How to Survive an Asian Grocery Store

If you cook Asian food, it is likely you will have to visit an Asian grocery store. Nowadays, a lot of American supermarkets have an ethnic aisle where you can buy the most popular Asian sauces at two times the regular price, but that's pretty much where it ends. Luckily, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area where there is a large population of Asian-Americans, which consequently means a large selection of Asian grocery stores. You can get more bang for the buck by shopping at Asian supermarkets and get items that you just can't get anywhere else. Looking for pig intestines and pork blood? Visit an Asian grocery store. Looking for a good deal on Sriracha and soy sauce? Visit an Asian grocery store.

Although there are plenty of Asian supermarkets around here, they are not all the same. There are tons of small mom-and-pop Asian grocery stores lined up in rows in major cities such as Oakland and San Francisco. They even have their own Chinatowns. In the smaller suburban cities, there are big-box chains Asian grocery stores.

The larger Asian supermarkets operate pretty much the same way as any other grocery store. Everything is labeled and priced. Customer service is there to help you. The smaller supermarkets that abundantly exist in Oakland and San Francisco, on the other hand, are a bit trickier. In fact, they are damn right intimidating at times. I, on occasion, have left some small mom-and-pop shops overwhelmed and frustrated. 

But have no fear! It doesn't have to be that way! Shopping at small Asian grocery stores is great. You save a lot and you get a chance to explore foods from other cultures. You just need to be mentally prepared. Below are five quick tips to keep in mind and you, too, can survive a Chinatown supermarket.

1. Avoid the shopping cart and grab a grocery basket.

Stores are usually cramped so navigating between aisles is already an obstacle course. Having to push a cart just makes it more challenging. Utilize those small baskets or better yet, utilize the kids as little carriers. There are benefits to having kids and this is one of them!

2. Stand your ground and push your way forward at the fish/meat counter.

The meat and fish counter can be a terrifying experience with little old Asian women as the main culprits. They don't utilize the numbering ticket systems. They use their seniority and frequent patronage to get to the front of the queue. Do not let little old Asian women get to you! Speak up and demand what you want like you own the place. Patiently waiting and hoping someone notices you never works. Little old Asian women are gangstas so you have to be equally ruthless. Use your knees and elbows if needed.

3. Dig around for the freshest produce.

Asian supermarkets do not believe in waste. This means they will continue to place produce on display long pass their freshness. The fresher items are usually tucked in the back so be ready to do some reaching and digging. On the same note, avoid bagged vegetables or at least inspect them thoroughly. Asian supermarkets will push their old produce by grouping them with the fresh ones. 

4. Bring cash.

Lots of the small mom-and-pop shops do not like to pay credit card fees so it's rare they have credit card machines. More realistically, they do not like to pay taxes so accepting cash-only allows them to operate "under the table." If you have to pay by card, look around for signs near the cash register to see if they accept them before shopping.

5. Double check your receipt.

At checkout, prices are hand-entered so mistakes happen often, particularly when you are buying a lot at once. It's best to buy in small quantities so you can keep track of your purchases and double check the receipt and change while at the cash register. They are not too accommodating of pricing errors once you leave the store.

You're welcome.