Thursday, 16 January 2014

A Taste of Asia

I will never forget the exact moment I first tried Asian food. I was thirteen years old and previous to that I had only really been accustomed to the traditional British fare that my mother would serve. The closest we ever got to ‘foreign’ was a spaghetti bolognese on a Friday night. So, I was to find myself sitting in a Chinese restaurant in the port town of Le Havre, France on a rather dismal night, staring at a menu not only in a language I had little grasp of, but containing a whole array of exotic sounding dishes I had never encountered before. Getting me in the restaurant had been a feat in itself. I was somewhat of a picky eater, but with my parents patience wearing thin I ordered the “Chicken with Cashew Nuts” and tentatively took my first bite. It was at this serendipitous moment that my love affair with Asian food and cooking in general began.
Britain, being the multi-cultural hot pot that it is, afforded me an opportunity to experience the best Asia had to offer. From fiery Indian curries to the complex layers of flavors that is Thai, I greedily ate up everything and anything placed before me. As I grew older and began to travel my palate accompanied me on a culinary awakening. So, when the company I was then working for decided to send me to Korea, the thought of the myriad of gastronomic possibilities that awaited me filled me with anticipation. On arrival, however, I was, to put it bluntly...a little disappointed.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Korean food. I love their warming stews and broths. I love the social occasion that is Korean barbeque. But the cuisines of other nations were sorely lacking or non existent. I therefore had to wait for trips back home to fill my suitcase full of ingredients, until someone told me of the existence of an “Asian Supermarket” right here, in Sa-sang, Busan.
My first trip there was like bumping into an old friend. The shelves were stacked high with ingredients I thought I would never see again: cardamom pods, cumin, ghee, basmati rice, lentils, fresh lemongrass and coriander, and lamb. Here in this tiny little shop I had everything needed to get re-acquainted with my favorite food.
Over the years, as the foreign population of Busan has grown, most notably with migrant workers from South and South East Asian nations, so has the number of stores. At the last count there are now four. All pretty much sell the same. But in each there is always a surprise waiting: shallots, Thai bird’s-eye chillies, tamarind, shrimp paste and even bags of salt ‘n’ vinegar potato chips. One of the best bargains is “Thai Jasmine Long Grain Rice”, which at only $15 for a 10kg bag is considerably cheaper than Korean rice.
Most of the owners are from South Asia. The owner of the newly opened “Shahjan Mart” hails from Balochistan, somewhere on the Iran-Pakistan border, he informed me. He himself, will be a familiar face to anyone who has bought a kebab from the van outside Family Mart in Kyungsung on a Saturday night.
The first and original store, “Asia Mart”, that poky little store I first visited all those years ago, has recently undergone a significant expansion and face-lift. It’s probably the easiest to shop in, but I always make a point of buying something from all the stores including “Asian Food Mart and “New World Mart” on my visits there.
 Of course, times have changed and most supermarkets now have an “International Food Section”. But if like me you crave for something more authentic, such as the rewarding feeling of crushing up lemongrass, chillies and galangal to make your own green curry or the aroma of the sub-continent eminating from black cardamoms, cinnamon and cloves sizzling in a pan. Then, a trip to Sa-sang never fails to disappoint.
Directions: Take Subway line 2 to Sasang and either transfer to the LRT line to the airport, one stop, to Renecite, or follow the LRT line on foot until you get to E-Mart. Facing E-Mart look for the small street to the right. Three of the Asian supermarkets are on this street. “Asia-Mart” is just around the corner to the right.

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