The Asia Supermarket on the corner of Agincourt Avenue and the Ormeau Road is an Aladdin’s Cave of delights. It is a hulking, windowless, rectangular block, which is partially obscured on the Ormeau side by dusty Rowan trees, and thick shrubs. As you face the building on the avenue, you can see a small, unobtrusive blue shop door; it is dwarfed by the maw of the warehouse next door. As you step inside, you leave the soft, sedate, Victorian red-bricked terraces behind, and enter a different world. It is a harshly-lit hive of activity. There is a large opening into the warehouse, where brown-coated grocers shout to each other in Chinese, while forklifts buzz to and fro behind them. In the shop itself are families from all corners of the globe, negotiating their way through the tight aisles, their trolleys piled high.
On the shelves you can find: packets of spices, Earthenware pots of preserved cabbage, jars of chilli oil and curry paste, sesame treats, pomegranate molasses, still-warm glutinous rice balls wrapped in lotus leaves, unfamiliar-named tinned fish, porcelain tea-sets, fresh Fenugreek in bunches, Turkish olives, chicken’s feet, dried black fungus, powerful Indian incense, luminous yellow pickled radish, bottles of hot red banana sauce, Sake, dried jellyfish, a whole row of brightly-packeted instant noodles, shiny new woks, Sushi rice in sacks, pork belly, Sumak, Halva with Pistachio nuts, syrupy Gulab Jamun, and green tea. Piled up in large bins are the essentials: ginger root, chilli peppers of all shapes, to be grabbed by the handful, onions, garlic, perfect deep-purple aubergines, lemon grass and coriander in bunches. The freezers hold dim sum in trays, Bangladeshi river fish, pancakes for Peking Duck, gaudy boxes of Torpedo Shrimp in breadcrumbs, and a selection of spring rolls. Every visit is an adventure; exploration is always rewarded with a new delicacy or temptation. If you want it, they’ve got it.
Today, my recipe requires tofu. I have never cooked with tofu before, but the picture in my new book looks very tempting, so I have decided to give it a go. I am defeated though. Search as I may, I cannot find what I’m looking for: it seems that for once they haven’t got it. Eventually, I ask one of the shop-workers, a pretty, young Chinese woman, where I can find the tofu. Delivered on Thursdays, she tells me in a Belfast accent; come in early tomorrow to make sure you get some before it all goes. I thank her and move on. I now have a problem: my heart is set on my delicious noodles; I want them tonight. After vacillating for a few minutes, I decide to try with preserved tofu, which I have seen on the shelf near the Japanese pickled ginger. I browse through the various different jars; I can’t read any of the labels, which are in Chinese characters, so I have to guess their contents. In the end, I select an interesting-looking mélange of the pale, white, cubes in oil, with red chillies and other spices. Just the job. I work my way along the aisle to the counter, where I am served by the fierce Old Woman. I smile at her and say hello: there is no reply, just an intimidating frown. She starts to hoke through my basket, lifting out scallions, egg noodles, ginger, and bean sprouts, and passing them to the assistant standing next to me, who bags them up. Then, she gets to the tofu. She examines the label for a moment then looks up at me. No, no, no. she says, sternly, fixing me with a reproving stare through her thick, black-rimmed specs. You don’t want this. No good for you. I try to protest, nervously stammering a little: but… I like spicy food… She hands me the jar. No! You put this back. Good boy. And, since I am still hesitating: it stinks! It stinks! Go! I put the jar back, like a good boy, pay and leave. Tofu tomorrow, then.
Excellent customer service; you wouldn’t get that in a large supermarket.