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Don't forget about small, local grocers too | Doug Trattner reports

Many Asian markets in Cleveland saw an even deeper drop off when the coronavirus first hit.

CLEVELAND — Like most grocery stores, Asia Foods Co. (3820 Superior Ave., 216-621-1681) at the Asian Town Center offers a dizzying array of fresh and packaged ingredients for the home cook. But take a closer look and you’ll discover a wealth of unique, hard-to-find and compelling foodstuffs found nowhere else in the city.

We stopped by the market with Andy Ng, founder of Ice or Rice (https://www.iceorrice.com/), a local startup that champions Cleveland’s Asian community through recipes, videos and food tours. One such tour is the Asian Grocery Tour & Tasting, which is currently on hiatus due to COVID-19.

“One of the unique things we do is host food tours inside our local Asian markets,” Ng explains. “We take people around, show them everything that is available, and then we follow it up with a tasting afterward. I consider these tours to be like a 101 course in Asian cuisine.”

Cleveland is fortunate to have a handful of amazing Asian groceries like Asia Foods Co., Park to Shop, Tink Holl, Good Harvest and Kim’s Oriental. While there is some overlap between these markets and the large national chains, the similarities are the exception rather than the rule. 

“A lot of the typical markets will only have one aisle of Asian ingredients,” Ng adds. “Here you’re going to find a great mix of Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese ingredients to work with.”

For home cooks eager to replicate the dishes found at their favorite Asian restaurants, or those tucked into the pages of that tantalizing Asian cookbook, markets like Asia Foods are indispensable.

“A lot of the ingredients that are considered absolutely essential in recipes, you will never see those items in a Western-style market,” reports Ng. “Seasonal fruits and vegetables like dragon fruit from Thailand, durian from Malaysia and kaffir lime leaves essential in curries.”

Not only is the selection of Asian ingredients considerably more varied than at your friendly neighborhood Giant Eagle, Heinen’s or Dave’s, but those ingredients are also typically fresher and less expensive because they move so much faster, asserts Ng.

“Their produce is super-fresh because ingredients like garlic, ginger and others get used up and replenished really quickly,” he says, adding that these markets supply most of the Asian restaurants in Northeast Ohio.

That translates to prices often one-third or even one-quarter the prices elsewhere.

Like all businesses in the midst of the pandemic, Asian markets are experiencing a loss of foot traffic. At least, says Ng, the situation appears to be leveling off.

“Near the beginning of the pandemic there was a lot of anxiety around visiting Asian markets like these, but now, with the shelter-in-place, it is affecting a lot of other businesses pretty equally,” he says.

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