Noodling Around Hong Kong Supermarket
Hong Kong Supermarket, one of eleven stores in a small chain of such markets on each coast, is on East Broadway in Manhattan's Chinatown. That is pretty much all I can tell you about it. The website that looks like it could belong to Hong Kong Supermarket doesn't. No employee I encountered, except the cashier, spoke more than a few words of English. My Chinese stops at "Happy New Year," which didn't seem likely to be helpful until the 2009 arrival of the Year of the Ox.
I've browsed in the helter-skelter store many times, walking out with bags full of stuff that I had never seen before. Grape-jam-filled marshmallows, mango pancakes, and Dreamful Paradise cookies have all made their way home with me. (For a country not known for its desserts, Chinese supermarkets seem to be loaded with every variety of sweet you can imagine, and some you can't.) I passed the impressive outdoor array of fruits and vegetables, thinking that shopping for a couple of ingredients to make sesame noodles, would be as simple as dropping into Food Emporium for a bottle of ketchup. However, the goofy randomness of Hong Kong Supermarket, which I generally enjoy enormously, was just about to drive me nuts.
Finding the fresh noodles was easy; mercifully, like most supermarkets, Hong Kong keeps its refrigerated goods on the perimeter. Now, all I needed was a jar of Chinese sesame paste, which differs from tahini in that the sesame seeds are roasted before being processed, which adds a much deeper, slightly bitter, nuttiness. It's not essential for sesame noodles, but they're certainly better with it than without. (Sesame noodle recipes vary wildly, of course. Martha Stewart puts orange marmalade in hers, something I would rather not have known.)
I wandered from aisle to aisle, past the crinkled cellophane sacks of dried fish, infinite varieties of soy sauce, Japanese Pretz, and, inexplicably, almost an entire aisle of Capri Sun, as I searched for one small jar of sesame paste. Between the aisles, there are tables of toys, cooking implements, and towers of food, including incandescently bright jelly candies.
I asked several employees for help, but the only answer I got was, "I don't know." No one was deliberately unhelpful, we just couldn't communicate with each other. I quickly discovered that there's no way to convey "sesame paste" in sign or body language. That's the thing about Hong Kong market: Unless you are Chinese-speaking, it's best to go without a shopping list and buy whatever strikes you, and, if you're even a moderately adventurous eater, a lot will. The tiny English language labels under some items on the shelves are the only concession to the non-Chinese-speaking shopper.
Finally, I found a shelf filled with jars that looked promising. I squinted at the English below, and read "Chinese Sesame Paste." Resisting the urge to whoop in triumph, I looked at the label, which said "Chinese Chili-Garlic Sauce." Okay, then. I picked up the next jar over, "Chinese Salad Dressing." Its ingredients were sesame seeds and sesame oil. In the wrong spot, with the wrong label, with the right ingredients: It was exactly what I needed. That's the delightful madness that is Hong Kong Supermarket. 135 E Broadway, New York, NY 10002 (nr. Pike Street;map); 212-571-9631