Grabbing my basket I set into the market, first taking in the colourful, bustling scene in front of me: a scooter, typical to the streets of China and South East Asia, is burdened with boxes of fresh fruit, and all around wooden crates and baskets spill over with other exotic produce; pak choi, durian, and lychees among them. Memorised by the choice of chillies alone, I nearly collide with a man carrying a box of whole fish topped up with ice, who causes another crash as he tumbles its contents into the fresh fish display.
As I wander deeper into the market my basket grows heavier; full of vegetables, fruit, noodles, spices, and other Asian cooking essentials – along with other quirky commodities that weren’t on my list but out of pure curiosity I couldn’t resist.
No, I am not in a market in Hong Kong or Bangkok, but instead in Asia Market on Drury Street, in Dublin’s city centre. Over it’s 25 year history, this family business has become Ireland’s largest importer, retailer, wholesaler and distributor of Asian food products; supplying not only the majority of restaurants, Asian and non-Asian, in the country but home cooks too.
It’s that very authentic market experience that I encounter every time I visit that makes Asia Market so popular with other Asian food lovers from all backgrounds and walks of life – not to mention the scandalously good market value prices, and the choice of over 4500 products, sourced mainly from South Korea, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Asia Market regulars will have noticed a changes of late: a wall of golden Chinese lucky cats that wave as you as you enter, throughout the store red lanterns add pops of colour, and there genuinely is a full-size scooter in the fresh fruit and vegetable section, part of an enhanced display.
Intrigued by this new lease of life at an old favourite, I met over a cup of Chinese tea with Eva Pau, Director of Business Development at Asia Market.
Eva has lived in Ireland all her life, bar just one month before she moved from China as a baby with her parents in 1981. Growing up in Terenure, she did all her schooling here – Irish classes included, and she recalls with a giggle the strange looks she would attract from the Bean an Tí during Summers spent in the Gaeltacht in Galway.
The move from China was sparked when her father spotted a gap in the market on a visit to his brother who had moved to Dublin a few years prior. “He owned a Chinese restaurant here, and at the time to source Asian produce restaurants had to order from England”, Eva explains. “So you could only get ingredients maybe once a month.”
The family upped sticks from China on a mission to create a reliable source of authentic Asian ingredients to chefs and consumers in Ireland.
The original shop opened on Drury Street, just down the street from their current location, in the space that now houses chocolate boutique Cocoa Atelier. “It was a very small shop, but from there my dad did all the deliveries all over Ireland. He knows all the roads! My mum would be doing back office and on the till.”
Eva recalls the street 30 years ago when it was lined with fashion wholesalers, who have now moved out to ‘Fashion City’ near Ballymount:
“I basically grew up on this road. At the time, on Sundays nothing opened here, but we would still open. So mum would bring me into work and I would be drawing hopscotches out on the pavement.”
18 years ago they moved to a bigger premises on the same street, from which they operate a retail and wholesale business, and deliver to restaurants in the locality.
Today, those services are amplified as from Asia Market’s warehouse in Ballymount a fleet of trucks transport goods to restaurants, hotels and shops all over the country. “The warehouse is our main depot, but we have a retail supermarket and cash and carry there too.” Between the two locations Asia Market employs over 100 people.
Now 70 years old, Eva’s father is still involved in the business on a daily basis.
“Dad is always in Asia checking out the factories, just to make sure what we are importing is of a good standard. He goes to all the food exhibitions, and sources new products there.”
Likewise, her mother, who’s in her sixties, is at the heart of the operation at the warehouse. While she keeps running smoothly in Ballymount, Eva looks after the city centre store where she has made it her mission to modernise Asia Market.
While she never assumed she would take over the family business, her interest in food and cooking made getting involved a natural step when she moved back from Hong Kong five years ago.
Her first big project was Duck, the Hong Kong style BBQ restaurant on Fade Street which opened two years ago. Frustrated by seeing her friends reluctant to order outside their comfort zones when they visited a Cantonese or Chinese restaurant Eva says she wanted to develop a brand that her friends, or local Irish people wouldn’t be intimidated by.”It’s all about demystifying the cuisine. I wanted the menu to be quite specific. I thought if I have a lot of things on this menu people will get distracted. We had this really great Hong Kong roast meats chef, so I said it’s going to be Hong Kong style roast meats, and when you come in that’s what you get.”
Her IT degree from Trinity College isn’t going to waste either and Eva plans to launch an e-commerce site in the next few months; enabling customers all over the country to get their Asia Market fix delivered straight to their doors.
Over the past six months, she has been busy making changes in store. “It’s been amazing to recreate it, but the main thing for us was not to lose the essence of the busyness of the shop, but have it slightly tidier as well. That’s quite difficult to do!” She says laughing
“Some people love the messiness of a market, and I still wanted to maintain that market feel, but to make it more accessible and visually appealing.”
Along with eye-catching cosmetic changes, Asia Market have added in a Taiwanese range, extended the Japanese line, and the aisles are now clearly labelled according to cuisine. “Now there is a road map, so hopefully when people walk in they can make more sense of how the store is laid out.”
Even for a long time Asia Market customer these ‘road maps’ will come in handy to navigate the aisles packed with a constantly updating selection of products. “The difficulty with the retail store is that there is never enough shelf space. We only have one line of each item, so that we can have it as jam-packed as we possibly can. We test things out too; get a product in for a short period and see how it goes.”
“I think that’s another reason why people like to come in, as the shop is always changing and there’s always something new.”
Along with the Asian cookery staples like fresh fruit and vegetables, rice, noodles, and spices, there are other curiosities; the Asian delicacies that are alien to most Westerners – Chicken feet, pigs trotters and black thousand-year eggs among them.
“I remember on that US show Fear Factor one of the challenges was to eat a thousand-year egg. But that’s just something people have on a daily basis here!”
Another standard Asian ingredients was subject to a case of ‘lost in translation’: “I was doing a tour of the shop and I introduced the group to ‘Fish Balls’, in my mind I didn’t see any problem with calling them that as that’s what I’ve always know them as, but then one of the customers asked are they the balls of the fish?” Eva says cringing.
Alongside the more exotic fare is Irish produce. “We try to source as many local produce as possible. For instance the tofu is made by an Irish company; the bean sprouts come from Ireland; there is a Chinese farm in Rush that supplies us with lots of Chinese vegetables; our duck is from Silver Hill Farm – and it’s much better quality than we could source from Asia.”
“A lot more people are travelling to Asia,” Eva says on the increasingly adventurous palates of their Irish customers.
“We never would have thought this would have grown so big. When we first started we thought we would be serving just the Asian community, we never would have thought there would be such a growth in interest in it.”
Her own diet is a fusion of Chinese and Irish food, and she enjoys experimenting with the simplicity of Japanese cooking, the spiciness of Korean food, and herb-rich and vibrant Vietnamese dishes. At the weekends she indulges on an Irish breakfast with all the trimmings, and she admits that she is even quite fond of “the Irish version of the Chinese food.”
“Here they tend to include a lot more sauce, because people like lots of sauce with the rice. Even in Europe they cook it differently – it’s not the same as Irish Chinese food! They do the sweet and sour dish in China but it has much less sauce, the skill is that the chef can get the deep-fried pork coated with no extra sauce. But I actually prefer it with more sauce!”
Well if it gets Eva’s seal of approval… I know what’s for dinner this Friday night.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law degree, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.