The Best Vegan Buys at Your Local Asian Market

It’s always an adventure to visit an international grocery store. To see packages without a trace of English on them, or to find products you’ve never heard of. But sometimes, it can be just as overwhelming as it is fun.

Thankfully, in Birmingham, we have several Asian markets to choose from. My personal favorite is about the size of your average supermarket and dwarfs the competition. While I love how many options they offer, the first few times I visited, I would purchase only one or two items because I was equal parts overwhelmed by the amount of products and a little nervous to buy a grocery cart full of totally new things.

But one of the main reasons to visit an Asian market, besides just expanding your culinary horizons, is that they provide a huge range of familiar vegan-friendly products at a fraction of the prices found at regular grocery stores. This means you can happily fill your fridge, and pantry with wholesome, cheap foods during your next shopping trip.

Below are some of my favorite vegan food finds at Asian markets:

Tofu

A staple for the many Asian cuisines, you can find just about every type of tofu imaginable in the refrigerated section. Soft, silken, firm, extra firm, baked, fried, puffed, you name it, they probably have it. I usually buy the firm tofu, which rings in at around $2.50 per container and has 19 ounces of tofu. That’s about one and a half times the amount of tofu, for two-thirds of the price at a regular grocery store.

Jackfruit

This past year has seen jackfruit grow in popularity, with recipes popping up everywhere using it as a meat-substitute. And while you can purchase it already seasoned and prepared in most health food stores, you can get the canned stuff for significantly cheaper and customize it as you wish. At my local store, the jackfruit is in the canned fruits section near the coconut milk. Be sure to get the canned jackfruit in brine and not in syrup. Each can has about two servings (at least for the amount Peter and I eat) and rings in around $1.49 a piece. Then you can easily shred the jackfruit and dress is up for tacos, a baked potato topper, or whatever your little vegan heart desires.

Soymilk

Be warned, when buying soymilk at an Asian market, don’t be expecting the thin product from brands like Silk. Their non-dairy drink is very thick in comparison, with a much richer mouth-feel. It’s not something I would use for cooking or drinking straight, but a dollop in a mug of coffee does wonders, and it can make very moist baked goods. If you like the thick texture, most markets have adorable individual-size cartons, usually in fun flavors like chocolate or strawberry.

Meat Alternatives

It never ceases to amaze me how vast (and bizarre) the vegan meat alternatives are in my Asian market. In the frozen section is a collection featuring the likes of vegan ham tubes (see above), seitan shaped like an entire chicken, bite-size shrimp, tuna steaks, and more. In the canned section, you can find mock meats like duck or chicken, which are eerily similar, down to the lightly dimpled skin texture impressed upon the wheat gluten. And while I don’t eat meat alternatives all the time, sometimes it’s a nice change of pace, especially when serving omnivores who would prefer something closer to “the real deal.”

Sauces, Oils, and Vinegars

The majority of Asian grocery stores have an entire aisle dedicated to oils, vinegars, and various sauces or condiments. You can get cheaper versions of many commonplace products like oils (olive, canola, sesame) and vinegars (white, rice, apple cider). For sauces, if you’re like me and cook Asian food a lot, you can get huge bottles of soy sauce, sambal oelek, and sweet chili sauce for a serious bargain. And this is my favorite part of the store, not just because of the nice price points, but because there’s a world of new flavors to discover in the condiments aisle. Besides products that contain fish or oyster sauce, most are vegan-friendly. Try out a new chili paste, curry sauce, or new stir-fry base with dinner tonight. You might just find a new favorite.

East Coast Christmas – Philadelphia pt. I

Philadelphia was our first stop for our winter vacation. We got an awesome deal using Spirit airlines within certain dates ($40 total for both of us one-way) so we just chose to visit someplace we’ve never been! We flew in at night, so we started out early the next day to get a feel of the town. I actually took so many photos and we saw so much cool stuff that I had to break the Philadelphia part of the trip into two blog posts.

We stayed in Apple Hostel, which is directly in the center of town and great for walking every place. We were five minutes away from the Liberty Bell and really close to a PHLASH bus stop which will take you to all the “must visit” spots in Philadelphia.

