About three blocks east of Union Square stands Asia Market, the unassuming retail branch of Chinatown’s Asia Market Corp, a largely wholesale operation that has long served as a chef favorite with their comprehensive lot of food products culled from East and Southeast Asia. Naomi Kwong, the 26-year-old granddaughter and daughter of the original owners, had the idea for the new store, which officially opened last May. “This neighborhood has a lot of memories [for my family],” says the NYU graduate, who attended high school in the neighborhood while growing up further downtown in Chinatown. “It’s not like all the hustle and bustle of [other parts of] NYC—it’s all locals, and everyone’s super friendly and welcoming.”
The original Asia Market Corp opened in 1988—an auspicious year, as the Chinese word for “eight” rhymes with the word for “wealth”—and quickly established itself within the restaurant industry, making twice-daily deliveries throughout the city. Kwong’s grandfather and father emigrated to the Lower East Side from China in 1966, and backed the original market for an uncle to run, with her parents taking over in 2006.
“You know the traditional [immigrant] parents where they work really, really hard for their kids?” asks Kwong. “I wanted to step in and help them. I was working at this hotel near Central Park, and I felt I was plateauing there, so I quit my job. I really feel this place has a lot of potential. Up here [in Gramercy], it will hopefully be a shop for everyone to gather, for the locals.”
Kwong’s previous experience in hospitality comes in handy in guiding customers through the otherwise mystifying riot of condiments, snacks, and exotic ingredients lining the shelves. “I even taught one grandma how to text her daughter an image,” she says. It’s easy for the most accomplished cook to find themselves overwhelmed, considering the options here—there are fish sauces from Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines, and even a newer brand called Red Boat, which Kwong decided to bring in after fielding multiple requests for it down in Chinatown. “It’s supposed to be the purest fish sauce out of all of these,” she says.
As knowledgeable as she is, Kwong’s always on the hunt for products customers might not find elsewhere, although the chances are pretty good she already carries it. “Next door at the dry cleaners, there’s an Indonesian person, and he came in and bought a drink that he loves, Mogu Mogu (a fruit juice with coconut jelly). He came up to me and asked, ‘Do you have Indomie?’ I instantly knew he was Indonesian, as Indomie (a popular brand of instant noodles) is very popular there. He’s become a repeat customer.” And if you fancy yourself a sriracha fan, she’ll try to steer you toward the real stuff from Thailand: “The Thai restaurants, they prefer the Shark brand,” she says. “It’s not as acidic, it’s smoother,” she says, comparing it to the ubiquitous rooster-adorned brand produced in California.
If bright packages of Asian snacks are as enticing to your palate as they are intimidating, Kwong is an essential advocate to understanding what lies within. “This is my favorite wall right here,” she says, gesturing from behind the register toward the opposing wall neatly organized with row after row of packaged sweet and savory snacks. “I wanted to bring things that some people were familiar with and also things that they never tried, so hopefully we can broaden their horizon and get them willing to try new things”—she smiles at the wall, just the slightest bit embarrassed—“I know all these snacks.”
February 16 marks the start of the Year of the Dog—or more accurately, it’s the 4,715th year according to the lunar calendar. Kwong selected products—a lucky cluster of eight—that should please any unfamiliar palate.
1) Tean’s Gourmet Crispy Prawn Chilli, $4
“This hot sauce is like a savior. If any of your meals are boring, just add this, as it’s really yummy. A lot of hot sauce is really acidic, like sriracha, or very liquid-y. This one’s more solid, and I like that it’s not as oily and gives a great crunch to every bite.” Try these on scrambled eggs or steamed vegetables, then go crazy from there.
2) Wangderm Sriracha Sticks, $4.25
“These keep selling out like crazy,” Kwong says. She now keeps these arranged on the snack wall closest to the front door, for repeat customers who need their fix—party snack and discussion piece, all in one.
3) Jack N Jill Ni Mang Juan Vegetarian Chicharrones, $2
“I opened up a bag of these to sample out, and I sold out of them like that.” Dehydrated green peas with the flavor of salt and vinegar create a texture indeed reminiscent of their animal product namesake.
4) Garden Pop-Pan Curry Crackers, $2.85
Another bestseller at the store, these thin, buttery crackers deliver a smooth, strong punch of spicy curry notes.
5) Combine Thai Foods Chopped Pickled Radishes, $2
These minced pickles are served often as a topping for congee, as they’ll liven up the texture and flavor of any mild, bland foods, including scrambled eggs and rice.
6) Sun Ming Jan Taiwanese Sausage, $6.25
The best introduction to Asian cured meats, these addictive sausages are sweet and savory, with a chew reminiscent of hearty slab bacon or dried chorizo. After cooking, try them thinly sliced on their own.
7) Spring Home Glutinous Rice Balls with Sesame Filling, $2.15
The Chinese version of mochi, tan yuan are chewy rice balls filled with a decadent black sesame filling that fans of halvah will swoon over. Sold frozen, they’re a quick dessert simply boiled in plain water and served like a soup. Tan yuan are often served at Chinese New Year family dinners, as—written out—the characters resemble the characters for the word “union.”
8) Jufran Banana Sauce, $1.45
A bit sweeter than regular ketchup and with a spicier option as well, banana sauce is the Filipino version of ketchup. “They didn’t have a lot of tomatoes in the Philippines, so they use bananas as a substitute.”