People say that they'd love to go Asian market shopping with me but honestly, it's a hassle and you'd likely not have much fun

I spend too much time going up and down the aisles and deliberating. When I've gone into Asian markets for filming or a photo shoot, I have to get permission. I'm better off reporting on cool things I've come across on my Asian grocery store adventures.

On my last visit to Southern California to see my parents, I hit three Vietnamese markets in the Little Saigon area located in the Westminster, Santa Ana, and Fountain Valley area of Orange County (O.C.). If you've not been there before, it's the granddaddy of Little Saigons in America -- a major hub for Vietnamese-American culture. It's located about 45 minutes south of Los Angeles. Drive between the suburban cities in about 15 minutes total.

How does Little Saigon in the O.C. compare to others, like the one in San Jose that I visited not long ago? The O.C.'s Little Saigon is huge with tons of options for groceries, eating, and conducting day-to-day errands. It's truly an enclave dedicated to Vietnamese-ness.

That said, you don't have to be Viet to explore it with ease. People are friendly and will answer questions. What I found on this shopping trip may be available at other well-stocked Viet-centric markets. Also look at international markets such as the Buford Highway Farmer's Market outside of Atlanta, and online too! Do not expect these items at Ranch 99 or H-Mart soon.
Viet Spices
Pictured at the top is Shun Fat (Thuan Phat) Superstore in Westminster, on Beach Boulevard right off the 405 freeway. It's a gigantic temple dedicated to Southeast Asian and Chinese groceries. You'll find a smattering of products from other cultures but you go there because it's a 'superstore' -- the size of a target with wide aisles and an wide array of common and uncommon brands. I shop there because it's an easy way to broadly survey what's available and newish.

Vietnam grows excellent peppercorns and until recently, Asian markets did not offer any fancy like this -- organic, from Phu Quoc island and in a grinder. There were other options available but I tried this one and once home, found it to be floral with a sweet heat. The label indicates that it's from an organic agricultural cooperative program started in 2017.

I was looking to try this Viet-made curry powder but my husband randomly found one (1!) packet on an endcap display. The color is orange red and it's akin to a mixture of Chinese-five spice with curry. It's akin to some Malaysian meat curry powders I've seen with hints of star anise and Sichuan peppercorn. If you've tried it, let me know. I wasn't bowled over when I tried it at home. The label is charming to some and awkward to others. It's beloved by many.

According to this article from Saigoneer on curry in Vietnam: "Viet-An, which has now become Vianco, was started as a joint business between an Indian migrant named Hari who came to Saigon in 1950 and a Chinese-Vietnamese man named Chau Vinh Co. Their website claims that its curry powder has been adjusted through several rounds of integration with local spices, giving its flavor a Vietnamese essence."
Tinted Rice Paper
My brother tipped me off to these and says they're a fun way to add color to your rolls. I've tried similar banh trang rice paper from Seattle grocer, Viet-Wah supermarket. There are also brown rice paper sold by Three Ladies too. I'll add these to my big rice paper buying guide.

My thing about these tinted rice paper is that the beauty of the filling gets obscured by the rice paper instead of being held under translucency. They are cheery and sometimes, you want something different. There is no flavor difference between regular (white) and vegetable-tinted rice paper. Note that some brown rice paper are a bit more fragile than this brands.
Fish Sauce Finds
I'm always on the hunt for fish sauce from the motherland. Shun Fat -- like other Viet markets in the O.C.'s Little Saigon, has an open area where they stock Viet staples -- fish sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce, rice paper and noodles. One of the brands making a strong presence in America is Chin-Su, a leading condiment maker in Vietnam. I'd seen their fish sauce in the past but this fanciful plastic bottle looked like a booze bottle, rather than nuoc mam. Chin-Su packaging often expresses creative flair.

I passed because it said it was "artificially flavored" -- the ingredient label sort of tells the story. Chin Su likes to include monosodium glutamate in its condiments and I've no problem with it. However, there are plenty of other brands that are excellent with no MSG involved. If you give this a try, let me know your thoughts.

I found this Red Boat 31N at another favorite market, Green Farm market in Fountain Valley located by a Union 76 gas station.

Green Farm is medium in size and stocked with sometimes unusual/uncommon items not carried at a big market like Shun Fat. For example, I spotted the Regular Red Boat fish sauce below. Usually what's seen is the first press nuoc mam labeled 40N, but I didn't know they bottled a second level in smaller bottles.

