For those who understand the language and the ingredients, Chinese groceries, in Chinatown and elsewhere in New York City, offer incredible variety and value. For those without this familiarity, however, such stores can be profoundly disorienting—unrecognizable, shriveled dried goods; produce that looks like it comes from another planet. And if you're lost, that feeling may not be helped by signs written only in Chinese and workers who speak no English. Compounding the matter? Stores are constantly changing and the signs out front do not always correctly advertise what can be found within the shop.
However, after a tour with Chinese food expert and restaurant consultant Ed Schoenfeld and doing a fair bit of research, the markets seemed much more navigable. Here I highlight the stores that I found most manageable, along with those that experts recommend—helping Chinatown novices get the bearings.
As with all cooking, good Chinese cuisine is about using the freshest and best ingredients possible. Shopping in Chinatown adds the fun of bargain hunting. The trick, however, is not just finding a deal, but also good value. Serious Eats's Seriously Asian writer Chichi Wang says that she is skeptical of the quality in Chinatown and tends to buy from Western sources whenever possible—easier than ever to do, as more and more grocery stores have an international foods aisle. It is, however, feasible to find a deal on high-quality products in Chinese markets; you just have to be willing to spend the time looking around.
Spices and Dried Goods
Five spice powder: Reading the label is important when it comes to buying five spice powder; different brands have varying combinations of five ingredients. Some even have only four, such as Red Diamond, which is sold at Chang Jiang Market and is made from just fennel, anise, ginger, and cloves. The Food Emporium brand has six ingredients: ginger, cloves, all spice, star anise, pepper, and thyme for $8.99.
Linda Bladholm, author of The Asian Grocery Store Demystified, recommends the Oriental Mascot brand, which has fennel seed, star anise, ginger, cloves and cinnamon. Gold City Supermarket sells it for $2.28 for a 4 oz. jar. They also stock Golden Lion brand, which is $0.98 for 4oz. and has ginger, cinnamon, cumin seeds, aniseeds, and citrus peel.
You can most likely find a variant of five spice powder at your local supermarket; both Whole Foods and Gourmet Garage carry various versions. Frontier all-natural Five Spice Powder goes for $3.99 at Whole Foods and Asian Gourmet's "authentic spice blend" is $2.99 at Gourmet Garage.
Chiang Jiang Market, 4141 Kissena Blvd., Flushing, NY (map); 718-359-3399; Food Emporium, multiple locations (map); Gold City Supermarket, 4631 Kissena Blvd., Flushing, NY (map); 718-762-7688; Whole Foods, multiple locations (map); Gourmet Garage, multiple locations (map) .
Star Anise: Although there are jars of ground star anise on the market, it is best to buy whole pods, as they provide better flavor. Check that the jar you're purchasing actually has the stars intact, and not just pieces.
Whereas Morton & Bassett whole ones are $8.99 at Food Emporium or $5.99 in pieces from the Food Emporium brand, whole star pods are much cheaper in Chinese markets and can be bought in larger amounts. Fuzhou Supermarket has bulk bags.
Sichuan peppercorns: Shun Lee chef Michael Tong notes in The Shun Lee Cookbook that the United States used to have a ban on importing Sichuan peppercorns, since they were believed to carry a disease that would harm citrus crops. The ban was lifted in 2005. Now you can find them everywhere from Dean and Deluca to Food Emporium. As with star anise, though, check stores in Chinatown for cheaper prices.
Dried Oysters: New Year's foods tend to be those with names that sound like words that have to do with good luck. Dried oysters are a traditional Chinese New Year food, since their name (ho see) is a homonym for a term meaning "wealth and good business." With the New Year coming up, many stores in Chinatown have an abundance of dried oysters on display.
Ann Volkwein, author of Chinatown New York: Portraits, Recipes, and Memories, writes about Po Wing Hong, which specializes in dried goods. With its jars of dried goods lined up behind a counter, Po Wing Hong looks as a store in China would have looked hundreds of years ago, according to Schoenfeld. There is also a store—which has its name only in Chinese on its sign—on the corner of Hester Street and Mott Street that specializes in dried goods.
Dried Shrimp: Dried shrimp come in different sizes,and which you should buy depends on what you're making and the flavor you like, according to Schoenfeld. Prices tend to be lower on the smaller ones, as the larger ones tend to be better quality. You can buy them packaged or in a selected batch out of a large bin. Eileen Yin-Fei Lo advises in Mastering the Art Chinese Cooking that you do not want your dried shrimp to be tinged with grey at all.
Along with the stores listed above, Kam Man also has a large dried goods section.
Oyster sauce: Oyster sauce is used in many dishes to add flavor and is a common ingredient in many popular American-Chinese dishes. It is delicious over almost any stir-fried vegetable.
