Monday, January 31, 2011

A Far Eastern experience that's close to home

Long aisles filled with boxes and tins of tea entice both Asian and non-Asian customers

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel January 30, 2011)

I don't go to Orlando often, so when I do, I pack as many stops into my trip as possible. Inevitably, one of those stops is an Asian market.

O-Town has dozens of stores to choose from, but the two I like best are Dong-A Co. (816 N. Mills Ave., 407-898-9227) and 1st Oriental Supermarket (5132 W. Colonial Drive, 407-292-3668).

The 1st Oriental Supermarket is on Orlando's west side, making it a few miles closer to home. Although the distance is shorter, it is still worlds away from any comparable American grocery-store experience.

Established in 2003 and located in a former shopping plaza in Pine Hills, the 42,000-square-foot supermarket claims to be the largest Oriental market in Florida. No matter when I go, the store is crowded. Customers of various ethnicities load up carts with products from their homelands that aren't readily available elsewhere.

For me, a person with limited travel experience outside the continental U.S., an ethnic market is like a virtual travelogue. America fades away as I step through the double glass doors. Cantonese, Vietnamese and other tongues replace English. Foreign sights, sounds and smells surround me. No matter where I look, I see something unfamiliar, and I love it. Without having to board a plane, I have been transported to the Far East.

This is no Epcot experience. This is the real deal. Employees aren't trained to cater to tourists. If anything, they display a certain amount of impatience toward the English-only crowd. Asian markets are busy, get-what-you-need-and-get-going places. Stores such as 1st Oriental Supermarket are the Far Eastern equivalent of Sam's Club or Costco. They provide a wide selection of products, often in oversized packages, at low prices with limited service.

Ostensibly, I go to the market because I'm running low on tea. Colorful tins and boxes of tea occupy both sides of a long aisle at 1st Oriental Supermarket. I can search for a specific type, shop by brand or seek out blends for certain ailments or needs. A seemingly endless array of teabags and loose-leaf varieties competes for my attention.

Inevitably, I leave with several selections, including my current favorite, Prince of Peace brand organic jasmine green tea. I usually opt for the 100-bag box for $5.95. My local Publix, which doesn't carry the Prince of Peace brand, sells a similar product for $3.96, but that's for only 18 bags. At American groceries, economy-size packages of tea are simply not available.

Although tea is my excuse for traveling 27 miles to shop, that's not all I buy. I always come home with some packaged items as well as a selection of seasonally available fruits and fresh produce. On my most recent trip, I purchased six egg-shaped white sapotes, a bunch of bok choy and two types of dried ginseng root.

Sapotes are South American fruits that have found a niche in Vietnamese and Filipino cuisine. After examining the display of about a dozen different kinds of bok choy, a Chinese green that's like a cross between cabbage and spinach, Ralph picked one and added it to our cart. Asian grocery stores stock an abundance of leafy green vegetables, most of which are unfamiliar to non-Asian consumers.

Anyone who finds the unfamiliar fascinating will enjoy a visit to an ethnic food store. At 1st Oriental Supermarket, entire aisles are devoted to bags of dried mushrooms, cans of syrupy fruits and packages of seeds, roots and dehydrated fish. Live fish and eels swim in a 1,000-gallon tank. Customers can choose what they want for dinner, then take it home, filleted to their specifications.

The store also contains a meat market, fresh poultry corner, bakery, Chinese medicinal herb area and assorted housewares, cookware and personal hygiene items. There's so much to see, I often feel I'm on sensory overload.

The Internet does a great job of bridging physical distance, but it's not yet able to duplicate the experience of picking up and touching an object, inhaling its fragrance or savoring its taste. Sometimes a hands-on approach is needed to foster real understanding. Shopping at an ethnic market is an easy, inexpensive way to expand horizons and broaden your palate without having to travel far from home.

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