How to get your hands on the best Chinese food

Executive summary**

In this 3-part series:

(a)  discover what exciting, authentic, seasonal, traditional foods (all for around $3! or maybe $6) you can get in:

  1. a Chinese grocery shop;
  2. a Vietnamese grocery shop; and
  3. a Korean grocery shop; and

(b)  get the insider’s tip on where to find those goodies…without getting lost in the shop’s nether regions.

**What’s with the dinky executive summary, I hear you ask.  Well, this handy tool is back in my consciousness, being ubiquitous in the corporate world which I’ve recent re-entered (hence the recent hiatus in writing).  I like summaries.  They sharpen the focus – even in a non-corporate, gluttony-induced piece of writing.

“What you seek from afar is in front of your eyes.”

That’s the translation of the Chinese idiom 远在天边, 近在眼前 (yuǎn zài tiān biān, jìn zài yǎn qián).

Here’s an insider’s tip to sourcing super-authentic, freshly made food.  It’s right under your nose.  No need to  fossick around the aisles and reach behind the dried mussels and chrysanthemum flowers.

Little mom-and-pop Asian supermarkets can seem positively labyrinthine to many people, what with their shelves and freezers crammed with mysterious items in every shape and hue.  But in Australia, at least, you need go no further than the cashier’s counter near the entrance.

Nine times out of ten, you’ll see laid out on the counter all manner of goodies in big plastic tubs, takeaway boxes and cling-wrapped styrofoam trays.

Why do these items lurk around the cashier’s counter?  There’s a logical reason.

They’re usually made with traditional methods and few (if any) preservatives, so they’re delivered fresh every few days (if not every morning), probably still warm from the production line at:
~ someone’s cottage industry at home, or
~ a specialised small business.

As a result, they must be sold and eaten a.s.a.p.  Hence the high visibility and valuable real estate at the cashier’s counter.

For those of you who like trying new foods, here’s the icing on the cake.  The cashier’s counter is also where you’re most likely to discover specialty goodies only available at certain times, when a festival is being celebrated.

What follows is a list of things you could discover at cashier counters, in:
~ Chinese grocery stores,
~ Vietnamese grocery stores, and
~ Korean grocery stores.

Chinese Discovery #1: Green rice dumplings with sweet red bean paste

Me (at Chinese grocery shop):  Is the red bean paste home-made?

Chinese youth with dyed blond hair:  Huh, I suppose it’s home-made, since the maker didn’t buy the prepared paste we stock!

Aha, just as I suspected!  You see, the red bean paste in my green dumpling most definitely tasted home-made.  I was taken by its rustic texture and subtle sweetness.

That’s miles apart from the mass-produced canned red bean paste that boasts uniform consistency, cloying sweetness and a shade of red that’s strangely deeper than the red of the azuki bean.

For the first time in my life, I encountered these jade-coloured golfball-sized dumplings at my local Chinese grocery store last weekend.

The Mandarin name 青团 qing tuan, translates to “green dumplings”.  I laughed out loud at the unembellished name; it wasn’t the typical Chinese way of naming things.  I’m more used to Chinese euphemisms like calling chicken feet “phoenix claws” (makes it a bit tough to read Chinese menus unless one is in the know).

Did I buy it?  Did I indeed.

Resistance is futile when I meet:
(a) a freshly made snack (call it a “seasonal special” and I’ll buy two); and
(b) a sticky-rice-anything.

This green dumpling was both (a) and (b).  So of course I bought it.  How many did I buy?  Read on and see.

What is special about this dumpling?


~ Green dumplings are a must-have for people in Shanghai during the Qing Ming Festival (tomb sweeping festival).  They are such a big deal in Shanghai that CNN Travel even did a green dumpling food tour in Shanghai.

~ The Qing Ming Festival started in China some 2,500 years ago.  This year, it is on 5 April, marked by 2 public holidays in China.  It is a day to pay respects to ancestors and deceased family members.

~ Traditionally, during the Qing Ming Festival, Chinese people visit the graves to pray, tidy up around the tombstone, and make offerings.

~ Growing up in Singapore, I remember my father and brother heading for the graveyard at the crack of dawn to avoid the graveyard rush hour.  That was a male duty, so my mother and I retained our beauty sleep!


~ According to the genial shopkeeper (she always has time for me when I quiz her on her counter specials), the lady who makes the green dumplings doesn’t make them at any other time of the year.

~ That was enough to make me return to the shop for me.  I, ahem, ended up eating 3 balls in as many days.


It’s not often I see a dumpling the same colour as the Green Goblin or the Incredible Hulk.

Traditionally, the green exterior comprises wormwood or brome grass juice, mixed with glutinous rice flour.  I love its sticky softness, and how it feels when being chewed up with the red bean paste.

See how it sticks to the plate (like the bottom of a snail – ooh, yum):

stickyriceballredbeanballstickyricedumplingshanghaidessertRandom facts that make the dumpling seem edgy:
~ Wormwood is an ingredient in that highly alcoholic, possibly psychoactive sprit: absinthe.
~ Brome grass is a herbicide-resistant weed that South Australian grain growers loathe.  I guess they haven’t found it useful in making green dumplings.

Chinese Discovery #2: Pyramid-shaped sticky rice dumplings

(Told you I can’t resist a sticky-rice-anything.)

