I will never forget the exact moment I first tried Asian food. I was 13-years-old and I found myself sitting in a Chinese restaurant in the port town of Le Havre, France on a rather dismal night. Staring at the menu in a language I had little grasp of, I read over a whole array of exotic sounding dishes I had never encountered before.
Actually, getting me in the restaurant had been a feat in itself. I was somewhat of a picky eater, but with my parents patience worn thin, I ordered the Chicken and Cashew Nut and tentatively took my first bite. It was at this serendipitous moment that my love affair with Asian food, and cooking in general, began.
Britain, being the multi-cultural hot pot that it is, afforded me an opportunity to experience the best food Asia had to offer. From fiery Indian curries to the complex layering of flavors in Thai food, I greedily ate up everything and anything placed before me. As I grew older and began to travel, my palate took me on a culinary awakening. So, when the company I was then working for decided to send me to Korea, the thought of the myriad of gastronomic possibilities that awaited overwhelmed me with anticipation. On arrival, however, I was, to put it bluntly…a little disappointed.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Korean food. I love their warm stews and broths. I love the social aspect of Korean barbeque. But the cuisine of other nations is sorely lacking or nonexistent in Korea. I therefore had to wait for trips back home to fill my suitcases full of ingredients. That is, until someone told me of the existence of an Asian supermarket right here in Busan.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Korean food. I love their warm stews and broths. I love the social aspect of Korean barbeque. But the cuisine of other nations is sorely lacking or nonexistent in Korea.
My first trip to Sasang’s Asian supermarket was like bumping into an old friend. The shelves were stacked high with ingredients I thought I would never see again. Cardamom pods, cumin, ghee, basmati rice, lentils, fresh lemongrass and coriander, even lamb. I had everything I needed to get reacquainted with my favorite foods right there in that little shop.
Over the years, as the foreign population of Busan has grown (including migrant workers from other parts of Asia), the number of stores carrying my favorite ingredients has also grown. According to my last count, there are now four in Busan. All of them sell pretty much the same fare, but in each there is always a surprise waiting for me: shallots; Thai bird’s-eye chillies; tamarind; shrimp paste and even bags of salt and vinegar potato chips. One of the best bargains I’ve found is a 10kg bag of Thai Jasmine Long Grain Rice for $15, which is considerably cheaper than Korean rice.
Most of the owners of these supermarkets are from South Asia. The owner of the newly opened Shahjan Mart hails from Balochistan, a Pakistani province on the border with Iran. He will be a familiar face to anyone who has bought a kebab from the van outside Family Mart in Kyungsung on a Saturday night.
The first and original foreign foods store in Busan, Asia Mart (the one I first visited all those years ago), has recently undergone a massive expansion and face-lift. It’s probably the easiest to shop in, but I always make a point of buying something from all the stores during my visits to Sasang, including Asian Food Mart and New World Mart.
Of course, times have changed and most supermarkets now have a small Foreign Foods Section. But if you want a place where you can find everything you need, there is nothing more gratifying than a trip to Sasang. Trust me, it’s worth being able to crush up lemongrass, chillies and galangal to make your own green curry or to take in the aroma of black cardamoms, cinnamon and cloves sizzling in a pan. For me, the time I’ve spent browsing the aisles of Sasang’s Asian supermarkets has always been rewarding.
Three of the Asian supermarkets are located on Beon-gil in Sasang with the fourth mart right around the corner. All have English speakers working the counter and stocking the shelves.
Asian Food Mart
New World Mart