MARKETS : Rau Ram, Ngo Gai, Som Tam and Tam Som, Too

Like a traveling carnival act, an old Asian man works his magic, entrancing a crowd of children outside the T & T Market in Diamond Square. He rolls a small mound of sweet, taffy-like dough between his palms and then, mimicking the technique of a Chinese noodle maker, flicks and twists the dough, snapping it into a thousand filaments of lion's mane candy.

His "act" isn't the only attraction at Diamond Square this Saturday afternoon. Next to T & T, in the mall's food court, an electronic band warms up, competing with a chattering battalion of video games in the amusement arcade. People are busily getting film developed, buying children's clothes, shopping for jewelry or checking out karaoke video cassettes. But mostly they are shopping for food or eating in the square's polyglot assortment of Asian restaurants.

As the stylized neon logos above the food court's shops affirm, Diamond Square is San Gabriel Valley's new pan-Asian outpost. Signs advertise Pho Diamond, a Vietnamese noodle soup shop; Dennies Canteen, with a menu of northern Chinese breakfast items; and Fortune House, selling Taiwanese-style dried meats and snacks. My favorite place, Yee Shun Deli of Macao, makes delicious Chinese-style steamed milk desserts and Indonesian sate.

Inquiring epicures will want to investigate Ledo, a Hong Kong-style coffee shop. Its "international" menu is typical of such places--French toast and five-flavor beef stew lo mein are listed on the same page, and a section entitled Fountain Beverages suggests a Hawaiian sundae and longan ice. Next door to Ledo is a Japanese shabu shabu restaurant. And across the parking lot are a Vietnamese place, a Shanghainese restaurant and Diamond Seafood, which serves dim sum from carts and fish from Cantonese-style live tanks.

The mixed Asian population in Diamond Square's neighborhood, which not so long ago was primarily Anglo and Latino, burgeoned incredibly between the 1980 and 1990 censuses. The number of Asian residents in El Monte was up a stunning 456%, in Rosemead and San Gabriel about 370%, while most other groups declined.

Just slightly east of the well-established Chinese enclave in Monterey Park, this neighborhood's new Asian pluralism becomes instantly clear as you peruse the merchandise in the coolers and on the shelves at T & T Market.

In the sauce department are jars and bottles of Filipino banana ketchup, Indonesian sambal oelek , Vietnamese tuong ot toi and Malay-style Maggi chili sauce--packed by Nestle's in Kuala Lumpur. There is Pantainorasingh-brand saus prik , the garlicky, hot-sweet dipping sauce for Thai barbecued chicken, and Indonesian instant rendang mix for making a special beef curry. The fish sauces and fish pastes used as seasonings also run the gamut from Thai nam pla and Vietnamese nuoc mam to Malaysian belachan , Kampuchean prahok and Indonesian terasi.

If the sauces and condiments at T & T are often suited to a specific cuisine, the basic fresh ingredients, such as lemon grass, plantains, taro and water spinach are common to the whole Southeast Asian region and parts of China--which is why T & T can so easily cater to so many nationalities.

The store is equipped with all the modern-day supermarket amenities that Asian shoppers have come to expect. You can use your ATM card at the check-out stand, where cashiers wear smart green jackets or vests with the T & T logo. And you'll see the usual array of live fish and seafood in big, gurgling tanks. T & T is a little smaller than several other massive-sized Asian markets in the area, but it's clear that its managers know exactly who's doing the shopping.

SHOPPING LIST

PRODUCE

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A huge mound of freshly picked herbs and lettuces is a wonderful fixture on the Southeast Asian table. People eat the leaves with finger foods or they toss a few into their soup. In Eastern Thailand and Kampuchea, where the food is similar, and also in Southern Thailand and neighboring Malaysia, all sorts of locally grown herbs comprise this mealtime fixture.

Until recently, Southeast Asians here had to make do with fresh coriander, basil and mint. But now, herbs unfamiliar to Americans are starting to appear in Asian markets. Two of the most popular are rau ram and ngo gai (to use their Vietnamese names).

