AS A CHILD, SOME OF MY greatest moments of pure freedom were spent getting lost in the enormous open-air markets of Cairo, Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam. In a good market, you learn about the people who sell you your food. There might be the lady who has the best bananas whose daughter ran off with the ham hock man. Or the scarred beautiful boy with no teeth who measures out your rice to the pebble, or the Samaki man who always has the best parrot fish because he carries them on a stick.
This was where I first befriended the Grasshopper Man. He was a lovely old man who could snatch grasshoppers from the air with a net, toss them into a vat of boiling oil, fetch them out with tongs, salt them and serve them on ripped open paper bags. He was very kind and patient and showed me that the wings were the best part to chew first. His grasshoppers were wonderful, tight little crisps, and I learned quickly to find my friend the Grasshopper Man on market days. This wasn't as much because I liked fried grasshoppers so much as he took the time to share with me his stories and his skill, albeit a dubious one. What he taught me was about ritual, careful preparation and camaraderie. He showed me the quick and secret joy that can be shared once you discover the personality behind the food.
While life in America certainly brings its conveniences and far less caprice, the sterilized and distant way that we buy food often seems tedious and tiresome: the same endless rows in every supermarket where you snatch up a bag of this or a carton of that. Shopping should be an event, and I'm not talking about going to the mall.
If you haven't discovered some of Tucson's specialty import stores, then you've got to start making your list. Where you should begin is 4828 E. 22nd St., between Swan and Craycroft: G&L imports. Flanked by a pet store on one side and Wee Went Wong's on the other, G&L is the kind of store I would ordinarily never set foot into. The exterior holds no allure. Many windows are painted over with advertisements or whited out. But if you just sit and watch who goes in and comes out, you begin to sniff intrigue.
This is good.
Once you enter, you step into a cavernous store that rivals a theme park for the eccentric and gastronomically inclined. Whether you're in the market for an 8-foot-high gilded Chinese vase, live tilapia fish or a 10-pound bag of extra hot golden wasabi powder, there is a good chance that G&L carries what you didn't even know you were looking for.
The best way to organize a shopping expedition to G&L is to break the first rule of food shopping: Go very hungry. Make sure that you're ravenous. Bypass all the aisles and aisles of food and head straight for the back corner of the store where you'll find the deli-take out. Under the sign that says Hong Kong Dim Sum, you'll find an unassuming steam table, a handwritten menu, and Mr. Yin.
Treasure Mr. Yin.
He will cook you good things to eat.
True, the actual deli counter could be more appetizing. Try not to stare too hard at the tray of marinated entrails, a robust mélange of ears, entrails and snouts ($2.49 per pound) or the chickens and ducks, hooked and glazed replete with heads, beak and feet. Still, if it is fresh Chinese fare you seek, you have come to the source.
Mr. Yin's menu is posted and it varies with the day, the season, the delivery schedule. You'll need to speak clearly and slowly, particularly if you want to ask questions about specialties that he has made for the day, but for the most part he has no problem interpreting what you wish to order. It is not unusual to see him wander off into the store to select fresh vegetables from the produce section or fresh seafood. Then he disappears back into his kitchen, his enormous woks, sizzling oil and inviting scents.
As all good things take time, so now you might want to drift through the store. Try and not completely lose yourself. There are shelves and shelves of tiny imported items, hand-painted miniature melons and baskets of fruit and vegetables. Paper Chinese lanterns, carved jade figurines and expensive sake sets line one aisle and impressive lacquered furniture make up another. An enormous tank of live tilapia fish is worth a visit, but if you can't be responsible for an on-site murder, there are plenty of fresh fish, shellfish and calamari on ice available.
A stroll down the produce aisle reveals fresh lotus root, lemongrass, tiny green eggplants and fresh Asian pears. Don't miss the tea aisle, an intoxicating experience, especially to find the elusive Kwan Yin Tea at a mere $9.99 (Republic of Tea asks almost $20 for less than half the amount). Anyone who has savored the light orchid scent and the subtle rush of clarity found in a cup of Kwan Yin will know precisely why this is such a find.
Certainly by now Mr. Yin will have completed your meal. Most dishes are fairly light, although the portions are enormous. Some tried-and-true recipes are the Beef with Rice Noodles, a large serving of wide rice noodles, tender beef and freshly steamed greens in a light and fragrant broth ($3.99). The Barbecued Duck is worth its own private visit, especially if you order the entire duck ($12.85). But if you want to eat light or sample more than one item, single servings of the duck with steamed white rice are available ($3.99). The duck can appear a little frightening, seeing as it had been hung, hooked and barbecued head, beak and all, but under Mr. Ying's rather large and impressive knife, it can be refried and heated so that the duck re-crisps nicely. The soy-based lacquer with a hint of anise, ginger and a touch of orange provides a dark, crispy and satisfying find.
Sesame Chicken ($3.99) and Curried Chicken ($3.99) both proved to be tender and enormous portions of chicken lightly seasoned, colorfully sauced and served with a healthy helping of rice. Chinese Vegetables and Chicken ($3.99) is meltingly tender bok choy served with a light chicken sauté.
You could eat there, hunkered down at the little orange plastic table as I've seen a few customers do, those too ravenous to make it home with their duck intact. Or you can exercise a bit of self-restraint and keep your packages bagged up until you get home. You might even want to pick up a bottle of sake or a six-pack of Chinese beer on your way out.
Once you get home, brew up a pot of hot tea, break out the china and the chopsticks. Then honor the tried-and-true trick revealed to us by Isabelle Allende: Plop your take-out on a platter, skip around the room a few times until it settles on the plate just the same as if you slaved over it yourself. Then take a shower, splash on a little cologne, and phone up all your friends.
G&L Imports, Hong Kong Deli. 4828 E. 22nd St. 790-9016. Open Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Package Liquors. Cash, Checks, Debit. Menu items: $1.75-$12.85.