When it comes to sauces, it is important to read the label to make sure the kind you're buying has good ingredients it. As writer Jennifer 8. Lee points out in her book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, the soy sauce packets distributed from take-out places are composed of water, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, caramel coloring, and corn syrup, and do not actually have any soy in them.
Lee Kum Kee is the preferred brand for oyster sauce, as the company's founder invented the condiment. Serious Eats's Chichi Wang buys the Lee Kum Kee version of oyster sauce sold at Whole Foods that specifies "no MSG." Schoenfeld, on the other hand, is a proponent of monosodium glutamate and he likes the Lee Kum Kee Premium Oyster Sauce that has MSG. Kam Man has a wide selection of oyster sauces, including the premium Lee Kum Kee,both with and without MSG. In Flushing, Chang Jiang Market also has different brands for different tastes, including several Lee Kum Kee versions.
Shao xing (shao hsing) rice wine: This Chinese cooking wine is used to make dishes such as drunken chicken. The shao xing rice that you can find in most of the markets is labeled "for cooking" and is not of a particularly high quality; they have added salt and sugar. Schoenfeld says he always buys his shao xing rice wine from a Chinese liquor store since you can find wine without that "for cooking" label. He does not mind the added salt and sugar so much as the quality of the wine itself that the grocery stores sell.
Fine Wine and Liquors on 8th Avenue in Brooklyn has a Pagoda brand shao xing rice wine for $5.50 and Pearl River Bridge for $7.75. Schoenfeld also goes to Sun Wai Liquor Store in Manhattan. But if you can't make it to a Chinese liquor store, sherry is an acceptable substitute.
When it comes to buying vegetables, my advice is to know what you're looking for—visually, as well as by name—before you go shopping; for further assurance, bring along a copy of the Chinese name in the Chinese calligraphy. To get a lay of the land, head to English-speaking friendly stores first, such as Deluxe Food Market and Hong Kong Supermarket in Manhattan Chinatown and Gold City Supermarket in Flushing; all three stores have English signs as well as Chinese above the vegetables.
Deluxe Food Market, 79 Elizabeth Street, New York, NY (map); 212-925-5766; Hong Kong Supermarket, 157 Hester Street, New York, NY (map); 212-966-4943; Gold City Supermarket, 4631 Kissena Blvd., Flushing, NY (map); 718-762-7688.
Bok choy: Bok choy is great in soups or recipes that call for boiling,because that process makes it more tender. Baby bok choy is more tender to start, according to Eileen Yin-Fei Lo.
There are many more kinds of bok choy than I can keep straight—and it doesn't help that what some Western stores call baby bok choy is simply Shanghai in the Chinese markets, while baby bok choy is something different altogether.
This is a case where, if you're looking for a specific type, you're best off bringing along a picture of what you want. Gold City Market or the Manhattan Hong Kong Supermarket are good places to go to figure out which is which since they both have clear signage that seems to be consistent with other Chinese markets (the Brooklyn Hong Kong Supermarket does not have English signs).
Shanghai bok choy, which has bright green leaves and light-green tinged bulb, is the kind most Western markets, such as Whole Foods sells. It is $0.79/lb at Hong Kong Supermarket in Manhattan or $0.49/lb at Chang Jiang Market in Queens, as opposed to $1.99/lb at Whole Foods. It also looked fresher at the Chinese markets than the wilted bulbs I saw at the Whole Foods on East Houston Street recently.
There are also various versions of darker-leafed bok choy with milky white bulbs. All markets that have produce have a variety of bok choy, from tips to baby to milk to Shanghai. Several of the carts along Canal Street sell a variety at a decent price.
Hong Kong Supermarket, 157 Hester Street, New York, NY (map); 212-966-4943; Gold City Supermarket, 4631 Kissena Blvd., Flushing, NY (map); 718-762-7688; Whole Foods, multiple locations (map); Canal Street vendors.
Chinese broccoli: Chinese broccoli is not simply a Chinese preparation of the broccoli Americans are familiar with, but a wholly different creature. It's actually a leafy vegetable; its main resemblance to American broccoli is only in its stalk. Both Schoenfeld and Volkwein recommend W.K. Vegetable Co. for produce. I have found from several visits at different times of the day that, by the evening, some of the leafy vegetables such as Chinese broccoli look pretty wilted from all the moisture in the stores. Go early in the day for fresh and crisp picks.
At W.K. Vegetable and in the large supermarkets in Queens and Brooklyn such as Gold City Market and Hong Kong Supermarket, however, there are people constantly tending to the vegetables, stocking them and removing lower-quality pieces.
Here is a recipe for Chinese broccoli with rice noodles and shitake mushrooms.
W.K. Vegetable Co., 124-126 Mott Street, New York, NY (map); 212-3334-4603; Hong Kong Supermarket, 157 Hester Street, New York, NY (map); 212-966-4943; Gold City Supermarket, 4631 Kissena Blvd., Flushing, NY (map); 718-762-7688.