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* Rau Ram: Known in English as polygonum, rau ram has a bold, spicy taste akin to a concentrated blend of Asian basil and mint. You can easily identify it by the slight pink tinge of its stems and its small, pointy, green leaves. Rau ram is sold in bunches with about half a dozen leaves on a stem.

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* Ngo Gai: Sometimes called saw-tooth herb because its long slender leaves have serrated edges, ngo gai tastes like an intense version of cilantro, to which it is botanically related. Sold in bunches of single leaves on a plastic tray covered in shrink-wrap, ngo gai will wind up being served alongside the Vietnamese pho and Southeast Asian hot-and-sour fish soups. I've been told that Caribbean cooks use the herb and that it is also known as Puerto Rican coriander.

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* Shredded Green Papaya and Carrot: For the convenience-food-minded, T & T sells pre-shredded carrot and papaya in bulk. These are actually shredded, not grated; they come in long, thin, curly strands. Green papaya is the main ingredient in som tam , the spicy Thai salad dressed with a chile-lime juice dressing, sometimes seasoned with crushed small crabs. A similar Kampuchean salad has fermented fish condiment in its dressing.

In Vietnam, the green papaya's most popular use is in goi du du , a salad topped with sliced or julienned dried beef (or water buffalo, if you're up-country). Many love to serve goi du du with puffy shrimp chips, which you can buy here ready to eat.

In Laos, tam som , a shredded carrot salad made with lots of garlic, chiles and (sometimes) pork stomach, is a fixture at meals served for social occasions.

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* Mixed Vegetables for Hot-and-Sour Soup: Each country in Southeast Asia has its own version of hot-and-sour soup. In the Philippines it's sinigang , made tart with tamarind; in Thailand it's tom yam , with lemon grass and fragrant kaffir lime leaves. One Kampuchean version is samla michou banle ; the Vietnamese make canh chua ca and the Laotian kaeng som or kaeng tom yum.

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* Pomelo, Pummelo or Shaddock: The pomelo looks like an inflated grapefruit (no surprise--grapefruit is descended from it) but has a marvelous sweet, slightly tart taste that lacks the bitterness of grapefruit. Its botanical name is Citrus maxima, befitting the largest fruit of the citrus family. The Dutch discovered the pomelo in the Malaya-Indonesia area (our word pomelo comes from the Dutch pompelmoes ), where it grows abundantly, as it does throughout the humid areas of Southeast Asia and China. In recent centuries it has made its way to tropical regions of the Americas and now grows even in California.

I've discovered it's easiest to peel a pomelo if you score the very thick skin lengthwise about six times and peel it off in segments. You then must remove the juicy meat from its inedible membrane, which easily zips open like a little package after you score the inner edge of each segment.

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* Pea Shoots: These curly little tendrils and tender shoots are getting to be a staple in chic Chinese restaurants. They taste like new spring peas, and the plants are grown as creepers rather than upright vines. Pinching off the buds prevents fruiting and flowering, which sends the pea flavor into the young leaves.

Because they are scarce and expensive in China, pea shoots are likely to be a special-occasion food. Restaurants like to serve them with crab meat or fresh shrimp roe as a delicacy. But the shoots are delicious just plain, stir-fried with a minimum amount of oil and slashed with a few teaspoons of Chinese rice wine or dry Sherry, a pinch of sugar and a little salt.

NOODLE PRODUCTS

* Banh Hoi: In their package, these "noodle cakes" look like a mound of extra-fine fresh rice vermicelli, but when you unwrap the package, you find the noodles stuck together into a little pancake that you can peel off the pile. The cakes look similar to Sri Lankan string hoppers.

Banh hoi often substitute for rice papers in a Vietnamese meal. You use them topped with a piece of lettuce and some fresh herbs to wrap around bites of barbecued meat, meat ball or grilled fish. A dipping sauce always goes with this.

T & T's manager, James Lee, suggests that the rice cakes are best served slightly warm. Heat them over steam or for just a few seconds in a microwave oven on the "defrost" setting.

