Basket Snooper: Advice for Shopping at Unfamiliar Markets

Basket Snooper: Advice for Shopping at Unfamiliar Markets

Sarah Rae Smith
May 31, 2011

Let's pretend it's a warm spring afternoon and you stop in at your local Asian market for some supplies. You're not scared of the ingredients or the store itself, but you are bewildered by the 800 different types of fish sauce — which to buy? And which type of noodle is tastiest? There's a whole wall full of them! Here is some simple advice for discerning the best choices in unfamiliar markets.

In recent years, ethnic markets, and more specifically Asian markets, have scared the hell out of me. Not because they're literally scary places, but because when faced with choices, I crumble under the pressure. I panic and say the first thing that comes to mind. It gives me sweaty hands, heart palpitations, and you could potentially find me in the fetal position in the corner over by the lobster tanks rocking back and forth. Yeah it's that bad.

Growing up my parents never shopped in this style of market, so I didn't have any familiarity with ethnic groceries. I couldn't just pick up the same noodles we used to buy. I didn't know where to start. When faced with a wall of a hundred different types of canned coconut milk, which one was I supposed to buy? They all looked fine, but what if one was better — and that's when the panic starts.

I've since learned to calm my ridiculous behavior by watching what other shoppers pick up. In the world of shopping there are those who roam and those who walk up and pick up exactly what they need — those are the folks to watch for. They knew which can of mushrooms they wanted. It was awesome in their stir-fry in the past and they went straight for it again!

In addition, watching what those around you already have in their cart or basket can be helpful. Nine times out of 10 there will be a reason they picked that specific brand of soba noodle over another. It might be tradition, but there are small variances that can make a big difference. Kitchn readers helped me discover that the Rose brand was the way to go with spring roll wrappers and if I saw you buying them in the store, I would have known before I asked which one folks were using at home!

Do you have any good tips for shopping in unfamiliar grocery stores and markets — especially ones that focus on a cuisine you're not familiar with? I'd love to hear your tips as well! Happy shopping!

Related: Ethnic Markets: How To Identify Unfamiliar Foods

(Image: Sarah Rae Trover)

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