Words by Steffanie Tan Art by Melody Ou
There’s a distinct smell that hits me maybe two or three steps down a narrow aisle.
It’s a universal scent – thick and sort of sweet. The smell follows me everywhere I go but it’s not the only defining factor of an Asian grocery store.
Lighting is always harsh and at least one bulb is flickering. Upside down plastic crates will sit at the lip of an aisle. Sometimes you have to step onto the crates to reach for something higher up, sometimes staff are busy, sometimes they don’t have a stepladder.
Shelves almost appear to transcend the ceiling; all stuffed with things I recognise for its bizarre packaging that has nothing to do with its contents. There’s a row of Japanese packets, each decorated with a breed of dog – just sitting there smiling. Inside are salted, barbecued, and seaweed flavoured chips.
A lot of things are pickled and tightly sealed but the smell only gets stronger, probably because of the refrigerated durian at the back of the store. It sits next to an assortment of mochi, green-tea, and pandan flavoured ice-cream.
The deeper I go, the more I lose track of time and then suddenly I find myself crouching low to the ground, inspecting a line of pickled something. All their labels look the same but they aren’t. One is just spicy and one has the power to destroy me.
Nothing’s in English so it’s game of East-Asian Roulette.
When I was younger, my aunt from out of town would come and visit. These visits would often include her bull’s tongue soup – supposedly for good health.
A bull’s tongue is huge, the size of my hand, and through its plastic packaging I can still see something that vaguely looks like a vein. I can’t look at the tongue without thinking of my aunt chasing me around the house with it.
In another frozen section, someone opens the door and I am immediately slapped in the face with the smell of kimchi. No amount of packaging, no amount of anything could ever block the smell of fermented spicy cabbage.
It almost smothers the durian, almost.
I find all of these things and more at my local shopping centre in a new grocery store that stocks European and Asian products. The lights work fine and isn’t harsh at all and there are stepladders aplenty which is probably why it took me so long to go inside.
But one day as I was walking past I saw a whole Musang King durian, encased in yellow netting sitting proudly beside a suddenly bland looking bushel of apples. They were shipped here from Malaysia just a week before and only one was left.
On its right are dekopons – sumo oranges, literally named that way because they look like plump sumo wrestlers.
Nearby, I reach for a bitter melon. Its skin is shrivelled and tough but it’s a staple in mum’s shumai. Never had it taken me a five minute drive to find one.
When I step inside, there’s a distinct smell that hits me maybe two or three steps down a narrow aisle and I know I’m in an Asian grocery store.