Tai Sun Supermarket – The Tour

The first UK Chinese restaurant opened its doors way back in 1907 and since then it's grown to be one of the most popular choice of cuisines. 
However very few of us know anything about real Chinese cuisine; the traditional stuff.  It's not all chow mein and egg fried rice you know!
For a more authentic Chinese experience Mandar Inn is a good place to start.  With its menu of traditional dishes written in English (a first for Sheffield) and very helpful staff it's perfect for the Chinese food novice. But to really get to understand a cuisine, it's good to have a go at cooking it at home.  Now Tesco won't cut it in terms of ingredients and you'll be glad to know that we have a fair few Chinese supermarkets here in Sheffield.
The most popular choice is probably Tai Sun on Matilda Street, just off The Moor, in town (and I gather that plans for a new city centre based Tai Sun are well under way).  It's got everything you'll ever need for your own Chinese banquet and with it being so central, it's easy to get to.  I've visited it a few times over the years for the odd packet of sauce or for sushi ingredients, but I've always stuck to what I know, shying away from the more adventurous stuff.
So on hearing that the store was being renovated I saw an opportunity to get down to the store and have a chat with Mei Lee, the store manager. 
Like any other woman in business, Mei is a very busy lady, but she happily spared me some time for a tour around the bright and welcoming store.  Web editor Rob joined us too and with him being on a detox for the month he was especially interested in the teas, so that's where the tour commenced.

Chinese Teas
Tai Sun have a huge selection including pearl tea which is commonly known as bubble tea.  They're fruit flavoured teas with 'bubbles' of tapioca balls.  Of course they have an ample selection of tea leaves including lots of green tea and jasmine tea, both of which are favourites of Mei's.  The slimming teas caught my eye.  Apparently they are really popular and Mei has been told by many that they do work.  A tea drinking diet sounds like a good plan to me; I'm assuming that I'd have to skip the cake though!
Fresh Produce
Tai Sun have really pushed the fresh produce available bringing in new stock to their shelves.  You'll find sea bass, razor clams and Japanese crabs.  There are fresh scallops too and Mei recommends cooking these with black bean sauce.  I must admit that I prefer them raw, something that Mei also approves of!    

With the new refit, they've also started to stock packs of sushi for sale – and it's from our own Sushi Express too.  I picked up one of their larger packs which retail at £6.50.  It's great for one, as a lunch time treat, but there are smaller packs available as well.  I was particularly impressed with the ample supply of soy provided; a tub rather than a little tube.  Perhaps more importantly, the fish was remarkably fresh and the combinations used were tasty, so I'll be having more of this.
There is a wide variety of fresh veg too.  Pak choi always goes down well, but I discovered a new favourite in yin choi.  It's a bit like spinach and has a beautiful red tint to the leaves.  It's perfect in a soup, just chop off the tough stems and discard first.  Mei told me that she likes choi sum best as it's slightly sweeter than the rest. 
Durian meat doesn't sound too good though.  It's a Thai fruit but is incredibly stinky and tastes a bit cheesy; like marmite, you will either love it or hate it.  I decided to pass….just in case.  But feel free to give it a go and let me know how you get on in the comments section!

Frozen produce
Although Tai Sun always had a few chest freezers towards the back of the shop they've now brought in some free standing ones and these are a lot better for checking out their wares. You'll find frozen oysters, dumplings, chicken feet (which are nice – I promise you!), beef honeycomb (tripe) and pre-sliced fish sushi toppings.  I'm definitely keen to give these sushi toppings a go.  I haven't had the years of training that a sushi chef has, so always struggle to slice fish properly and these toppings will come in handy.

Dried Soup Mixes
For me, the most intriguing section of the shop was the dried soup mix area.  The packs of mysterious and exotic sounding ingredients have had me intrigued for a few years now!  I did buy a packet once but it sat in my kitchen cupboard for years until it went out of date as I was too chicken to do anything else with it.  So I was really glad to get the opportunity to ask Mei about these enticing looking goods.

