SHOPPING for Asian foodstuffs can be daunting: Faced with whole dried fish, dried shrimp, dried squid, sea urchins, sea slugs ..., one can easily become squeamish - and at the same time wonder: What do you do with dried white jelly fungus? Fear not. The more familiar you are with Asian cuisines and Asian markets, the more comfortable and intriguing shopping will become.
First, locate an Asian market. Chinatowns in New York and San Francisco bustle with them, but in other parts of the country you may have to do some detective work. Try the yellow pages, or go to an Asian restaurant and ask where they get their foodstuffs.
Chefs and cookbook authors suggest that your first trip to an Asian food market be for self-orientation only. Browse, pick up packages, get to know the store.
Nicole Routhier, author of ``Foods of Vietnam,'' (New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang), says she leads cooking-class tours to Oriental markets ``to try to expose people to different kinds of foods - show them that just because you wouldn't eat it by looking at it, doesn't mean you wouldn't like it.''
Outside the market, first-time visitors often say, ``Gee, the smell is strong!'' but once inside, they are fine, Ms. Routhier continues. When they see things like sea slugs and jellyfish, more comments erupt. Vietnamese people ``eat a lot of esoteric foods that a lot of other people would never dream of eating. It shocks people at first,'' she says. Some food in its raw state looks unappetizing, but once it is prepared and combined with other ingredients, it's a lot different, she adds.
Routhier suggests that if during your visit ``something catches your fancy, buy it, and ask the store owner how she would normally use it in her cooking.
``Go home and experiment with it. If you like it, you could look for specific recipes,'' she continues. ``Or play with it, and incorporate it'' into other dishes, she says.
Madhur Jaffrey, author of ``Far Eastern Cookery,'' (New York: Harper & Row) suggests starting with unfamiliar vegetables. ``Buy them one at a time,'' she says. ``Ask the grocer: `What is it? How do I cook it?''' Don't be afraid to experiment with greens, she says, mentioning all the different spinaches and bean sprouts. But, she cautions: ``I would stay away from the dry fish until you know how to use it properly.''
The less adventurous may try a more scholarly approach: Buy an Asian cookbook. Choose a somewhat familiar recipe and bring the cookbook to an Asian market, suggests Routhier. That way, she says, you can refer to it and communicate better with store owners, many of whom may not speak English well. For example, the same ingredient may have a few different names, such as purple eggplant and Japanese eggplant, she says. Sometimes it can help to show the grocer a picture of the dish you want to make.
You may want to check mainstream supermarkets before going to an Asian one, Routhier advises. ``A lot of supermarkets are catering to the demands - they have special sections,'' she says.
Keep in mind that some ingredients may be better at Asian markets. Garlic, for instance, is usually fresher, says Ms. Jaffrey. Buy your noodles in Oriental shops, she continues, because they are fresh. Chinese noodles, for example, are sold in a pack that you can divide into quarter-pound lots and freeze separately. Exotic fruits such as mangos and lychees are worth trying, too, she adds.
One thing not to miss - if you can find it: jasmine rice.
``Everyone must try once in their lives jasmine rice,'' exclaims Jaffrey, who uses it as her ``everyday'' rice now. ``It's aromatic,'' she adds, and ``just so wonderful.'' Asian Foodstuffs By Main Order
Even if they don't specialize in mail orders, a lot of Asian markets will fill them. Many don't have catalogs, so send a self-addressed, stamped envelope and product inquiry. When you order, request that all ingredients be labeled in English.
Here are a few markets to contact: Anzen Japanese Foods and Imports 736 Northeast Union Ave. Portland, OR 97232 Super Asian Market 2719 Wilson Blve. Arlington, VA 22201 Oriental Food Market and Cooking School 2801 West Howard St. Chicago, IL 60645 Kam Man Food Products 200 Canal St. New York, NY 10013