In the collective mind of the Western Hemisphere, a dish featuring monkey registers somewhere between unsavory and unbelievable, but to Kong Phot, the flavor of fresh monkey meat is a cherished memory of his childhood in Cambodia. "I've eaten elephant, ox, alligator..." Meat of any kind was a treat for the peopleof his rural community. If an unwary elephant wandered into town, animal protein was plentiful; otherwise Kong ate rice. "To us, it is just as silly that Americans only eat the pig, chicken and cow as it is to you that we eat the elephant. It is nice to get any meat, and when you do, it tastes good. You eat it."

Because his father was an armed member of the military, Kong's family dined on forest critters more often than neighbors who joined in when an animal large enough to share was taken. "We just shoot 'em."

Now a resident of St. Paul, Minnesota, Kong occasionally purchases canned or dried monkey meat in a local Cambodian grocery. Over the last two decades thousands of Southeast Asian groceries have opened in this country. In these stores can be found a world of food vastly different from the chow mein and frozen egg rolls carried in traditional American supermarkets.

If your idea of what to eat developed outside an ethnically Asian environment, you may never dive into a steaming plate of curried monkey stir fry. But for all of us grazing this side of the meat and potatoes boundary, many priceless treasures are to be discovered by exploring the wide array of strange and delicious products available from Asian groceries.

Tobacco Candy Many pre-packaged items combine well-known ingredients-like koka, the Taiwanese treat of coconut covered peanuts. Those who eat in Oriental restaurants will recognize other items; tamarind pulp, made from tamarind pods is a necessary ingredient of tamarind chicken. And then there are the goods that anyone raised on American food would at first call bizarre: durain fruit, basil seed drink, duck tongues (by the pound). Actually, the thought of duck-tongues-by-the-pound becomes a more gripping concept upon extended reflection...

The first time you visit an Asian grocery, you'll notice a "distinctive" smell, a smell some mistake for a sign of unkempt conditions. The pungent odor mostly results from stocking dehydrated products, especially dried fish. Asian groceries are subject to the same regulations and standards as any other US. market place: you're just accustomed to the funk of American markets. You may want to wipe the cans as they probably gathered dust in overseas transport. Wash your produce, just like you would with food from any grocery.

Not all packages read in English, especially those originating from countries with encapsulated economies, like Indonesia or Viet Nam. (Um, if encapsulated is an adjective used by your Econ Professors to describe a characteristic other than 'having minimal trade with distant countries,' please forgive me. I guess I am assuming that the readership is at or slightly below my writer ship, so I limit my research to stuff like making sure 'encapsulated' is an adjective and not a categorical imperative as I called it in the first draft. I would like to thank Matthew Jaffe of Spec for editing the version of this story which originally appeared in his magazine. Among his brilliant manipulations was a change in wording so that it didn't read as though I thought Taiwanese products come from Thailand. Matt also suggested that "Indonesia" be substituted for my first choice for an example of an "encapsulated economy," which had apparently not existed as a sonorous state since the mid Seventies...) If you're not sure what you're buying or need to buy, it's best to aim questions at the youngest employee, they are most likely to be Americanized. Showing a legitimate interest in becoming a regular customer will earn you warm smiles even if you only buy a few exotic snacks and candies during each visit.

You should be aware many Orientals will take offense at the purchase of their religious items for purposes other than those for which they were intended. If you've never seen "Hell Bank Notes" you should sneak a peek--quite odd. They are supposedly burned for the purpose of sending dead relatives money.

Asian markets operate in all urban US cities-even ones with smaller Asian-American populations. If you live in the backwoods, several helpful books and mail order sources are available. The hardest to find ingredients--spices, pastes, dried vegetables--are often the easiest to ship. If you're real into it, many vegetables can be cultivated in a home garden. Your butcher may be delighted to learn how to make special cuts of meat for you if she doesn't already know how--just think how exciting it would be cutting the muscle off a pig skeleton in a new and different way!

Most of the produce sold in Asian markets is grown in California; the proprietors may harvest a few vegetables from their own garden. Many vegetables are close relatives of familiar foods: Chinese eggplant (small and excellent for stir-frying) and different varieties of greens and endives. Fresh shiitake mushrooms are sold at a fraction of the price supermarkets charge (If you don't mind frozen fish, you can get a pound of many varieties for less than a selection off the Value Menu).

Among crops impossible to cultivate in theUnited States is the Japanese mountain potato, or nagamo. It looks like a parsnip and grows in the rocky soil of Japan's volcanic mountains. Mountain potatoes are transported in refrigerated boxes of sawdust as they're easily bruised and very valuable. Expect to pay ten dollars a pound for this delicacy. The uncooked root, usually served as dessert, combines fruity sweetness with the texture of a raw potato.