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* Banh Cuon: Almost as basic as bread in Vietnam, banh cuon are related to the stuffed Chinese rice noodle sheets that you get at a dim sum meal, but they are a much lighter and finer version. T & T stocks freshly made rice noodle sheets beside the many other kinds of fresh rice noodles near the produce section. You will see banh cuon sold unrolled in a flat package, where they are called banh pho uot.

The rice sheets have all sorts of uses: Eaten sprinkled with a few fried shallots they go by the name banh cuon thanh tri. These are accompanied by a fresh herb such as mint, cucumber slices and a dipping sauce.

One particularly popular way to eat banh cuon in Vietnam is with slices of the cold cuts cha lua , gio lua or cha chien on the side. Banh cuon may also be filled with ground pork and tree ears or crushed, dried shrimp.

VIETNAMESE COLD CUTS

One thing that distinguishes Vietnam from most of Asia is its taste for European-style charcuterie such as pate, cold sausage, head cheese and ham, which it adapted from the French colonists. Cold cuts fill banh mi , the Hoagie-like sandwich made on a French roll and garnished with marinated vegetables and herbs. They're also popular for appetizers and as luncheon meats, eaten with fresh rice paper sheets ( banh cuon ). I've included instructions for banh mi so you can try Vietnamese cold cuts at home.

T & T offers cold cuts from several companies, including Tay Ho, which are manufactured in a USDA-inspected plant in Garden Grove.

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* Gio Lua: Also known as cha lua (and usually labeled as pork meat loaf in English), this smooth, bologna-like sausage is seasoned very slightly with fish sauce. It is steamed wrapped in banana leaves, which lends a special flavor to the meat. Whether in sandwiches or as an appetizer, gio lua should always be very thinly sliced after its leafy covering is removed.

When serving gio lua with banh cuon (sold in the noodle section of the market), cut the meat slices into halves. These are then easy to eat with a morsel of banh cuon in a single bite. To go with these you need the basic Vietnamese dipping sauce, nuoc cham .

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* Cha Chien: Basically, cha chien is the same as gio lua , but instead of being formed into a sausage shape and steamed in a banana leaf, cha chien is shaped into a square patty and deep-fried. Like gio lua , the meat is offered in sandwiches and on an assorted cold-cut appetizer plate called seven-course appetizer.

One young Vietnamese says she's found a new way to eat cha chien: "Cut a half-inch piece, warm it in a microwave about 30 seconds and put it in a hot dog bun with a little barbecue sauce. It's delicious."

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* Cha Bi: Cha bi uses the basic meat mixture as for gio lua except that it is blended with a few fine slivers of seasoned and cooked pork skin. The Vietnamese love the skin's slightly resilient texture. While pork skin may sound less than appealing, it is barely detectable in this flavorful cold cut.

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* Doi Gio Heo: Made from pork hock that has been cured in a manner similar to ham, the sausage-like doi gio heo is wrapped in a thin, translucent covering of pork skin. When it's thinly sliced it has a beautiful pattern.

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* Pate Gan: A liver pate like the old-fashioned, home-made country variety found in France, pate gan is usually eaten spread on French bread. It is also a popular, but optional, ingredient in the Vietnamese hoagie.

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* Gio Thu: Quite simply, gio thu is head cheese, almost identical to a European head cheese. It is made the classical way from pork snout and ears formed in a square mold. Thinly sliced, gio thu is light and refreshing on a French roll garnished with Vietnamese marinated vegetables.

MISCELLANEOUS

* Vietnamese Meatball Mix: In addition to cold cuts, Tay Ho makes a well-seasoned, garlic-laced Southeast Asian-style meatball mixture. It's labeled with the Vietnamese name nem nuong , but it's popular with Laotians and Kampucheans too. The mixture is formed into one-inch balls, threaded onto a skewer several at a time and cooked over charcoal.

