You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, says the song. Sure enough, I didn’t appreciate the qualities of Portland’s marvelous Asian markets until I spent time in places where rice noodles are rarer than pearl-toothed pigs. Browsing Asian markets is a sensory delight that is easy on the wallet. Fresh produce, in particular, is a staple of Asian cuisines, not a hipster luxury, and is priced accordingly. Without further ado, here are seven great reasons to shop at Asian markets.
#1. Better-Than-Basic Essentials
If you ever eat rice, noodles, or beans, do yourself a favor and check out the dizzying variety available. For example, I grew up thinking there were two kinds of rice: brown and white. Wrong. Rice comes in a rainbow of colors and textures. Believe me, once you try aged basmati rice, or wild black rice you will rue the wasted years. Noodles, likewise, are available in shapes and styles you never dreamed of.
#2. Unusual Produce
Supermarkets would have us believe that there are about a dozen vegetables in the world. Asian markets prove otherwise. Enormous king mushrooms, tiny striped eggplants, crooked green fingers of okra, and a plethora of other rarities vie for your attention. Green thumbs take note: my sister, an avid gardener, buys fruit – and then plants the seeds. Apparently it’s a lot cheaper than ordering “exotic” seeds online.
#3. Something For the Kids
Shopping with children can be challenging for all involved. Luckily Asian markets have terrific toys and knick-knacks. Letting your kids select one as a treat is a great way to keep them occupied while you shop, and beyond. My young niece and nephew got a huge kick out of a kit that made a miniature (edible) hamburger and fries. Not being able to read the directions was part of the fun.
#4. Dishes and Tea Sets
My grandmother used to serve me oatmeal in small grey stoneware bowls with a polished black interior. It took me decades to regain a taste for oatmeal, but I loved the elegance of those bowls which were surely from an Asian market. For simple, timeless design at a fraction of designer prices, it’s your best bet.
#5. Health Food
Western culture is good at “discovering” the health benefits of, say, sea vegetables or fermented foods then slapping on a hefty price tag. In Asian cultures, of course, these are everyday ingredients and nobody expects you to take out a second mortgage to buy them. If you’re after tofu or tamari, nori or kimchi, make an Asian market your first stop.
#6. Beauty Products
Usually, the make-up aisle gives me a headache. But it’s easy to get immersed in the vast and sometimes unnerving array of beauty potions you can find at Asian markets. As with the food, there are things you’ll fall in love with, some you won’t recognize, and a few you can’t figure out what to do with.
#7. Books and Magazines
If you only ever buy books you can read, you’re missing out. One of my favorite places to browse is the bookshop at Uwajimaya. Japanese cookbooks, it turns out, have some of the most exquisite food styling and photography imaginable. Their beauty transcends the need to read. You can also find wonderful weird gifts, like a book about how to knit with cat hair.
One more thing: Fubonn and Uwajimaya (see below) both have restaurants. Go make an afternoon of it!
Three Asian markets to visit:
2850 SE 82nd Ave., Suite #80, Portland, OR 97266
10500 SW Beaverton-Hillsdale Hwy., Beaverton, OR 97005
13600 SouthWest Pacific Hwy., Tigard, OR 97223