Thai iced tea, now also available at Central Market, which preserves that wonderful sweet, earthy flavor.
My shopping companion declined to try any of the several aloe drinks available, only to be confronted by more variations on the green liquid at Seoul Oriental Food Market on Harry Wurzbach. Its location near Fort Sam is a 20-year-old reminder that our military exploits in the Far East, Korea, and Vietnam brought many new immigrants to this country, as spouses and refugees, and also provided a consumer base of GIs who developed a taste for the food.
Although its windows are plastered with community postings and advertisements in Korean, on the inside Seoul Market is somewhat more modern and Americanized, greeting shoppers with a display of fresh produce when they walk in the front door - it was berries during a recent trip. From the regular produce aisle, fresh packs of straw mushrooms and bags of peeled garlic go perfectly with the frozen, pre-cut meats that promise picture-perfect stir-fry on the American workaholic schedule. Frozen fans of skate beckon across from the large bags of dried shiitake mushrooms and packs of carrot and black rice flour, but even more enticing are the tiny, rubberband-bound packs of quail eggs - mottled malt and dark brown, the size of superballs.
To go with our dainty dozen (well, eight actually), we went in search of ikura, or salmon roe, a real sushi treat being a scoop of ikura cradled in a seaweed and rice cup, topped with a single raw quail egg. It's an act of pure decadence that can erase a decade of vegetarianism, a single mouthful representing dozens of nascent salmon and one embryonic bird. Tokyo Mart on Hildebrand, as it happens, sells frozen Ikura by the pound at very reasonable prices. Its narrow, ADA-unfriendly aisles stacked with $15 boxed sushi and sake sets, and mugs emblazoned with "fortune" and "longevity," it's also a favorite gift shop of those whose taste outstrips their means: The perfect place to by a passport for a friend's imagination to a culture that's less foreign by the year, any way you count it. •
By Elaine Wolff