With its celebrated Night Market, huge menu of authentic international restaurants and recent anointing by the New York Times as North America’s best destination for Asian food fans, Richmond’s culinary scene is an endless buffet of amazing eats. But that’s no surprise to locals, who’ve long known it as a belt-busting hotbed for both adventurous dining and food stores that sell a cornucopia of intriguing ingredients.

If you don’t live here, though, it can be tricky to get the inside track on the food store scene. The solution? Follow the locals to the Yaohan Centre, which was one of Richmond’s first Asian shopping malls when it opened in 1994. If you’re a visiting foodie with a few hours to spare or a Lower Mainlander craving some new ingredients for your kitchen, it’s the perfect spot to spend some time.

Not exactly an expert chef myself, I visited the mall’s ever-busy Osaka Supermarket with my local friend Carol. Modestly describing herself as “an above average cook,” she walked me around the aisles and introduced me to several ingredients that every foodie should look out for when they visit.

Spices

There’s a huge array of packaged spices dominating one of Osaka’s aisles—and they’re perfect for experimenting with Chinese cooking at home. Mostly under the Flying Swallow brand name, these small packets include everything from bay leaves to green pepper corns and from dried whole red chilies to craggy sections of cinnamon bark.

“The trick to using the hottest spices is that you want them to create a bit of numbness on your tongue but not in your stomach,” says Carol wisely, adding that “You should also buy some dried cinnamon—it goes really well with pork.”

Osaka SupermarketThere's a cornucopia of spices to check out. | Photo: John Lee

Chili Sauces

“You don’t usually find this kind of selection in the US,” says Carol, pointing towards a kaleidoscopic array of mostly small jars crowding several shelves. Some of them look frighteningly fiery—including one bright red jar labeled “Spicy Chilli Crisp” that contains a volcanic-looking solution of seeds and red chili flecks.

But as with many unfamiliar ingredients, judicious usage is the key to success. “If you want to spice up any of your dishes, you just need a teaspoon of these kind of sauces. But it can make a big difference to the flavour,” says Carol.

Osaka SupermarketThere's a huge array of chili sauces to consider. | Photo: John Lee

More Sauces

Next, Carol leads me to Osaka’s aisle four to show me the hot pot soup bases. “Most foodies would love to make their own hot pot and this makes it very easy,” she says.

But she quickly expands her recommendations here to include the entire aisle, which is lined on both sides with an impressive array of easy-to-use sauces in jars and bottles. There’s everything from special seasoning sauces to bottles of black vinegar. And there are plenty of diverse soy sauce varieties to check out as well. “A real cook would use different soy sauces for different dishes,” notes Carol, pointing to varieties like steamed fish soy sauce and multi-grain soy sauce that I’d never even heard of.

Osaka SupermarketHot pot dipping sauces. | Photo: Crystal Solberg

Dried Mushrooms

Showing me some nearby jars of pickled tofu—“add a little bit of this to your stir-fried vegetables and you’ll get a lot of flavour”—and then pausing to check out the Japanese candy aisle (unusual Kit Kat varieties recommended), we next head to an aisle piled high with bags of dried mushrooms.

“If you’re really into Chinese food, these are a must for your kitchen,” says Carol, adding that you simply soak them in warm water for 20 minutes and then slice them as usual. “Or you can try the dried snow fungus. It’s a dessert—you soak this one in cold water—and it’s also really good for your skin!”

Osaka SupermarketDried mushrooms are a staple of most Chinese kitchens. | Photo: John Lee

Self-serve Alternatives

By this stage, I’m a little bewildered by all the sage cooking advice. And although I’m tempted to try some of Carol’s suggestions for myself, I’m also fond of the easy route to filling my stomach.

Luckily, Osaka has a great selection of quality house-made snacks and dishes to take away, from mushroom and chicken rice dumplings wrapped in banana leaves to a piled-high buffet with many intriguing platters. But the best option here, says Carol, is the sticky rice roll, fresh-made with your own choice of fillings—especially if you add a cake from the supermarket’s tempting bakery area, she suggests.

Osaka SupermarketThere's a great selection of prepared food to-go. | Photo: John Lee

Final Tips

Carol’s best advice for cooking some Asian dishes at home? “It’s probably best if you get yourself a Chinese friend! But, for a plan B, there are also lots of how-to cooking videos on YouTube.” There’s also no need to slavishly follow tradition. “I would encourage everyone to experiment and make your own dishes with these ingredients—you don’t have to just copy the way it’s always been done. And it can be much more fun that way.”