Asian groceries carry an almost endless selection of dried vegetables. Prepare them by soaking in warm water for ten minutes, and then cooking as desired. falm breakken, a chlorophyll poor flower, grows on rotting foliage in shady areas. After reconstitution, stir-fry it with mint.

The crinkled, black Japanese shiitake mushroom, available dried, canned, or fresh, grows on dead oak trees. Farmers bore holes in oak logs, fill them with grain bearing microscopic mushroom roots (or mycelium, pl. mycelia-- remember these words--they come in handy when flirting with the wait staff at Chinese restaurants) The fungus establishes a colony in the wood around the holes in which conditions are just right. When the fungus gets ready it sends up the fruit, which is the part of the mushroom we eat. I bet you didn't know you were eating fungal orgasms. Used as a component in soups and stir-fry, shiitake have a delicate flavor and a soft, crunchy texture.

If reading Mr. Christe's article did not convince you that Asians are more adventurous in quenching their thirst than Westerners, a visit to the grocery will. While Americans drink Madison Avenue's latest line of ingredient free beverages, Asians quietly consume carbonated milk and energy beverages like the psychoactive Red Bull vitamin drink.

Carbonated milk, or "white soda" is a favorite breakfast beverage in the bustle of urban Japan Don't wrinkle your nose: If you like slurping down the sweetened milk left over from a bowl of sugared cereal, you will enjoy this unique soda, available in vanilla, chocolate, and fruit flavors.

Red Bull energy drink is recommended if you're sick of toying with the glorified Kool-Aid professional athletes drink on the sidelines. If they drank Red Bull instead, they wouldn't be able to sit still and wait for their turn to play. Ingredients include an array of B vitamins, high fructose corn syrup, caffeine, and taurine-an amino acid first extracted from ox bile. The flavor echoes the syrupy liquid sold in candy wax soda bottles. Shortly after ingesting the Taiwanese product, the drinker's body morphs into a Loony Tunes style rocket and careens from wall to wall, eventually returning to its original human form with the word "tilt" flashing in each silver-dollar sized eye. GOURMANDIZER advises that you remove all furniture from your drinking area. My theory? This taurine stuff makes the blood super-saturated with the recently found sugars. People in the FDA, and other friends of the pharmaceutical lobby want to put stricter regulations on this and other products, mostly medicinal herbs, which are imported from Asia and currently available without prescription.

While shopping, you will want to take notice of the candies and sweets. Partially drying and sometimes salting slices of fruit has long been a treatment to preserve a harvest. Liquoriced limes, salted un-ripe mangoes, gingered dates, and crystallized ginger come packaged in ornately shaped clear plastic boxes. The taste experience offered by these pungent products can be overwhelming, but you may like them if you enjoy horehounds or menthol cough drops. The popular movie candy Jujubees borrow their name from the tart jujube fruit which the Chinese have been making into candy of this type for centuries.

The Japanese treat of Pockey can be enjoyed by even the most mundane appetite. Pockey is a long thin cookie-about the size of a pipe cleaner-dipped in chocolate, leaving a portion of one end bare for gripping. In Japanese slang, "pockey" refers to a homosexual man. The slang term existed before the brand name entered the market. Weird, eh?

Another popular Japanese snack is wasabi sweet green peas. Wasabi, a green horse radish, packs an enormously spicy punch. A mixture of wasabi, cornstarch, and sugar molded around crunchy dried peas makes a noisy, zippy treat. Like most Asian snacks and candies, the flavor Is too strong to fill up on-wasabi sweet green peas provide the eater with a pleasurable taste experience, not a meal. This particular product is more effective in clearing the nasal passages than staving off hunger.

Texture also plays a vital role in the composition of Asian dishes. Most East Asian languages contain a word that most closely translates as "tasteless," but this translation doesn't convey the implication of an interesting texture of the food: "flavorless, yet texture-ous" perhaps. The bland lotus root, prized solely for its water-chestnut-like crunch and odd shape, resembles the barrel of a gun which could simultaneously fire several caliber of bullets. Slice it into thin disks, boil for 15 minutes, and add to soup.

The flesh of a jellyfish is nearly tasteless, but rewards the eater with an oddly appealing, slippery texture. Jellyfish dishes commonly contain shredded jellyfish and with little additional solid ingredients so as to accentuate its uniquely delicate texture.

Hopefully reading this piece didn't transfix your attention as though the words passed by like a bus load of masturbating self-decapitators. Most of you have a good understanding of cultural relativism from Public Television or your anthropology courses. Familiarizing yourself with the unusual products in Asian groceries is a sure-fire cure for standing in front of a well-stocked refrigerator and thinking, "there's nothing to eat." A few minutes of exploration during each outing will quickly add exciting dimensions to your cooking.