- Kimberly DeFalco
- Tampa's Alicia Burns and Elliott Rosado spend their lunch hour at Oceanic Oriental Market. The pair browse the store occasionally "just for fun."
Basic Asian philosophy is about balance. For many non-Asians crossing the threshold of an Asian market, confusion often overrides balance.
There is no yin. There is no yang.
Dizzying arrays of color burst at the entrance. Unrecognizable smells permeate the air. Befuddling jars line the shelves and unrecognizable fruits and vegetables rest on produce shelves. Where does one begin?
Entering an Asian market is often a delicate dance outside one’s comfort zone. Way outside.
“I was disoriented the first time I went into an Oriental market,” William Grable of Tampa said. “It was a juxtaposition of confusion and attraction that lured me further in with an urge to find out more. Now, I'm hooked.”
Some approach these markets with a list in hand, a recipe to fulfill. Many don’t.
For adventurous souls, it is a curiosity — a walk on the culinary wild side. For others, Asian markets fulfill a penchant to eat healthier.
In 2010, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation along with the World Health Organization’s Global Burden of Disease study, Harvard Initiative for Global Health and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health compiled a list of the world’s healthiest countries.
By looking at a number of factors, including life expectancy, they completed their data. The United States came in 29th place for men and 33rd for women.
The highest life expectancy for men and women was Japan with 74.5 years. Singapore was second for men, with South Korea at second for women.
Rubin Bao of Tampa’s MD Oriental Market suspects his family’s two stores are attracting a health-conscious clientele. Bao said about 30 percent of the markets’ clientele are non-Asians.
“I see a growing trend as I notice people from all walks of life coming in for things they can’t find in a regular store,” Bao said. “Also, I believe more and more people are trying to live a healthier lifestyle, and fruits, vegetables and seafood are staples of Asian culture.”
MD Oriental Market has nearly completed the expansion of its Fowler Avenue store to 18,000 square feet. In a few weeks, MD Oriental Market will finish its newest store, a 35,000-square-foot former Publix on 49th Street North in Pinellas Park.
“The fresh, diverse vegetables, fruits, meats and live seafood will be expansive. We see the need,” Bao said.
Fresh greens are offered at all Asian markets, and in most stores, produce is the first section that people encounter. Mokwa (hairy squash), silk squash (Chinese okra), bau dau gok (snake beans) and woo tau (taro) are common features.
Shoppers will also find considerably lower prices on most of the produce.
Asian markets are usually stocked according to the principles of balance, and organized based off products’ properties. Spicy sauces and curry pastes huddle in one section, while bitter, salty, sour or sweet things commandeer their own real estate.
A market encompasses the ethnicity of its proprietor, and consists of three main regions.
The first, known as the southwest style, includes cuisine from Burma, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The second major dietary culture of Asia is the northeast tradition, with China, Korea and Japan. The third is the southeast style of Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Singapore.
Most stores carry overlapping products from all regions.
Americans have developed a greater appetite for cooking and eating Asian foods, too. In 2012, non-restaurant sales of the grub topped $1.5 billion, according to Mintel Group, a market-research firm. Though Latin foods are a bigger market, the popularity of Asian fare is growing. Strange-seeming imports like seaweed and seahorse are now welcome ingredients and medicinal remedies.
Chan Choy, along with his brother T.C. and generations of family members, operates the 20,000-square-foot Oceanic Oriental Market in Tampa. Choy says cooking shows and consumers’ growing discomfort with traditional grocery stores draw people to Oceanic.
Choy, an engineer by trade, serves as the market’s front-end manager and herbalist. Self-taught in herbology and relying on remedies hundreds of years old, Choy puts together formulas to help people with myriads of ailments. Many of his clients travel across Tampa Bay seeking his advice.
Herbalists are a common feature in many Asian markets. At Oceanic, hundreds of labeled drawers harbor common and uncommon herbs.
Choy believes many non-Asians are frustrated with Western medicine and the side effects of modern pharmaceuticals.
- Kimberly DeFalco
- Tung Thanh Vo, who sustained injuries in a car accident six weeks ago, travels from St. Petersburg seeking treatment from Oceanic's Chan Choy.
The Choys regularly create specialty items and herbal remedies to accommodate their growing non-Asian clientele.
Oceanic, which launched as a company designed to accommodate Tampa’s shipping industry in 1979, morphed over the years as the shipping industry declined. Seeing the void for Asian groceries, the market shifted focus to Asian consumers.
Tom Chau witnessed the same void. In 1988, he opened Cho Lon Oriental Market in St. Petersburg.
“Back then, I realized Asian people needed a market,” Chau said. “There was one in downtown St. Pete, and that was it.”
Chau added Ha Fong Bay Restaurant next door in 1994. His sister Le Chau runs the adjoining housewares and gift shop.
Two doors down, Dr. Nanying Zhou, an herbalist and native of China, runs Chinese Solutions where hundreds of herbs are meticulously cataloged in custom-made wooden cabinets shipped from China.
- Kimberly DeFalco
- Dr. Nanying Zhou, a native of China and considered to be one of Floirda's premier herbalists, treats patients throughout the state.
Zhou and Tom work together, referring their clients to each other.
Like MD Oriental Market and Oceanic, Chau estimates that his clientele is about 30 percent non-Asian. Zhou sees more and more non-Asian patients traveling from across Central Florida.
Chau’s meat selection, like many Asian markets, focuses on pork. Pork is to Asia as beef is to the United States. In Chinese culture, pork symbolizes wealth. No celebration is without a pork dish, and every part is used. Hearts, livers and kidneys are all staples at Cho Lon.
For Sunny Duann, past president of the Suncoast Association of Chinese Americans, moving to St. Petersburg in 1975 left her dismayed by the inability to purchase staples of her diet.
“I couldn’t buy Chinese pears, papaya or even mangos. It was so frustrating,” Duann said.
Duann is a regular at Cho Lon, and often does most of her shopping there. She treasures the community of both Asian and non-Asian shoppers.
“We’ve come a long way,” she said.
Proprietors of Asian markets have adapted to non-Asian customers’ needs, including more prepared foods such as Peking duck. They are also enthusiastic about demystifying the market.
“Everything has a purpose here, a part of our culture,” Choy said. “We are proud to share our culture and enjoy taking the time to explain it.”
Choy suggests visitors take their time, have fun, ask questions and experiment a little. Most products have ingredients listed in both Chinese and English, thus eliminating some of the mystery.
“Just come in and enjoy the selections. It can be a beautiful experience,” he said.
What to watch Asians Eat Weird Things on YouTube.
Good read Author Linda Bladholm remains a definite explanation of Asian markets. Bladholm has lived and traveled extensively throughout Asia, learning the cultures and cuisine. In her guide, The Asian Grocery Store Demystified, she explains the foundation of Asian markets including the layouts, philosophies and products. Illustrations accompany most product descriptions.
I am not a healthcare professional, but I am a passionate advocate of natural health, as well as a voracious reader and lecture attendee. I just want to learn and share. If you have any suggestions, news events or feature ideas please email me at [email protected]