In the mood for pickled banana blossom? How about preserved duck eggs, bean paste pastries or perhaps the famously foul durian fruit? These can all be found at Salem's A Dong Market, along with a wide selection of Asian spices, dried mushrooms, frozen whole fish and fresh herbs. Several friends met me at “The Dong” today and together we spent almost an hour perusing the tiny store, examining labels, smelling the herbs and ogling the giant woks, bowls and rice steamers and the gorgeous dinnerware.
We each walked away with a thrilling bag full of imported goodies. Some purchases were clearly made for the sake of novelty, but A Dong carries some more familiar fare as well, and often at much better prices than can be found in a regular grocery or natural foods store. Asian staples such as lemongrass, galangal, sesame seed, chili paste and cilantro are very inexpensively priced, as is their extensive selection of dehydrated mushrooms. Vegetarians and vegans with and adventurous spirit will find a wide array of canned and jarred meat analogues in various shapes and flavors. I spotted mock abalone, turtle, pork and chicken, as well as something slightly resembling a styrofoam chicken egg which was labeled “vegetarian yam.”
The store appeared to be clean and the clerk was friendly, if somewhat perplexed by the oohs and ahs of a half dozen foodies extolling the virtues of various styles of mochi. I was slightly disappointed at the selection of frozen foods on this visit, but I think it's rather hit or miss. Sometimes the wall-length freezer case is bursting with seafood, various meatballs, and whole frozen fruits and vegetables. Today the selection was spartan, and my friend Jacob, who is always on the lookout for good spices, was especially disheartened to find the box marked “kafir lime leaves” empty, with the exception of a few stems and crumbs. But overall he was charmed by the store and its offerings, as was the rest of the group.
I caught myself thinking more than once that I'd like to buy one of everything, but I managed to narrow down my purchases to three, a pack of sesame crisps for my kids, a bag of something called snow crackers (which I bought because it had a cute bee on the label) that turned out to be an equally salty and sweet rice cookie, and my prize acquisition, a jar of European Formula Ovaltine. Manufactured in Thailand for Ovaltine International, this powdered malted drink mix bears little resemblance to what you find on most grocery shelves in America, and in fact the recipe for Ovaltine varies widely by region. As a malt fanatic, I was very pleased to find this super-malty, unsweetened version right here at home.
I was first introduced to the Dong by my dear friend Gabrielle, whose devotion to Badaifuku Mochi Rice Cakes brings her into the store frequently, despite the hefty price of eight dollars for a pack of six. A popular item at metropolitan Sushi bars, Gabrielle got hooked on the chewy, gelatinous little cookies while living in New York City. I guess you can't put a price on the taste of nostalgia or true love, which is why I'm headed back to the Dong tomorrow, to buy out the rest of the Ovaltine stock.