Keep your eyes peeled for these beauties in the next couple of months.  Bamboo leaves encase sticky rice which encases braised fatty pork with mushrooms, chestnuts and maybe beans and dried mussels.

Although many Chinese shops have them all year round, a whole lot more appear in May, as the Dragon Boat Festival approaches (2 June this year).  The Chinese have been eating sticky rice dumplings for over 2,300 years.

To find out more about these palatable pyramids, read Dumplings and Dragons.

Chinese Discovery #3: Chinese New Year sticky rice cake

(The next item won’t have sticky rice, promise!)

Nian Gao Chinese New Year cakeThis cake is sweet and sticky for a reason.  Smear a little bit where the lips appear on the household’s picture of the Kitchen God, and he will:
~ either disclose only sweet things about this household, in his annual report to the Almighty One,
~ or find his lips stuck together so that he can’t report anything (bad) to the Almighty One.

This Chinese New Year festive food is called nian gao 年糕:
~ nian means “year” but is also a homophone for “sticky”
~ gao means “cake”.
Some Chinese shops sell them all year round, not just during Chinese New Year.

Below: Nian gao (the round brown one) is often found at the counter, tightly encased in cling wrap to keep it soft.

StickyricecakesglutinousricecakesniangaoEat the cake when it’s fresh, and it will be soft and sticky.  After a few days, it hardens.  Which makes it perfect for a…fry-up!

Sandwich it between sliced taro, dip in an egg and flour batter and fry, like so:

friedniangaowithtaroOr just fry slices of the cake naked, in a non-stick pan with a smear of oil.  It softens up into an unctuous treat, and the caramelised surface is heavenly.

friedniangaoChinese Discovery #4: Fried dough sticks a.k.a. crispy cruellers

Fried dough sticks are a common breakfast food among the Chinese community worldwide.

Nothing like a bit of deep fried goodness to start your day, eh?  Many people like dunking them into black coffee (punchier than dunking a Marie biscuit, wouldn’t you say) – that’s what I call a heart-starter and heart-stopper, all rolled into one.

Fried dough sticks

My favourite dough sticks come – sans packaging – in one of those big white plastic boxes you might use to store winter clothes under your bed.  Surely the lack of wrapping is an indication of freshness?  You grab your desired number and put them in bags supplied by the grocery store.

Fried dough sticks have been around for about 900 years.  They always come as a pair, loosely stuck together.  That’s because they were invented by an enterprising, patriotic baker to signify the frying of a certain pair of traitors in the ancient imperial court.  Yes, Chinese history is full of cooks with political agenda.

If you pay attention, you’ll see fried dough sticks popping up everywhere, for instance:

  • as a garnish on congee at Cantonese restaurants
  • wrapped in rice noodle sheets (zha liang) at dim sum restaurants
  • tossed through a crunchy, fruity salad with pungent, sweet prawn paste (rojak) at Singaporean/Malaysian restaurants
  • served with pork rib tea (bak kut teh) at Singaporean/Malaysian restaurants (below).
Bak kut teh (herbal pork rib broth).  Some prefer this to Weetbix for brekkie.

Bak kut teh (herbal pork rib broth). Some prefer this to Weetbix for brekkie.

Chinese Discovery #5:  Radish cake

Confusingly, in some places, this is called “carrot cake”, because it’s made with daikon radish called “white carrot” in Chinese.  It often appears in rectangular takeaway boxes on the cashier’s counter.

chineseradishcakesteamedcarrotcakelorbakgouGrated radish is mixed with (non-sticky) rice flour, water and bits of dried shrimp and lup cheong (Chinese waxed sausage).  The mixture is cooked in a pot, with a stirring process that is more laborious than for risotto.  Then, it is steamed and, if desired, cut into pieces and fried.

cantonesecarrotcakeradishcakeyumchadimsumYou might have encountered both fried and steamed versions of this radish cake at yum cha.

Chinese Discovery #6:  Seaweed salad

Seaweed salad appears in rectangular takeaway boxes.  The iodine-rich, low-calorie seaweed is dressed and ready to eat.

The seaweed has some crunch, and comes coated in a salty, garlicky, sesame seedy dressing with sesame oil and chili bits.

seaweedsaladchinesefoodAt about $4 a box, these seem better value than the dainty serves of seaweed salad in styrofoam trays often displayed beside the sashimi cuts at seafood shops.

To stretch your dollar even more, toss in julienned cucumber.  The flavours and textures are complementary, and the cucumber helps because the seaweed salad by itself is often too salty.


Now, I can’t guarantee that you’ll find any of these things when you next walk into a Chinese grocery shop.  Each shop has relationships with different caterers and producers.  But do have a squiz at the counter, quiz the cashier, and have fun exploring.

Look out for Part 2 of this blog post, where we uncover similar treasures in Vietnamese and Korean food stores.


PS: Apropos of nothing, guess who has been described as a woman with a serious addiction to Asian food and the off-the-beaten-track eateries where you can get the very best of it?  Find out more in this article that appeared in online magazine ThaloFood safaris: Celebrity chefs, move aside

2 thoughts on “How to get your hands on the best Chinese food

  1. Hi there!

    How are you?

    Just read the asterix text – you came back to the corporate world??? Where are you working now? Are you lawyering again?

    Would love to hear what you are up to these days. I thought you were away on holidays as I hadn’t received a FITK email for a while 🙂


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