Beth Schatz Kaylor
Ruby Toman, owner of Asian Gourmet Market in Bismarck, holds a Korean pear from the store's produce case. Unlike a Bartlett pear, which softens when ripe, Korean pears are best consumed when hard and

Japanese eggplant is longer and narrower than a Mediterranean eggplant, with thinner skin and extra spongy flesh that absorbs sauces and seasonings. No need to peel it -- just cook with the skin intac

Asian Gourmet Market carries a wide variety of rice and noodles, including fresh noodles in the refrigerator case, perfect for lo mien.

Asian Gourmet Market carries many different types of soy sauce, reflecting different regions of Asia and various flavor strengths. Toman notes that the typical American soy sauce is light in flavor co
Pad thai. Tikki masala. Dim sum. Pho. Butter chicken. Satay. Udon. With the opening of Asian Gourmet Market last December, Bismarck- Mandan now has its own Asian grocery store, introducing the community to a world of flavors.

"We carry products from many different regions: China, Thailand, the Philippines, Japan and the Middle East," says Ruby Toman, who owns and operates Asian Gourmet Market, located at 220 W. Front Ave. in Bismarck. Originally from the Fujian province of southern China, Toman enjoys living in Bismarck but grew tired of the long drive to Minneapolis to purchase the flavors of her homeland.

"My husband Paul and I would go to Minneapolis to shop for groceries, carrying giant coolers with ice to hold everything for the sevenhour drive back to Bismarck," says Toman, who would sometimes shop at Fargo's Asian market, but preferred the wider selection available in the Twin Cities. "On the long drive, we would joke, 'Maybe we should open a grocery store!' When we saw Bismarck growing, we decided to try it."

The store carries many specialty products unique to the various cuisines of Asia. Toman changes her inventory often, posting lengthy lists of new products on her Facebook page ( asiangourmetmarket). Currently produce shipments arrive at Asian Gourmet Market on weekends. The store is closed on Sunday for stocking, so regular customers flock to the store on Monday and Tuesday for the best selection of fresh produce. Those accustomed to a traditional American grocery store will still find some familiar items here with economical prices, such as snow peas, shallots, fresh mint and basil during one recent visit. However, many customers are seeking items specific to Asia's regional cuisines.

Walking past the neatly arranged wooden display case at the front of the store, which her husband built, Toman gives an eye-opening tour of Asian Gourmet Market, starting with the heart of Asian cuisine: vegetables.

"We carry yuca and cassava," says Toman, pointing out the bulky tubers. "Very popular in South America and South Asia." She grabs a fragrant piece of lemongrass ("very important in Thai cooking"), explains the taste of taro root ("it's like a potato, but more creamy"), heralds Korean pears ("so good, we're always sold out"), points to bundles of long, thin string beans ("very good in stir-fry") and recalls childhood memories eating bitter melon in China ("It's very bitter. A lot of people eat it for health, but for kids, parents would force you to eat it!").

Quickly, it becomes apparent that Asian Gourmet Market isn't just a place for bulk buys of jasmine rice and curry paste -- it's a beacon of our increasingly diverse community.

"Maybe half of our customers are Asian, many others are Americans from big cities," Toman explains. "In big cities, an Asian grocery store is common, sometimes the only option. You become accustomed to it."

Toman points to two shelves of frozen dumplings in the freezer case. There are two brands, the top shelf with mostly Chinese characters on the packaging, the next shelf with mostly English words. Ruby points to the top shelf of dumplings. "These are a super-authentic tasting dumpling," she says. "Pork with leek, chicken with shitake mushroom -- I think these taste better, but Americans usually like the ones with more English on the label."

Meat in an Asian grocery store is often a source of fascination for Americans accustomed only to fish fillets and chicken breasts. Toman explains that Asian cultures cook using nearly every part of the animal, not just fillets and prime cuts. This leads to a preference for whole fish and minimally processed meats, which are difficult to source in modern American grocery stores. Asian Gourmet Market sells whole fish and head-on shrimp, as well as pork belly, duck, goat and lamb. The market is also the only store in the area offering halal meat.

Before leaving, I mention that I am looking for some curry powder. Toman stops and asks for clarification. "Did you want Indian curry powder?" She leads me to the Indian spices aisle, where I see at least 15 varieties of curry seasonings on the shelf. "I also have Japanese and Jamaican curry powder," she adds, helpfully. "Or did you want Korean curry?"

I finally decided on seasonings for Indian green curry, silently promising myself to return soon to try more. Clearly, there are many lessons in cuisine and culture tucked between the shelves at Asian Gourmet Market, just waiting to be discovered.

Beth Schatz Kaylor is a communications professional and freelance writer. She blogs about her North Dakota kitchen at