All About Food: O.C. a great source of pan-Asian markets

On our foray into ethnic markets, we discovered so many interesting places that we were forced to complete our survey with yet another article. This time, we are looking at Asian markets. Actually, these markets are all pan-Asian, but each focuses on the food of a particular country. In our area, there are Chinese and Japanese markets, but very nearby in Westminster are many Vietnamese markets, while Irvine has an excellent Korean one.

The most well-known is the Chinese-owned 99 Ranch Market at 18081 Magnolia St. in Fountain Valley that has ingredients from the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia as well as Japan, Vietnam, Korea and, of course, every region of China. Their newest branch is a spanking clean, enormous space in Fountain Valley. If you have never visited one of these markets, their most spectacular feature is the large tanks filled with live crabs, lobster, clams, carp, tilapia, catfish and bass. You can take the fish home live, have it filleted or even have it deep-fried.

In the cold cases are many other varieties of fish from all over the world, some that you won't easily find elsewhere, both wild and farmed — for instance, white and golden pomfet (pompano) or sheepshead, which incidentally feed on shellfish, giving them unique flavor. In the frozen section is more exotica: whelks, periwinkles, eel, abalone and sometimes frog's legs.

Frozen cases abound with familiar and unusual items such as squab, deer, rabbit, duck tongues, beef testicles and pizzles, as well as an enormous variety of dumplings, lumpia and other dough-wrapped foods.

You can get chicken eggs at Albertsons, but here the adventurous can pick up duck eggs fresh, preserved or 1,000 years old. Every style of fresh wheat noodle is available, as well as dried rice and bean thread noodles, which can all be used in stir-fry dishes or soups.

The plethora of soy and fish sauces is only equaled by the variety of Chinese cooking sauces, including char-chiu barbecue, hoisin, black, brown and hot bean sauces, plum, oyster, sweet chili and sriracha. Forty years of roaming around Chinese markets and Elle has yet to fathom the breadth of options available, making it an ongoing education. A tip from Elle: Mushroom soy sauce has a deep, though not salty, flavor that intensifies the taste of ordinary mushrooms so they can be used in dishes that call for fancier mushrooms.

At the in-store Asian deli, you can get roast pork, whole soy sauce chicken and Peking duck, etc., to take home. The deli also features Chinese food, dim sum and sushi.

Mitsuwa, a Japanese market at 665 Paularino Ave. in Costa Mesa, has an entire food court where hungry shoppers feast on noodles of every description: ramen, udon, soba and even Italian spaghetti. They also have bento boxes, sushi and other kinds of Japanese foods as well as dim sum, but we think this is the place to slurp Japanese noodles.

Just as in Japan, there is a vast assortment of beautifully wrapped sweets of all description and a bakery that has mostly French-style pastries and breads. A tea shop offers an amazing selection of green and black teas and a daily tea for tasting.

In the produce department, you will find a wonderful assortment of mushrooms: shitake, oyster, bura shumeiji, enoke daki and maitake. There are lotus roots which are delicious sliced and deep-fried, peeled fresh bamboo shoots and burdock root for crunch in stir fries, a wide a variety of greens (try chrysanthemum leaf instead of spinach) and our favorites, shiso or perilla (a kind of mint leaf) and lime leaves for flavoring soups and stews. Exotic fruits include fresh kumquats, sugar plums and the beautiful, if not always sweet, dragon fruit. You will also find an array of pickled vegetables in the cold case.

Thinly sliced beef for sukiyaki or Korean bulgogi is one of the specialties in the meat department, and miso marinated fish is also excellent and different.

We've only touched the surface of all that's on offer, so go exploring!

ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at m_markowitz@cox.net.

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