The first thing on our list was some American history. We visited the President’s House which is a recreation of a mansion used by George Washington and John Adams in the 1700’s. You could see excavation sites where original parts of the house are still present.DSCF0035Right next to the President’s House is the Liberty Bell Center. It was free and only took a moment to get in through security, so it’s worth a quick stop if you’re nearby.

We took the time to read the informative displays, most of which were interesting, but others were a bit extreme with patriotism. One part described how emotionally inspired Americans are by the Liberty Bell and how soldiers have sacrificed themselves in war as they thought of the Bell. So a cool place to stop in, but take the displays with a grain of salt. I can personally say as an American that the Bell has not yet made me moved to tears or whatnot. 😉DSCF0042We couldn’t resist goofy Rocky poses at the Independence Liberty Center.

DSCF0058DSCF0051

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walking down the street to get to Reading Market Terminal we accidentally stumbled upon the Declaration House where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. We stopped so Peter could model for a bit.For lunch we stopped in at Reading Terminal Market, which is an amazingly chaotic market with multiple food vendors, produce stalls, craft stands, and more! We took a good half an hour to wander around before deciding on where to eat.DSCF0076There were a ton of adorable bakeries and candy shops with lots of treats ready for the holidays.DSCF0081There was even a Christmas train set up for the kids…DSCF0090… or adults who really like trains.DSCF0092After much deliberation, I settled on Nanee’s Kitchen which had an amazing aroma wafting from the stand. The nice young man behind the counter was extremely helpful and when I asked which dishes on display were vegan (due to a lack of labels/names) he pointed out six or seven different options on main dishes and then said all the rice choices were animal-free too. DSCF0098Peter was hankering to try a Philly cheese steak, so he braved the line at Carmen’s to get their seitan version.DSCF0101DSCF0097A really neat thing was that instead of an order number you got a playing card.DSCF0100Since it was fairly crowded in the Market and great weather outside, we ate at the little park across the street. DSCF0071I  had decided on a chickpea dish and okra in a tomato sauce over yellow rice. They included “salad” for free, which was just undressed shredded lettuce and carrots, but other than that the food was amaaazing.

The chickpeas were soft and perfectly spiced over flavorful fluffy rice that soaked up all the sauce from the beans. The okra was great too (probably the most delicious way I’ve ever eaten the vegetable) with a slightly spicy tomato sauce and a great texture that reminded me of the way it’s served in gumbo. Nanee’s was a good choice from an almost overwhelming variety of food stalls.DSCF0109Peter was thrilled with his seitan cheese steak. He chose American cheese and got all the fixin’s of broccoli rabe, sweet pickled peppers, spinach, onions, and mushrooms. The Reading Terminal Market was a very good first food-impression of Philadelphia.DSCF0105We walked through City Hall into the inner courtyard that was decorated for Christmas and had several street performers.DSCF0124DSCF0126One performer was a very entertaining (and hilarious) magician who seemed to specialize with knotted ropes.DSCF0134Afterwards, we visited JFK Plaza with the iconic LOVE sculpture and were pleasantly surprised to learn that a German Christmas market was taking place!There were a large amount of tiny stands with everything from handblown glass ornaments to little carved nesting dolls to knitted finger puppets. DSCF0140My pig obsessed self was not disappointed with the Christmas market which had a large amount of carved wooden pigs and ornaments scattered throughout the stalls.DSCF0142After getting our Christmas fix, we wandered down South Street, which was an equally sketchy and fascinating part of town with strange shops, restaurants, and bars. There was a decent amount of art spread throughout our walk too.DSCF0155DSCF0159DSCF0157I’m sure you’re just as surprised as I am that the Queen of Pop is now reading palms in Philly.DSCF0154One of the weirdest shops we ducked into was The Wooden Shoe, an anarchist bookstore. The coolest part is that the store is entirely run by volunteers and holds various discussion events open to the community.

The Wooden Shoe had a plethora of books, zines, and magazines with themes ranging from police brutality to feminism to (what a surprise) veganism. I also loved their kids section, which mostly focused on remaining true to yourself and reinforced the idea that nothing is wrong with being a black sheep.DSCF0163The main goal of our walk on South Street was to reach the Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, a mosaic art project by Isaiah Zagar that spans several city blocks. DSCF0202The Gardens are a chaotic and beautiful piece of art that requires viewers to take a good amount of time to process all the tiny details hidden amongst everything.DSCF0182DSCF0196We spent about an hour wandering around and noticing all subtle parts of the pictures.DSCF0200Another bonus is that it only cost a total of $10 for us to get in with student IDs! This was definitely my favorite part of our Philly trip.DSCF0177I had a hard time picking my favorite pictures, so here’s a small gallery you can click through to see extras.