After a chat with Mei I picked the the white fungus mix (above).  Mei explained that this should be boiled for about 2 hours with some pork or chicken added and served up as a soup.  I used about 8 soup bowls of water and boiled the mix for two hours as advised.  I then added a pound of diced raw pork to the mix and cooked it for about 40 mins.  At the very last minute, I added some prepared yin choi (Chinese spinach) and let it cook quickly, and seasoned.  It was delicious.  All the dried ingredients had softened nicely and the fungus had exploded into the liquid making it quite filling.

Mei also suggested that I try the tonic soup for chicken, which I will cook in a similar way, just with chicken.  Dried dates are known to help with menstrual cramps; just soak some in hot water and drink the liquid. 
Convenience Food
Although Chinese food may seem complex, Mei explained that it really isn't and that a lot of the dishes are made just by 'throwing things into the wok'.  There is also a lot of convenience foods on offer.  From packet sauces, to jars of cooked veg and packets of noodles; there is plenty for a quick snack.

Mei encouraged me to try some Sweet Roasted Fish.  I was a bit cautious, but Mei assured me that it makes for a tasty snack so I did buy some.  She was right, it is tasty; fishy, but not overly so and it is pretty sweet, with a bit of a chilli kick too.  It's too sweet for me, so not something I will buy again, but I do find their lollipop presentation rather amusing!
There were packs of prepared vegetables on offer and I tried some of the sichuan mushrooms.  Mei made sure that I like my food spicy before I made my purchase and by 'eck, was she right to do so!  This stuff is basically mushrooms in sichuan sauce and it is HOT.  Mei advised that it could be eaten directly from the pack, but I decide to use some to add flavour to a stir fry.
Tai Sun have oodles of noodles, or rather a whole wall of noodles.  There's vermicelli and udon to name just a couple.  I would highly recommend trying some of the various pot noodles on offer.  The last packet I had was more of a tub of noodles than a pot and on opening the lid, I found four or five sachets to add to the noodle mix.  It was good; nice and spicy, but probably not the best thing to have for lunch at work (SLURP!).
The Sweet Stuff
As well as a wall of boiled sweet and candy, Tai Sun stock cakes made by Cake 'R' Us on London Road.  Ok, you know by now that I am more of a savoury lover, but I did pick up a lotus seed paste cake formed in the shape of a pig.  I'm not sure of the symbolism there but I'm sure there is some.  Trying the cake at home, it's not like anything I've had before as it's got a thin sponge like crust encasing a filling of lotus seed paste. My favorite is probably still the Hello Panda biscuits, which are generally an endangered species once they wind up at our enclosure!

Now, with autumn approaching, moon cakes are very popular.  This is another lotus seed paste cake, but this time it's made in a circular moon like shape, with a boiled egg packed inside.  Mei explained that they are eaten in celebration of an autumn festival and of the moon being the brightest at this time of year.  They're pretty calorific but Tai Sun have low sugar moon cakes for those watching their weight.  There's also cold moon cakes on offer which Mei explained are more popular with kids. 
More Top Tips
Ever wondered what the difference between light and dark soy was?  Well Mei explained that the dark soy is good for cooking, the light as a condiment as it's saltier.  Of course, there's a good selection here and I was very glad to hear that Mei considers Pearl River Bridge is the best as I have a bottle at home.  Lee Kum Kee is also highly recommended.

Mei loves a bit of chilli and her favourite dish is mapo tofu which is a dish made of aubergine, tofu, pork mince and chilli.  They have some ready made in store….. One to try I think!
With our tour at an end we sprung a bit of a challenge on Mei – Rob asked if she could put together a tasty stir fry from ingredients in the shop. Watch Mei’s supermarket dash below.

Thanks to Mei and the staff for showing us round. Don't forget to mention us if you drop in!
Tai Sun, 17-19 Matilda Street, Sheffield, S1 4QB. Tel: (0114) 2786068.
Why not tell us about your favorite Chinese supermarket gems and cooking tips in the comments below?

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