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Into Market and Off the Shelf for a Taste of China

March 04, 1987|MIV SCHAAF

Loathe, absolutely loathe going to supermarkets. Get milk at the drugstore, bread ("used bread" Alfred used to call it) at the thrift outlet, coffee at the coffee store--this way I can postpone going to the supermarket for six or eight weeks.

Except I went to the supermarket last Saturday and the Saturday before that and I can't wait till I go next Saturday. There were drums and a dragon, see, when I was going back home after a singing lesson. Well, one stops to see a dragon.

This one, powered by boys in black shirts and pants, was dancing in front of the Hong Kong Supermarket in Monterey Park and it ended its head-shaking by spitting out lettuce leaves instead of fire with a fine flourish of firecrackers, those little red paper squibs that crackle close to the sidewalk just the way they did in the 1920s. Well, as long as I'm here, I may as well see what's in the market. What's in the market is a thrill-filled trip to foreign lands, China to be exact.

Here, stacked around what appears to be the liquor and cigarette department, is the lottery ticket stand and all sorts of gloriously designed paper boxes that will never reveal their contents unless you read Chinese. There are cards and chess games with wooden counters and powders and herbs and drugs.

And right next to this is the video department with cassettes to buy or rent, all in Chinese, and then a huge magazine department, with 10 or more different Chinese newspapers, tons of magazines and cartoon books and children's writing books that teach Chinese characters--I could write that one for a tree; you can figure out what the character is just by looking at the pictures, just like we do in English; in no time it seems quite natural to start at the back of the book.

And across from this intellectual fare--oh gosh, three bakeries. Round cakes, some embellished with red characters and you inspect them all wonderingly while you enjoy excellent French coffee. Radish cake, lotus seed cake, green bean pong, Hawaiian custard, a rice noodle thing that looks like bleached seaweed with red and green bits in it.

And now for the market proper. But wait--let's look at the bulletin board. Apart from a stray "apartment," "Nissan," or "3-bdr" in English, all the rest is in Chinese and the whole board is a perfect example of found art; each hand-written notice has its own distinctive artistic flavor, as carefully done as Chinese brush paintings. I spend more time here than I would at a modern art exhibit.

But on to the fish market: barrels of fresh periwinkles, black baby clams, ribbed brown clams that should be bought just to look at. And lobsters swimming in tanks and enormous pieces of fresh yellow rubbery octopus you wish you hadn't looked at. Very popular, though. And then the meat market with more cuts of pork than you knew there were, ducks with heads and black eyes--well, let's look at noodles. All kinds of noodles--bird's nest coils, long flat sticks, wriggly ones, frizzy ones as fine as hair, rice sheets, starch sheets--it would take a lifetime to find what you do with all these.

Cans of coconut milk, coconut gel, coconut jam; cans of sweet jackfruit, whatever that is, and then candy, candy that you never saw before: haw flakes, green pease hot, olive candy (green, rose or brown), prune candy.

A whole aisle of vinegars. But do not think that American foods have made no inroads here--there are Oreos, California chili powder, menudo mix, Spaghetti-o's, Campbell soups, Planter's peanuts.

We're in the dairy section now. Ye gods, gallons and quarts of soy juice, more than the regular milk. Yes, someday I must find out what you do with all that soy juice. And right next to frozen pizzas, some mysterious things: fresh durian (looking a little like pineapple), jute leaves, banana leaves, bean curd sheets--both thick and thin, salted jellyfish and something that looks like blocks of black granite.

Pots, pans, dishes, spoons, covered bowls with dragons, chrysanthemums, Chinese characters, cherry blossoms--even bamboo back scratchers, brass strainers and cooking pots, Laughing Cakes--and plastic containers of chrysanthemum tea and rice congee beverage. Dumpling skins, round, or square won ton skins and powdery white, green and pink rice balls. Salted asparagus beans--they look endless in their plastic packages, like green clotheslines.

I was there two hours. Better than a floor show, art show, fair and one of the nicest things floating over all; that Chinese music that is so oddly cheerful and plaintive at the same time.

When I left, loaded with groceries known and unknown, adventures ahead in eating, the dragon was dancing in front of the Kim Fung restaurant.

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