Given that lately my interests in food have gravitated more towards the East, I find myself at the Asian market quite frequently these days. And not just for those one or two hard-to-find ingredients (Gyoza skins, sweet glutenous rice flour, water spinach, Thai chilis  etc.) necessary for the authentic execution of a dish. And, yes, I get lost in the wonderland of soy sauces and peppy condiments or the sometimes impenetrable wilderness of the freezer section. Oftentimes I leave there with as many bags of dried mushrooms and shrimp and seaweed as I can carry (a lot as it turns out). Furthermore, I’ll never make chicken stock again without another staple: chicken feet and the rich gelatin that they impart.

Other than foodstuffs, though, the best local store here in Birmingham (Super Oriental Market on West Valley) has quite a selection of wares which are either exclusive to there in Birmingham or so much cheaper there that they certainly warrant a visit. Recent finds have included panda bear kids’ chopsticks which have made my finicky eater daughter excited about Chinese food as well as finer chopsticks ($3.99) that would be twenty or thirty bucks at a boutique-type store.

A tiny fine mesh strainer (a buck fifty each or 4 for $5) sits in my utensil bin and has become indispensible in my kitchen for those moments when I need to strain the hot liquid off something in a red-hot instant, but don’t have time to root around for the big one. And it’s much easier to clean. Good Japanese mandolins run about $15-20, and I recently got the best dumpling press that I’ve ever used: a tri-fold model for nine bucks.

Plus, you could start a chain of restaurants with the selection of specialty woks, cleavers, specialty dishes, rice cookers, etc. So even though in many towns Asian markets can be off the beaten path, the occasions to make the trip don’t have to be just to pick up one or two ingredients. It’s a great place for all sorts of kitchen and dining finds that can enhance the way you prepare and enjoy food at home on a regular basis.