First Oriental is a full-service grocery store at 6th and Washington streets, but in addition to its wide selection of ordinary foodstuffs, it also stocks tons of fascinating products that you can’t find in the average supermarket: lychee, jackfruit and other exotic produce, every kind of rice and noodle imaginable, an entire aisle of imported candies and cookies, quail eggs by the dozen, vats of seaweed crusted with salt, tripe, pig’s feet, frogs, eels, frozen fish (whole), and dozens of varieties of dumplings, fish balls, gyoza, and shumai. In other words, it makes shopping for a dinner date into an adventure of its own.
How cheap we talkin’: $10-$15 per person. Our total came to roughly $20, which included frozen dumplings, ingredients for noodle soup, and dessert.
Why this will impress your date: Did I mention the live frogs?
The Inside Game: Buy at least one thing you’ve never seen/eaten/cooked with before. Part of the fun is buying whatever looks intriguing, and making a meal out of it.
Score Extra Points: By carrying the groceries.
Next date: Anytime.
The first thing you will notice about First Oriental is that it is huge: you could easily spend an hour poring over packages of Japanese gummies and comparing variations of hot sauce. Then of course there are the live fish tanks which — in addition to fish — house crabs, eels, and frogs. Big ones. I didn’t particularly want to think about what fate would eventually befall these poor captive creatures, but at the same time, it was hard not to stare. After all, how often do you get to see live eels?
We didn’t go in with a list, but decided to work (loosely) from a recipe for Thai soup I found in a magazine. We also got frozen dumplings for an appetizer and picked out mochi wrapped Taro ice cream treats for desert. And as an unexpected bonus at the checkout, we were given a package of vanilla wafer cookies as a gift with purchase. Score!
Back at my place, we experimented with the broth – starting from stock and adding a bit of coconut milk, ginger chile sauce, and salt. The end result was, well…mixed. We had put the baby bok choy in too early, so it was woefully overcooked, but the oyster mushrooms we added were still very flavorful. I didn’t care for the taste of the won ton noodles (too doughy), and wish we had used rice or glass noodles instead. Oh well. We still had fun feeding each other spoonfuls of broth to taste, and laughing as we both tried not to grimace while eating the final product.
The dessert course was far more successful. We sliced up a perfectly ripe mango and ate that with the frozen mochi treats. These little mini-muffin sized balls had a slightly sticky slightly velvety feel, but were very tasty filled with Taro ice cream.
If we had wanted to make a whole night out of it, we could have watched something vaguely geographically appropriate like Bridge on the River Kwai or Hard-Boiled, but shopping and cooking was enough adventure for us for one evening.
Note: There is also an Asian Supermarket in Northern Liberties called Spring Garden Market at 400 Spring Garden. I haven’t been there yet, but the reviewers on Yelp seem to like it!