Asian supermarkets — filled with great bargains on unusual greens, whole fish and Chinese imports — dot most major American cities nowadays. In Los Angeles, I’d heard of 99 Ranch Market, over the hill from me in the San Fernando Valley. I was always curious about it but never quite made it there. My excuse: traffic on the notorious 405 Freeway. The real reason? Intimidation. Then my friend Dana Boldt offered to be my guide. Dana’s a practitioner of Chinese herbal medicine and a great cook; she knows local Asian food stores so well she gives tours. So I jumped at the chance, even offering to drive.
The market is big and bright, more Costco than Whole Foods, with long butcher and fish counters, a prepared foods section and an enormous produce department. The aisles are filled with pickled vegetables and dried fish; clear, opaque, white and brown noodles; rice and unidentifiable grains; teas; dried roots and herbs; sauces and pastes made from chili, soy and fish; Asian cooking utensils and sweets. I had been right to feel intimidated.
But Dana led me around, showing me her favorite black vinegar (“the Chinese version of balsamic”); dark soy sauce (for “a depth of flavor the light soy sauce can’t provide,”) and pandan-flavored soybean pudding as she added them to her cart. (The pandan, also called “screw pine pandanus,” is a tree that grows in tropical areas of Asia. Its bright green leaves are pounded into a floral-tasting juice or paste and used as flavoring.) Dana, who studied Chinese in college, translated labels and the cooking instructions on packets of dried herbs and noodles. Goji berries, which you can find at Whole Foods at a much higher price, are “great for anemia, low energy, irritability,” she says. “You can throw some in trail mix with walnuts and almonds. They also have protective effect on the liver.” I placed a few somewhat familiar items in my cart: prepared scallion pancakes (even though Dana swore they were easy to make from scratch), a litchi soda for my daughter and an all-purpose Chinese fish sauce.
Most of the people hurrying down the aisles here are Asian, though I noticed a few Anglo and Hispanic shoppers at the meat counter and in the produce section. After inspecting a package of preserved duck eggs, I was embarrassed to find a butcher watching me, clearly amused by my bewilderment. I got the impression he sees a lot of us wide-eyed neophytes. He and his colleagues probably make sport of spotting us.
There were many, many things that didn’t make it into either of our carts and probably never will: chicken feet, pork uterus, beef lips, those preserved duck eggs, fresh pork blood and Veggie Golden Ham, a pressed log of taupe paste. The Virginia Smithfield ham used in many Chinese and American recipes is a true bargain here — just $3.99 a pound — but is sold only by the whole, enormous haunch. I’ll remember it when I’m planning a big party.
Taiwanese immigrant Roger H. Chen opened the first 99 Ranch store in Westminster in 1984. The chain now has 25 stores throughout California and a few others scattered across Nevada, Washington and Texas. Its Facebook page has 2,767 fans, including me.
Unless a Chinese cooking class I took years ago counts, I’d never really prepared Asian food. My first trip to 99 Ranch inspired me to try. I now felt confident enough to go back again on my own. I prepared for my first solo trip by downloading a $1.99 application for my iPhone called Cook Chinese that seemed to have authentic recipes. Maybe too authentic—the Beijing Duck has you start by pulling out the duck’s tongue. But the Bang Bang Chicken looked like something I could handle (it starts with boneless, skinless chicken breasts). I strolled the aisles picking up my ingredients: chicken, mung bean noodles, sesame oil, chili oil, sesame paste, garlic, bean sprouts, scallions and ginger. I added other goodies to my cart (including a wok and wooden chopsticks) and still walked out for less than $50.
That night, I made the Bang Bang. I poached the chicken in a simple broth flavored with scallion, ginger and garlic, then cooked the noodles and the soybeans in it. I julienned the cooked chicken and tossed it with chili sauce, sesame paste and some soy sauce. The noodles got a splash of sesame oil. I layered everything on top of lettuce leaves and served the creation on my new 99 Ranch plates. My husband was delightfully surprised with his home-cooked Chinese meal, and I was very pleased with myself. I’ll be going back to 99 Ranch.
For the market nearest you, visit the 99 Ranch website. Arrange a tour of 99 Ranch or other Asian markets with Dana Boldt by contacting her here. For those new to Asian cooking, Boldt recommends cookbooks by Ken Hom and the “Quick and Easy” series published by Japan Publications Trading.
Photos, from top: Dana Boldt at the 99 Ranch Market; Package of preserved duck eggs; Bang Bang Chicken. Credit: Christy Hobart.