Posted in Today's File, Travel

Asia Market: Our In-Town International Trip

Not unlike an Embassy, our local Asia Market reminds me of a small piece of foreign country surrounded by American soil.  I am, of course, The Foreigner there–but by now I’ve earned my visa and might no longer be considered a tourist.

Friday mornings the produce comes in–all the vegetables you won’t find at WinCo or WalMart–and the place will be abuzz with lively chatter in a mish-mash of languages that don’t use our alphabet.  When my husband and I owned a Hawai’ian restaurant, I’d be there every Friday to buy taro (the staple root from which Hawai’ians famously–or infamously–make poi, and which we used to make our french fries).  I often felt like an awkwardly out-of-place giant among the dainty ladies who didn’t come up to my shoulder, many of them gesturing inquisitively at my basket-full of produce and speculating to each other with words I didn’t know.  I smiled and nodded a lot, and kept filling my basket–and after a couple months’ worth of weekly appearances, the novelty of redheaded-tattooed Me in their midst wore off.

“hot like wasabi when I bust rhymes…”

Hawai’ian cuisine, infused with an array of Pacific Rim influences, has come to include not only the original Polynesian staples like kalua (“slow-cooked”) pig, but also dishes that originated in China, Japan, and the Philippines–introduced and incorporated into “local” cooking with the influx of these other populations into the islands.  When I first shipped off to University of Hawai’i, I didn’t anticipate (Idaho-girl that I am) the differences in culture and cuisine; up to that point I’d thought of Hawai’i as “part of America–with a nice climate.”  (My husband Keoni, by contrast, is Native Hawai’ian on his mom’s side, and was born in Honolulu before Hawai’i became a state.  Yes, he’s Old.  He still refers to our Idaho sojourn as “living in America.”)  My first morning in the dorm cafeteria came as an eye-opener–I was (happily) in for more adventure than I’d expected.  I soon discovered that even the McDonald’s menu is different there. (Spam & rice, anyone?)  Most of the recipes Keoni learned from his tutu pa (grandfather) require ingredients we can’t get even in the “Asian aisle” of a standard Grocery.  I love to watch his face when we walk into the Asia Market.  Clearly it’s a homecoming for him, every time.

The Market (as with any “foreign” adventure) is best appreciated with a local guide, and I’m fortunate to have had Keoni as my culinary docent.  A few years ago I wouldn’t have known what to think about jars of pickled eel, chili bamboo, the perplexing variety of seaweeds, or goat meat sold by the pound…  Now I have favorites among the furukake seasonings, noodles, rice-flours, and mochi treats, and easily find items in the market that I couldn’t have explained or imagined, let alone located, prior to his tutelage.  Yet we still learn more every time we’re there. (See “Pirate Code for the Road:” Ask Questions! Yesterday’s “mystery item:” an unlabeled shrink-wrapped bundle of shiny thick leaves, hmm…)  The genial store-owner, fluent in the universal language of the Smile, never escapes a chat when we come in, and has been unfailingly helpful at identifying and locating specific items we’re looking for–a challenging proposition at times, given that the same (or similar) items go by a variety of different names across cultures.  He’s accustomed by now to Keoni’s lead-in of, “in Hawai’i we call it…“–followed by a description of the item in question, which the gentleman often finds for us under another name in another language.

There’s a curious sound Keoni makes when he’s enraptured by food–sort of a sucking-air-through-the-teeth-as-if-to-prevent-drooling noise, which he didn’t realize about himself until I (unable to stifle my giggles) pointed it out to him.  That’s the sound-track of our visits to the Asia Market–enhanced yesterday by the rich contralto of a Tongan shopper singing over the produce.  Last night we “smuggled” into our son’s football game a bag of my favorite snack: Saki Ika–which I can only describe as spicy shredded squid jerky.  If they scolded us for bringing in our own food, Keoni was ready with his answer: “Brah. You get squid at da concession stand, I would chance ’em here.”

a few views from yesterday’s visit


I am... a writer, an explorer, a coffee-drinker, a recovering addict, a barefoot linguist, a book-dragon ("bookworm" doesn't cover it), a raconteur, a sailboat skipper, a research diver, a tattooed scholar, a pirate, a poet, a spiritual adventurer, a photographer, a few kinds-of-crazy, a joyful wife, a mom... a list-maker! :)

21 thoughts on “Asia Market: Our In-Town International Trip

  1. Dang. If Idaho were a little closer to Boondocks, New England, the two of us would have to sit down at least once for a chat.

    My local “foreign country” of preference is the Indian market a few towns over; because it’s a few towns over, I don’t get there often, and I don’t think anyone has gotten used to the six-foot-tall, pale-skinned brunette walking around in there every once in a while. But I like it there!


  2. We don’t hanything that extensive, but our favorite local Chinese restaurant is in combination with a thriving Asian market, and we love to browse the aisles while we’re there. It gives us plenty of ideas for new things to try.


  3. I am incredibly fortunate to have grown up with an adventurously culinary family and to live in a heavily Asian community in California. Our closest grocery is an Asian grocery and it’s always an adventure – but a good one. Some of the best, freshest fish is found there, and even if we don’t always communicate *well* with the nice man behind the counter, pointing and smiling gets us far.


  4. Something about food and local island people….ha ha! It’s like our #1 priority. Hungering for the spam musubi’s and the chinese rice cake at this moment. Enjoyed the trip to the market! Thanks


    1. Always about food, isn’t it? We listen to a Honolulu radio station (streamed over Internet), and they were asking the other day “what Superhero would you be?” ALL the callers’ answers had to do with food–starting with Spam Musubi Man. ;)


  5. Aloha Kana! Did you buy that HUGE bag of wasabi? I’ve never even seen one that big. My human makes wasabi ahi poke a lot (and wasabi cream sauce and wasabi mashed potatoes and wasabi everything else you can imagine) but it would take decades to use that whole bag!


    1. Suzy here–the humans are sleeping, so it’s my turn to play with the mouse… They used to buy that size wasabi when they owned the restaurant (Kana Girl’s trademarked “Wow-Sabi Sauce” sold by the gallon) but they found a smaller one for home-use. Makes me sneeze. I prefer peach yogurt myself.

      Time to go test my training of Dad. If I cry for food when my bowl isn’t empty yet, he’ll go run his fingers through my chow to show me it’s there waiting for me. Yesterday I got him out of bed to do that. Training humans is so entertaining!


  6. Kalua slow-cooked pig? Can you box some up and send it to me? Perhaps you guys should start an fusion cuisine restaurant with the best of both parts of America mixed with the availability of these great Asian market items. I’ve never been to Hawaii, so this all sounds exotic and enticing! Bon appetit!


  7. This is really funny timing b/c I’m working on a post about a Japanese mall and supermarket that I visited last weekend. You are lucky to have a guide…that would have been helpful, but it was still a really fun experience. Nice photos!


    1. You’re right, of course–a built-in guide is awesome… Though I also get a kick out of “jumping right in” to ask questions of people who obviously ARE more comfortable in a place than I am. Lots of stories happen that way ;)


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