At Green Farm, the RB was right next to Son, which is one of my favorite brands; it's hard to source but I readily get it at Green Farm. I bought a bottle of the Red Boat 31N (around $6.50) and found it to be inkier in appearance and more intense in flavor than the 40N. Use less if you try the 31N. It may overwhelm a dipping sauce so employ it first in cooking.
Not the Usual Fish Sauce
On the subject of Red Boat products, at Shun Fat, I spotted Red Boat's fermented mam nem, a Mekong Delta favorite for dipping sauces (with pineapple to cut the heat) and for a steamed pork and egg dish. I was given a bottle of Red Boat's product a couple years ago when it was new but have not seen it in Northern California where I live. Note that there is little English on the label. You need to look for "Mam Nem" -- which is often translated as fish sauce but it's thick.

Mam nem is thick and somewhat sludgy. It is not the same as nuoc mam. I've had cooks mistake mam nem for nuoc mam simply because of poor labeling of mam nem as "fish sauce."
Flavor Enhancers and Hot Sauces
Monosodium glutamate (MSG, called bot ngot in southern Vietnam, mi chinh in northern Vietnam) is beloved by many cooks but so is alternative mushroom seasoning. The granules are often MSG free and simply called bot nem (seasoning powder) in Vietnamese. Sometimes it's called bot nem chay (vegetarian seasoning powder) but MSG is vegetarian too.

Anyhow, it's very popular, as this end cap display shows. Inspect the ingredient listing and choose one that's MSG free (why you'd buy it in the first place, right?). Po Lo Ku and Imperial Taste are good. Kinoko has a distinctive shiitake flavor. Use it in a 2-to-1 ratio to MSG. Store it in an airtight container indefinitely in the cupboard. At the top shelf of the display are cans of chicken bouillon powder, which is usually MSG laden, but in a good way! Many Viet cooks like it, as do other cooks.

A bit dingy compared to Shun Fat and Green Farm, Mom's Supermarket in Santa Ana carried small bottles of this very good hot sauce from Vietnam. I've yet to see it in Northern California where I live. I've seen it in Portland, Oregon, Buford Highway in Atlanta, and Birmingham, Alabama.

This chile sauce from Vietnam is very good. This version is hotter than I like so I use a little less. Cholimex products are hard to find in America so grab a bottle or two if you see it. It's friendlier tasting than the Rooster's sriracha. Cholimex is Vietnamese. If you like Cholimex, you can get a big bottle of it at Green Farm (see the next photo).
Big Buys and Little Gems
And if you love oyster sauce or want to share it with friends and family members (ditto for the hot sauce), Vietnamese markets will set you up. This is Lee Kum Kee's mid-level oyster sauce and very good. Keep it refrigerated for long-term keeping.

And, Viet markets in Little Saigon may have nooks where you'll find favorite shelf-stable dairy products that are vestiges of French colonialism. (Note the bread and cookies!) The canned French butter is a cultured butter with a cult following. I've written about Bretel butter and it's pricey. For people who adore it, they'll add a smidgen to a hot bowl of rice along with Maggi Seasoning sauce (the French-made one with MSG) and feel like they're in heaven.
Housewares and Prepared Foods
An Asian market's housewares department is a wonderful place to linger and explore. If you're looking for steamers, ladles, and other small tools, mine this section of the market. My mom uses a Vietnamese soft straw broom that's super efficient. I used it at her home and my husband spotted some at Green Farm market. There were two options and I chose the more expensive one below.

And, at a Viet market, you'll likely see a display of freshly made, local tofu. This display at Shun Fat is always extra handsome. The tubs at the top are full of tofu pudding, the green one is pandan flavored. Fried tofu. regular and puffy cubes, line the third shelf.

And, as if you're in Vietnam shopping on the streets, you may pick up some ready-made sticky rice! The orange one is flavored with gac fruit (Momordica cochinensis), then comes a peanut one and the last one has black beans. If there's a little tub of stuff, dip the rice in it for extra flavor.
Takeout Treats
I passed on the sticky rice because what I really wanted was takeout banh cuon from Cuon Tan Hoang Huong, located in the same shopping center as Mom's supermarket. THH also has a banh mi shop across the way, but I wanted to rice rolls.

We lunched in the car, each of us with a takeout container on our lap. You're looking at rice noodle rolls filled with pork and mushroom, nuoc cham and fried shallots, freshly fried tofu, bean sprouts and herbs plus various Viet cold cuts. Sappy Viet music blared from the banh mi shop and it pleasantly felt like we were in Vietnam.
Related post
San Jose Viet Food Adventure: Fun Snacks, Fresh Tofu, and Asian Markets

The post Spring 2021 Little Saigon Markets Food Finds appeared first on Viet World Kitchen.
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