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Spring Hill market caters to all Asian tastes

SPRING HILL — The bottles of fish sauce will blow you away.

The seasoning tool of salted and fermented anchovy juice frequently appears in recipes with a variously worded caveat that translates to "a little goes a long way." But at Asian Market, nestled for 15 years on the back side of Kass Circle, generous shelf space is devoted to a half-dozen brands of fish sauce in 24-ounce bottles.

Owner and native Filipino Elsie Canary explained: "Most Asians, when they cook, don't use salt. They use fish sauce instead. Fish sauce is one of our best sellers."

Canary's husband and five-day-a-week store clerk, Irish-Canadian Bill Canary, was a fish sauce skeptic.

"Not on mine," he once told an Asian grill master copiously sluicing the condiment on some luscious steaks headed for the charcoal.

On a bet, Bill succumbed to a taste test.

"It enhanced all the flavors," he declared, "not like an old fish at all."

Since Elsie, 61, returned part-time to her initial profession as a licensed practical nurse, Bill, in order to knowledgeably serve customers, has learned the tastes of various Asian cuisines, from Filipino to Vietnamese, Thai, Laotian, Cambodian and Chinese.

"I just made him eat it," his wife said. "He's not a picky eater."

Customers of Asian cuisines are particular about ingredients that resonate in their various homelands, Bill, 63, has learned. Thus, some shelf space is sectioned to feature specialties from each country, whether they be staples, minor ingredients or condiments.

Consider vacuum-packed hearts of bamboo, soursop fruit in syrup, salt-marinated shelled duck eggs, jarred slices of ginger root and "hot and spicy" canned tuna.

The refrigerated produce case boasts florally fragrant Thai basil with mint undertones, bitter melon the size and shape of overgrown cucumbers, husked fresh coconut, "all the authentic stuff," Bill pointed out.

Neatly delineated in freezer cases are ground meat mixtures preseasoned with spices for Filipino, Laotian and other regional Asian mainstays.

Imported from the Philippines is milk fish, the country's national fish, similar in taste to salmon, "but very bony," said Elsie. "You have to be an expert eater," she suggested, adding that the market also offers it deboned.

Two staples cross borders of Asian lands — noodles and rice. The market offers rice noodles, Singapore noodles, Canton noodles; milagrosa; jasmine, and long grain and sweet rice.

Quick Asian can be stirred up at home from a vast selection of prepping mixtures for Pho soups, stews, sushi, vegetable dishes and seafood concoctions.

Customers are encouraged to ask for items not stocked so the store can keep abreast of changing desires.

"We're kind of a barometer of change in Spring Hill," Bill Canary said.

The Vietnamese population is growing, he surmises, based on requests for Vietnamese ingredients. Asian Market is expanding shelf space for that category.

While the market has catered to ethnic Asians, Bill noted the clientele is expanding.

"A lot of non-Asians are trying to change their diet," he said. After cooking up a few recipes (and the market offers a couple of ethnic cookbooks), "they say they wished they'd done it before because they like it."

Newcomers to the cuisine can garner plenty of cooking hints and seasoning tips with a visit inside the small storefront, where there's plenty of chatter among customers.

"Sometimes, it's more like a club in here than a store," Bill observed.

He will give newbies an introductory tour of the stock while Elsie is keen to hear customer suggestions.

"I'm always looking for new products," she said.

Contact Beth Gray at graybethn@earthlink.net.

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