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

March 10, 1994|LINDA BURUM

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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