Urban Foraging: A trip through 99 Ranch Market, Richmond, CA

Although the “language” of cooking is essentially universal, the “vocabulary” itself can be very different. As a born-and-raised Westerner, some of the fundamental ingredients of Asian cuisine remain exotic to me, although cooking professionally and living in California have certainly both helped to foster my assimilation. Even so, I didn’t grow up in a household where shrimp chips and salty plum candy were the norm — it was more like Cheetos and chocolate chip cookies for us. I may have mentioned this anecdote here before, but my very recent appreciation for red miso paste actually began with a lemon-miso pork belly glaze, which we featured on the menu at Auberge du Soleil (if I remember correctly, the belly was part of the skate wing set, but maybe not). The glaze itself presented a tremendous yin-yang combination of dark miso earthiness and bright citrus acidity, and it demonstrated to me the delicious potential of umami-rich ingredients. It was an epiphany.

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I did some impromptu shopping at 99 Ranch Market in Richmond last weekend, and I picked up a few things that looked interesting. I plan on including each of these items as part of a stir fry, along with some additional vegetables (I’m considering scallions, snap peas and Napa cabbage at the moment). When the time comes to get cooking, I’ll begin with the mushrooms, giving them a nice crispy sauté in some rice oil, then I’ll add the sausage, the vegetables, the aromatics, and finally, the egg noodles. It’s simple cooking, from the soul, but with plenty of thought and consideration. These basic techniques are the language; the ingredients are merely the vocabulary. I don’t speak Chinese, but with enough umami in the dish, what can possibly go wrong?

Shredded deep fat fried pork.

Who wouldn’t buy a jar of shredded deep fat fried pork, seasoned with strips of nori seaweed and sesame seeds? This processed pork product reminds me of the shredded “beef jerky chew” that came in a round, plastic, tobacco-looking tin, giving kids of all ages some valuable “dipping” experience, but without the potential nausea of actual Copenhagen or Kodiak. Of course, if I’m ever caught free-basing bacon bits down in the Tenderloin, I’ll have to point to this stuff as my “gateway” drug.

On the back of the jar pictured above, the manufacturers recommend using this shredded-and-fried pork to (1) eat as a snack anytime, (2) sprinkle freely on salads or baked potatoes, (3) use as a filler for sandwiches or (4) serve withed cooked rice or noodles. It smells like potato chips and tastes like chicharron. And it’s about as healthy as either. I’m opting mainly for option (4), but possibly option (1) as well — a little pinch between the cheek and gum could become a tasty habit.

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Wood ear mushrooms and water chestnuts.

It’s great to see water chestnuts in their unpeeled, unsliced and uncanned state. Fresh, they smell faintly of raw coconut, and their flavor is much more profound than their canned counterparts. Wood ear mushrooms are an odd lot, rubbery and resilient in their raw form. A rough chop and a few minutes in the sauté pan will crisp them nicely and intensify their earthy flavors. Mushrooms are umami incarnate, and when soy sauce enters the picture, it’s totally off the charts.

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Chili shrimp sauce.

Look closely, and you can see the tiny shrimp nestled among the chili peppers and soybean oil above (there are hundreds of little shrimp in this 12-oz jar — the little black dots are their eyes). This “sauce” brings the funk, with some serious earthy heat. I’m not sure what kind of peppers were used in the preparation, but the entire jar is fraught with seeds, usually a sure sign of potency. In essence, this chili shrimp “sauce” is merely a chili oil — a potent aromatic — as a little goes a long way in this particular case.

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Fresh egg noodles and Chinese sausage.

As dietary staples, starches and proteins can take infinite forms, which is what makes the overall scope of “cuisine” so interesting and expansive. It’s endless, but somewhere near the very beginning there were noodles and there was sausage, both economical, practical, and timeless. Amen.

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