I missed out on a Sunday post about our trip to a couple of Roanoke's Asian grocery stores. I'm very interested in authentic Asian foods, the kind of stuff you'll never see in the fast food, Americanized-Chinese restaurants.
First we hit the "World Wide Asian Foods" on Williamson Road. There are three Asian groceries on this road and I believe they vary widely in quality, so don't get them confused. This is the northmost one, above Hershberger.
Let me begin by saying I have shopped in a lot of Asian groceries including some in the Chinatowns of NYC, Chicago, DC, LA, and San Francisco. "World Wide" is of a good size with lots of variety. I'll put it in my top three small town favorites. It has basically three aisles with the back being lined by fridges and freezer cases.
There is a video area at one end of the store and apparently "antiques" downstairs. We didn't peruse these latter sections. We bee-lined for the dry goods aisle in search of fun and exotic ramen. There is something a lot of people don't realize; there is another world of ramen and other instant noodle options above and beyond that found in Kroger. Here are a couple of flavors we picked up: "crab rice pancake", "baby clam", and miso. There are rice and wheat noodle options. I also picked up a can of "fish maw" soup. I'd been looking for that for a long time. I'll let you do your own homework on fish maw. The can of shark fin soup was a close runner up; maybe next time.
The produce was varied and exciting. There were loads of herbs and greens I've never cooked with before. Some were past their prime, which seems like a constant with a lot of these little places. It's best to find out when their shipments come in and shop those days.
After loading up on the noodles and with plans to be on the road for a while, we opted to end on the dry goods. However, I did pick up a packet of spicy squid jerky. There were several jerky options that were new to me. Wel-pac's "saki ika" is an old favorite and I couldn't resist. All I can say is give it a try.
We proceeded to J and L Oriental Food Mart on Brambleton Ave. This place has a gift area that was fun to poke around. The food aisles were a little more cluttered than "World Wide", but stocked with a different array of goods. We found a few more ramen choices: "sesame flavored rice vinegar sauce", "wantan", and "sichuan famous snack". They had a large selection of frozen dumplings and other dim sum like items.
Our favorite find that these places had in common, with J and L being the strongest in was the ingredients for Boba. Boba, also known as "bubble tea", is a really fun iced drink. It can come in a variety of flavors with the most common being milk tea. The twist is that it contains large, colorful tapioca beads and a huge straw to slurp them up with. These beads provide a unique texture and chewing experience. I have yet to see any place in Roanoke that sells the prepared drink, so I hate for your first experience to fall flat, but give it a try anyway. It's different, but fun. "World wide" had complete 6 drink kits in the fridge. J and L had the straws, and bigger packs of the tapioca in different colors. Black tapioca is actually the most commonly used bead, but a rainbow assortment is also available.
For those who already into cooking Asian food but unsure about where to shop, these stores are strong on Chinese, Vietnamese, and to some Thai. If you are looking for Japanese products you'll be disappointed overall. I can't yet say what the other stores in town are like, but you won't find much beyond the most basic Japanese food at these two. J and L had more than "World Wide", offering items like furikake, Kewpie brand mayo, roasted teriyaki nori strips, etc.
My final thoughts: These stores deserve our business if they aren't getting it already. They are certainly a wonderland of new food options for the average Westerner. Don't be shy to try something new. If you can't stand walking into the unknown, pick up a copy of The Asian Grocery Store Demystified
from your local library or book store. I hope your horizons will be widened.