A popular accompaniment for the meatballs is banh hoi , the rice noodle cake described above. But rice paper or even plain rice do nicely too. As with all grilled dishes, the herb and lettuce tray and nuoc cham dipping sauce are standard. To eat nem nuong , wrap a meatball in a piece of rice paper or noodle cake topped with lettuce and herbs and dip in the sauce.

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* Flours and Flour Product Mixes: T & T carries all those exotic flours such as sweet potato starch, tapioca flour, taro starch and wheat starch (not flour) that are seldom seen in Western cooking. Besides these are prepared mixes--the Asian equivalent of biscuit or blueberry muffin mix--used for Asian specialty dishes. Most are manufactured here in California and packed in heavy plastic bags. Nowadays the English instructions are better than they used to be (although the syntax could still use some work).

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* Banh Xeo Mix: Banh xeo mix comes with a pouch of turmeric, which you add along with water and coconut milk. The resulting banh xeo , made primarily of rice starch, is an egg-yellow pancake that looks exactly like a folded omelet.

The filling for these cakes is made of ground pork and vegetables. Directions may be found in "The Classic Cuisine of Vietnam" by Bach Ngo and Gloria Zimmerman and in "The Simple Art of Vietnamese Cooking" by Binh Duong and Marsha Kiesel. A quickie filling is julienne of Chinese barbecue pork, a few cooked shrimp, and a few bean sprouts, sprinkled with garlic-seasoned fish sauce, minced scallion and fresh coriander leaves.

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* Shrimp Chips: These airy chips, made from tapioca starch and ground shrimp, show up as a delightful, crunchy garnish on all sorts of Southeast Asian dishes. Known as krupuk udang in Indonesia, they are served there with just about everything. In Vietnam, where they're called banh phong tom , they often accompany salads. The chips accompany drinks as an appetizer or can simply be a snack.

You can buy the Indonesian or Vietnamese variety uncooked. These need to be deep-fried about 12 seconds in two or more inches of 350-degree oil.

But T & T carries ready-to-eat shrimp chips made by Golden Pacific Foods in the City of Industry, and they've captured the American marketplace style. The chips come in several flavors: onion and garlic, sour cream and onion, and barbecue shrimp. Their snack food-style bags carry the suggestion: "Don't be a litter bug; keep America beautiful."

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Banh Mi, the Vietnamese French bread sandwiches, must always include a thin smear of mayonnaise, the cold cuts of your choice, a few sprigs of fresh coriander and a layer of these marinated vegetables. Some people like to add a few thin slices of jalapeno chile.

MARINATED VEGETABLES FOR VIETNAMESE-STYLE SANDWICHES

2 large carrots, cut into medium julienne or into strips with serrated vegetable cutter

1 piece daikon or jicama equal to amount of carrots, cut into medium julienne or into strips with serrated vegetable cutter

4 cloves garlic, sliced lengthwise

2 cups water

3 tablespoons white vinegar

3 tablespoons sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

Dipping Sauce

Place carrots, daikon and garlic in ceramic or glass bowl. In another bowl combine water, vinegar, sugar and salt. Blend well and pour over vegetables. Marinate several hours, then drain. Serve chilled with Nuoc Cham. Makes about 4 cups drained vegetables.

Dipping Sauce (Nuoc Cham)

1 tablespoon white vinegar

1 tablespoon water

1 to 2 small red fresh chiles, minced, or 1 teaspoon dried chile flakes

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup bottled fish sauce (nuoc mam)

1/4 cup fresh lime juice

2 garlic cloves

3/4 cup grated carrot or shredded carrot

Heat vinegar with water in small pan. If using dried chiles, add them now. Remove pan from heat. Stir in sugar. Add fish sauce and lime juice. Stir well.

Squeeze garlic in press or crush in mortar and add to pan. When sugar is dissolved, stir in fresh chiles and carrot.

Serve at room temperature. Store in jar in refrigerator up to 3 days.

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T & T Market in Diamond Square, 8150 E. Garvey Ave., Rosemead, (818) 573-3699. Open 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

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