Lotus root: Lotus root (li gnao tong in Cantonese, which sounds like the term for "prosperity every year") is another traditional New Year's food. When purchasing whole lotus roots, Schoenfeld says that you want some brown spots because that shows that they are ripe, but you don't want any soft spots. They should be crisp and firm.
Deluxe Food Market has pre-sliced packages of fresh lotus root for $2.49/lb. Good looking, whole lotus root can also be found at Hong Sheng Market Inc. in Brooklyn for $0.99/lb.
Water chestnuts: Canned water chestnuts are everywhere. Fresh water chestnuts, however, can be more difficult to find, and they taste quite different from their canned cousins—they are sweeter and crunchier. Schoenfeld describes the flavor as similar to an apple. If you cannot find fresh ones, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo recommends substituting the more easily found jicama.
Schoenfeld showed me how to look for good water chestnuts: you want to make sure there are no soft spots and that they are firm all around and have tight skin. The ones at W.K. Vegetable Co. were tantalizingly shiny the day we visited, with all of the mud cleaned off of them, but Schoenfeld prefers them when they still have the earth on the skin. Ken Hing Food Market Inc. had a good batch for $3.00 per 2 lbs.
Bean curd and noodle products
Wheat noodles: If you're looking for a wide selection, your best bet is to head to Chang Jiang Market in Flushing, which has a whole long aisle devoted to different kinds of dried wheat noodles. They also stock fresh noodles made by Twin Marquis and Wonton Specialist, with 12 ounce packages selling for $1.29.
Most stores in Chinatown with a refrigerated section sell Twin Marquis noodles. Schoenfeld, however, is not a fan of them. He prefers to get his noodles from Canton Noodle Corporation, a noodle factory on Mott Street that sells retail. It can be hard to find, since on the outside it does not look like a place open to the public. You can, however, go behind the metal doors straight into the factory where they make the noodles.
If you can't find your way it into Canton Noodle Corp., Kam Man sells noodles made by them as well as Shanghai noodles made by Wing Heung Noodle Inc.
Chang Jiang Market, 4141 Kissena Blvd., Flushing, NY (map); 718-359-3399; Canton Noodle Corporation, 101 Mott Street, New York, NY (map); 212-226-3276; Kam Man, 200 Canal Street, New York, NY (map); 212-571-0330; Wing Heung Noodle Inc., 144 Baxter Street, New York, NY (map); 212-966-7496.
Rice noodles: There are two stores on Grand Street that specialize in rice noodles. Tung Woo Co. operates out a sort of warehouse that is open on to the street. Kong Kee Food Corp. has a stand out front, as well as more goods inside. Both places are manned even in the cold weather.
Stores that focus on noodles tend to be divided between wheat and rice. Schoenfeld says that if rice noodle stores have wheat noodles, those tend to come from somewhere else, since the process for making rice noodles is much more similar to dealing with bean curd and tofu, and is quite different from making wheat noodles. As a result of the similar process for rice and bean curd, both of these stands on Grand Street sell soy bean milk and other tofu and bean curd products along with rice noodles.
Dumpling, wonton, and spring roll wrappers: Again, the most prevalent brand is Twin Marquis; the big supermarkets such as Fei Long Market Inc. in Brooklyn stock them. Michael Tong writes in Shun Lee Cookbook that they are a good brand for wrappers, and a worker stocking the fridge at HK Discount Store recommended them to me over the Twin Dragon brand. Schoenfeld, however, again prefers Canton Noodle Corp. Kam Man carries their wonton wrappers.
Here are some instructions for dumpling wrapping and recipes for a few different fillings
Fei Long Market Inc., 6301 8th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY (map); 718-680-0118; HK Discount Store, 153 East Broadway, New York, NY (map); Canton Noodle Corporation, 101 Mott Street, New York, NY (map); Kam Man, 200 Canal Street, New York, NY (map); 212-571-0330
Chinese food is extremely varied. In truth, Chinese cuisine corresponds closely to region, and China is a vast place. As a result, this list of groceries does not even begin to cover the products and produce out there—though we hope it's a helpful primer.
Wander around any of the Chinese neighborhoods in New York, and you will find a surplus of stores from which to choose, and you should be able to find almost any Chinese ingredient you could want. The best block in Chinatown in Manhattan is Mott Street between Grand Street and Hester Street, according to Schoenfeld, who prefers the area closer to Grand Street over the blocks surrounding East Broadway.
In the outer boroughs, Flushing in Queens and, in Brooklyn, the area around the 8th Avenue stop on the N train are the best. Schoenfeld prefers the shopping in Brooklyn because, given the low rent, you can find some of the best deals there.