Bai Jia Market --
looks like strange corn on the cob --
Friday we drive to Iowa City for our regular runs: the comic store to pick up Sallie's grandson's latest order, Artifacts and Decorum to drop off more of my stuff to sell, New Pi for lunch (salmon and tuna nigiri with Kevita blueberry and black cherry kombucha) and a few grocery items (pasture raised eggs and 5 lbs. of Chinese raw pumpkin seeds). As we're driving along the Coralville strip, I mention that I've always wanted to see what's in the Bai Jia Asian Market. Sallie says why not stop now? I pull a hard right and park as close to the entrance as I can get. Heat index over 100 F (38 C), no shade in the parking lot.
Inside, the first thing that bombards our senses is the smell, like dead fish. Sure enough, right by the door, two wooden bushel baskets full of dead crabs. Oops! One of them moves a feeble claw. I feel a wave of pity for the poor crabs, though I don't feel the same remorse for the frozen fish we come across later. Strange how we humans can entertain two opposing feelings/beliefs at the same time.
We start our tour at the front of the store where you can find a little bit of everything non-edible: conical rice hats, chopsticks, plastic flyswatters, tiered bamboo steamers, wooden sushi rollers, steel woks, blue and white dragon and phoenix bowls, tea infusers, Mah Jong sets (If only they had a Go set!) Next, a section of tea and coffee: oolong, matcha, lotus root, Vietnamese coffee.
Rice comes in large bags, including sweet rice. Many kinds of noodles, from lomein to ramen to udon. A variety of flours, including plantain and stone ground white corn meal. Everything is in colorful packages.
One whole wing of the store has aisles packed with a huge selection of snacks, including seeds, nuts, dried fruit, shrimp chips, rice cakes, candy with funny names.
Unusual flavored bottled and canned drinks: Malta India (is that a beer or a ginger beer?) and Basil Seed. In Thailand a drink made with basil seed, called nam mangdak, made with sabja seeds and honey is the equivalent of summer lemonade. Wish I'd tried a can!
Many snacks with Asian taste combinations, like Almond Fish, slivered almonds with dried sardines.
Freeze-dried fish you won't find at Hy Vee, like Squid Fin Fillet.
In the produce section I recognize the contents of some of the boxes: lychee, eggplant, bitter melon, Chinese cucumber, giant African yams, plaintain.
Some are familiar with unfamiliar neighbors. Those are bags of peanuts, but what are those coiled black things on the shelf above them? Oh, dried fish!
A box of what looks like giant ears of corn with rainbow-colored husks turns out to be banana flowers. I look this up and find some photos: a flower hanging down from a bunch of green bananas, a cross-section of a flower and the small florets hidden inside. Popular as a culinary dish in India and Thailand, banana flower is said to have medicinal value in the treatment of diabetes and menstrual disorders.
In the refrigerated section, I'm entranced by the packets of dim sum, which literally means "to touch your heart." These small dumplings are traditionally served in the Chinese ceremony called yum cha, "drinking tea."
Just as we're winding up our tour, I discover two charts with pictures and, most importantly, the names in English of the different produce. That's how I learn that the strange corn on the cob is banana flower.
On a white wall next to the frozen food case hangs a large red endless knot. This symbol and the color red are associated with prosperity and good fortune. Through the display of this ancient symbol, the Jade sisters who own the store are making sure that their business does well.
We end our journey at the checkout counter. Sallie buys two boxes of tea and I purchase a small bottle of Hot Pepper Sauce made in Jamaica, for my brother who loves HOT peppers. So we end our "artist's walk" for the week, with a tour de force of colors, shapes, textures, tastes (at least in our imagination) and unforgettable smells.