For dinner we marched to China Town to eat at the totally vegan New Harmony Vegetarian Restaurant. This is a “Chinese” restaurant that is not authentic and highly American-ized, but honestly Peter and I enjoyed it because it was familiar to us due to growing up eating at Chinese buffets.

We got the dinner deal which included soup, an appetizer, main dish, and dessert. It was a huuuge amount of food for the cost and we left with enough leftovers for another meal.

Starting off we both got hot and sour soup, which was very tart with matchstick carrots and daikon with bits of tofu.DSCF0204Peter went for the spring roll and I got something I can’t remember the name of (even after looking at the menu again) but it tasted like a potato latke with cream sauce. The spring roll was just all-right but the “potato cakes” were great! Crunchy, salty, and creamy all at the same time.DSCF0205I went with an American-ized Chinese classic, sweet and sour chicken. It was just what I wanted. Chewy fried chicken in a thick syrupy sauce with chunks of pineapple and bell peppers.DSCF0206

Peter got the orange beef, which was creepily similar to real meat and served with broccoli mixed in.DSCF0208

We both forgot to specify which dessert we wanted, so our server brought out strawberry and pistachio ice cream, which we pretty much had no more room for at that point. Though I doubt it was made in-house, I really liked my pistachio ice cream because I’d never had it in my pre-vegan days and was always curious about what that would taste like. Overall, for those craving the American palate’s version of Chinese, New Harmony is a delicious and reasonably priced choice.DSCF0214Stay tuned for Philadelphia part II!

Cardiff

My time in Cardiff, Wales was very short — only one full day — but it was a lovely city with less hustle and bustle after coming straight from Liverpool.

The first place I visited was Cardiff Market, which was great because I got there early enough to avoid a big crowd. There was a wide variety of interesting stalls selling things like Indian spices, vintage records, palm readings, fresh produce, and (my personal favorite) the yarn shop. It was called the Wool Pack, but she had a massive collection of acrylic yarn (all of the shelves on the left side), from which I purchased a beautiful teal skein.

IMG_0201.JPG

IMG_0202.JPG

After getting lost (thanks, Google Maps) and having to ask for directions at a craft beer shop, my first food stop was at Crumbs Kitchen. It was worth the hassle though, because I had a very good lunch there. The first floor of the restaurant is a bit chaotic, due to that being where the orders take place, but there is a second story with extra seating away from the main crowd. I got the chili over brown rice, with rose lemonade and chocolate cake. The chili and rice was filling and just what I needed for keeping me warm on that dreary wet afternoon. The serving was huge though, and I ended up taking half away for my dinner later.

DSCN0340.JPG

I gotta admit, part of the appeal of Cardiff was being a Torchwood fan. I never managed to get into Doctor Who (though I still find Weeping Angels terrifying), but I was addicted to Torchwood when I found it in Netflix. Because of this, I decided to brave the rain and wind and march two miles from my hotel to the area where they shot the show. It was odd to look at all these buildings in real life when before I’ve only seen them in panoramic filmed shots. Definitely worth a trip if you’re a fan.

IMG_0206.JPG

IMG_0205.JPG

IMG_0207.JPG

A place you must visit in Cardiff is Cinnamon Sticks, an almost painfully adorable tea room shop. Everything ranging from the wallpaper to the servers’ outfits is either floral, pink, or dainty. I’m not a huge tea fan (unless it’s cold, sweet, and Southern), but I did partake in their cake, which is beyond amazing. I got a piece of their chocolate peanut butter masterpiece and can say that it was probably the best piece of cake I’ve ever had. The peanut butter frosting was the perfect amount of sweet and fluffy, and the chocolate cake was a rich spongy texture. I was sad I didn’t have time or the stomach space to try their savory vegan options, but I’ll just have to get them next time I go to Cardiff, since I will definitely be visiting Cinnamon Sticks again.

IMG_0203.JPG

IMG_0204.JPG