I was not prepared to turn 29, but like taxes, gray hairs and death, 29 is an inevitability. It’s a weird feeling. On one hand I’m finally aging into my personality, and on the other there’s a distinct sense of losing my youth.
To celebrate, I treated myself to a two-hour Asian Grocery Tour and Tasting experience from the creative minds of Andy & Jessie Ng. The married duo are behind Ice or Rice, a Cleveland-based start up that began as a vendor stall at Night Market Cleveland, a summertime street market that celebrates myriad Asian cultures found in Northeast Ohio. Though not trained chefs, the couple wanted to share their passion for Asian comfort food to their friends, neighbors, and all Clevelanders alike.
In 2017, Andy & Jessie expanded Ice or Rice to include a YouTube channel and grocery tours of the local Asian supermarket to people interested in learning about Asian comfort food, specifically with a focus on Chinese, Japanese and Malay cooking.
I first found Ice or Rice on Instagram while checking through the #nightmarketcle hashtag. I checked out the website and thought the grocery tour sounded cool, but I didn’t want to buy a seat just yet. Then a feature on Ice or Rice ran in The Plain Dealer, Cleveland’s local newspaper, and I knew I had to sign up ASAP.
I managed to snag one of the last spots on a late September tour, about two weeks after my birthday. The tour was $25 per ticket and included a thorough tour of Asia Food Co., one of the bigger Asian markets in Cleveland (located within Asian Town Center), and multiple rounds of taste tests at Andy and Jessie’s home less than a block away from the market.
The tour was extensive, circling the outside of the store focusing on fresh produce, meat, seafood, and specialty sauces and, of course, rice. Andy, who leads all of the grocery tours while Jessie cooks up a storm for the tasting back at their house, has an openness in his presentation. He’s got a few talking points about products he knows and uses a lot, but he’s also quick to answer on the spot questions. For example, when tour members held up produce and asked, “What is this?” he quickly identified the item, named a couple of dishes it’s used in, and gave an approximation of a flavor or texture with which the attendee maybe more familiar.
The tour helped familiarize me with a new to me grocery store, which I’ll definitely be hitting up since I can’t find a lot of the specialty produce items at my regular grocery store. For example, three types of eggplant outside of the regular/Italian eggplant that I find at my local store.
I seriously recommend checking out IceorRice’s YouTube channel, which is linked above. Jessie Ng is a terrific cook, which was the highlight of the tasting at the couple’s home. It began with a sampling of packaged snack foods that are popular across multiple Asian culture. Think shrimp chips, sesame crackers, Pocky, etc. It was an easy introduction for the tour attendees and our American palates. Then came tempura vegetables, which included the Chinese eggplant pictured below. Pretty sure I found my new favorite version of eggplant. Even after salting them, the big, Italian eggplants you find in the big chain grocery stores usually taste bitter to me. I am a fan of bitter, but whenever I prepare eggplant, I’m always left wanting. It almost always tastes like bitter, bland sponge. I blame that entirely on my lack of ability to prepare it. After tasting Jessie’s tempura eggplant, I’m giving it another try.
After the tempura vegetables, came the sauce tastings. We passed bottles of banana sauce/ketchup, vinegars, fish sauce, oyster sauce, and at least five different types of soy sauce. Before going on this tour, I’d heard about Japanese and Chinese soy sauces but had never really given it any serious consideration. As far as I’m concerned, I’m content with using the low-sodium soy sauce with the green cap.
To be perfectly honest, after tasting everything we did I’m not sure my tongue was up to the challenge of discerning one brand/type of soy sauce from another. But I can tell you that I absolutely believe it when Jessie explained about the different properties of tamari versus soy sauce and their different applications when it comes to flavoring. When I can afford to drop a load of cash on seven bottles of soy sauce — not to mention find room in my kitchen — I’ll do it. They even gave us a print out cheat sheet of their favorite soy sauces and what to use them in. I, of course, lost this immediately, so I guess I’ll have to go on another tour. C’est la vie!
The tasting ended with exotic fruit, culminating in the cracking open of a durian fruit. Durian, known for its potent fragrance of sulphur and old gym socks, is sold frozen to keep the smell at bay. It has a custard-like texture, and didn’t taste bad. It was kind of like a mix of banana and custard with a finish of green onion. Not horrible, but it doesn’t top my list of favorites. Andy told the group he likes durian when it’s made into ice cream, and that sounds like it would be a good use for the fruit. Maybe cut with some vanilla? I imagine that being a good treat!
If you’re in Cleveland, Ohio, and looking for a fun experience, I highly recommend taking the Ice or Rice grocery tour. It’s a fun experience that leaves you full and doesn’t break the bank.