The goal was to buy a “Japanese curry bar” my friend Ang told me would instantly change my life. I didn’t know what it was, but, after a long, quiet winter, I was definitely open to anything life changing. Quickly, my hunt landed me at Somerset’s Asian Market, where I showed the lady behind the counter a picture of the packaging.
“Oh yeah, I know where that is.” She expertly led me down an aisle packed with everything from dried noodles to gold-flecked bottles to fiery looking pastes.
I don’t know how much time you’ve spent at your local Asian market, but I’ve learned these places are filled with magic.
My sis-in-law Jennie ably taught me this a few Christmases ago when she went to the market while I picked up tacos at the tiny El Ranchito next door. While I walked to the car smelling of al pastor, she emerged from the market victoriously swinging a bag.
“I can’t believe it,” she said. “They have ube ice cream. They even have the brand I grew up with.”
Ube ice cream, it turns out, is Filipino ice cream made of purple yams. If the idea of eating frozen tubers makes your mouth contort into a frowny-face emoji, know that you’re not alone. But Jennie reassured me it was delicious and, as with most things, Jennie was right.
She’d also landed on the statement that should be the tagline for the rural Asian market: “I can’t believe it.”
For that is certainly what foodies think when they find the crazy-esoteric ingredient they never thought they’d get their hands on in small-town Kentucky. The place is packed with them. Gorgeous, plump ginger root; whole galaxies of noodles; soy sauces; rice vinegars; curry pastes; soup dumplings; potstickers, just about any kind of fish on the planet; Peking duck; tamarind paste; leche fruit; it’s all there. When I last visited, I came away with Chinese black vinegar I need for a hot and sour potato stir fry; black garlic; fresh beechwood mushrooms (they have a small selection of fresh produce), and my favorite brand of fish sauce (Red Boat).
Generally when it comes to going into little stores, the introvert in me recoils. I don’t want to go in because then I’ll probably be the only customer and then I’ll feel both under the microscope and compelled to buy. Except I’ve learned that with the Asian market, a steady stream of customers invariably funnels through the door.
Why is it so busy? Probably not because everyone is in search of Japanese curry bars. Instead, it’s the planet of foreign candy and soda that they sell. If you’re a parent, it’s likely your kid has already begged you to go inside. If you’ve resisted, resist no more. The candy is super-duper cool. One day when I was inside, the owner offered me a cookie-type wafer biscuit that, frankly, I’m still thinking about.
If you’re still not convinced about a visit, head to social media. A lot of these markets have really active Facebook pages where they post pictures of the product that has just arrived. At the very least, it’s neat to see the ingredients that are arriving at our doorstep from all around the world. It makes you feel more connected to it. And curious, too.
I’ve also found that the owners are really responsive via Facebook. So if you have a question about an ingredient, pop them a message. I bet you’ll have your answer within a day.
Finally, if you’re burning to find out what a Japanese curry bar is, burn no more. It’s otherwise known as a curry brick, which kind of looks like a bouillon cube and, I think, works in the same way. I’m assured that the beef-and-potato curry that it flavors is exactly like the curries that are served from street carts in Japan. The brand I bought is called Golden Curry and I was told to buy the medium-hot heat (the mild is apparently kind of bland). I’m excited! And thankful for my trip to another world this week.