Northern Virginia's sizable Asian population guarantees a multiplicity of oriental grocery stores, most of them tucked away in small shopping centers and side streets. There's even a "Little Saigon" on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, jammed with Vietnamese variety and grocery stores and a great resource for ingredients for Asian cuisine.

Many of Virginia's oriental markets are, in fact, pan-Asian stores that sell the ingredients for three or more cuisines. Care should be taken when choosing ingredients--what looks just like soy sauce may, in fact, be Thai fish sauce, Indonesian ketjap or Vietnamese nuoc mam. But it also means that substitutions are often possible when a necessary ingredient is unavailable. If you cook several Asian cuisines, one store may provide everything you need for each of them.

Many of these small stores are family-run businesses that try hard to please their customers. If you frequent one store, chances are good the proprietor will special-order such prepared dishes as peking duck, Chinese roast pork, egg rolls and fresh dim sum. ALEXANDRIA

Oriental Food Town, 8174 Richmond Highway. Open every day, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. 360-5505. While this store specializes in Korean foods, it has a very good selection of Chinese ingredients. You'll find a good choice of frozen meat, including variety meats and pulgogi, the thinly sliced beef used in Korean barbecue. Lots of fish, shellfish and cookware complement the fresh, well-stored vegetables. The staff is helpful but very busy.

Oriental House, 7816 Richmond Highway (Hybla Plaza). Open every day, 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. 780-3330. Down the road from Oriental Food Town is Oriental House, well stocked with many hard-to-find items such as dried taro-root powder (for making dim sum) and some of the more unusual dried fungi and lotus seed. It's fairly well organized and very busy. You'll find cooking equipment and dishes as well as an excellent assortment of packaged goods. Between these two stores you should find anything you need. ANNANDALE

Han Yang Grocery, 4215 Annandale Center Dr. Open Mon. through Sat., 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. 354-7748. Hard to find, this neat, well organized store is situated on a small street off John Marr Drive near the John Marr-Columbia Pike intersection. While this store specializes in Japanese ingredients (dried fish and pickled vegetables for instance), you can find an above-average supply of Chinese goods, including fresh Chinese chives and parsley. There's also a good selection of cookware and rice cookers.

Oriental Food and Gift Center, 4231 Markham St. Open Mon. through Sat., 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sun., 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. 354-1515. This store has an excellent selection of Korean foods as well as a basic supply of Chinese ingredients. The freezer is stocked with homemade dumplings, in addition to the octopi, king clams, mussels and oysters more characteristic of Korean cooking. The mussels were out of the shell, a factor that would expedite even French cooking. Interesting gift items and cookware occupy one long wall. ARLINGTON

Asia Supermarket, 6216 Wilson Blvd. Open Mon. through Sat., 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. 237-8411. Anyone who dabbles in many oriental cuisines will enjoy a good selection here. While the store specializes in Vietnamese food, it also carries Thai and Korean ingredients, as well. It would suit the needs of an intermediate Chinese cook. The store is cluttered but interesting.

China Grocery, 3509 South Jefferson St. Open Mon. through Sat., 9:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. 671-6638. Don't judge this store by appearances; it's cluttered inside and out. But careful inspection of the shelves reveals a superior collection of Chinese ingredients. The freezers are packed with noodles, snacks (such as dim sum), shellfish and even fresh-frozen bean curd skin. (Used to wrap dim sum, it gets very crisp when it's deep-fried.) There were buckets of freshly cooked bamboo shoots and pickled turnip greens, and even fresh sea slugs in the refrigerator the day I was there. Though there is no fresh meat, you will find some variety meats and special cuts in the frozen-food section. Plan enough time to search out the special goodies--this is not a place to shop if you're in a hurry. The store also carries Filipino, Thai and Korean food.

Cuu-Long Market, 3819-C George Mason Dr. Open Mon. through Sat., 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. 578-1058. This new store near Skyline Towers is owned by two sisters. Though it carries basic Chinese ingredients, it is a little understocked at the moment. This is a store to watch; it's neat and clean, and the owners say they plan to expand their Chinese section. Prices were lower than at any other store visited.

Fu-Lo Bakery, 3209 N. Washington Blvd. Open every day, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. 528-5335. Fu-Lo isn't a grocery store, but a Chinese bakery that also sells a few canned goods and dry items. In addition to dim sum, it sells wonderful curried beef turnovers. The egg rolls are 50 cents each. Store-bought egg rolls and dumplings certainly simplify preparation of a Chinese feast.

Kam Man Oriental Food, 2917 Columbia Pike. Open Mon. through Sat., 9:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. 521-4207. This is a good place to stop for basic Chinese ingredients, and it excels in Korean selection. The refrigerated vegetables were fresh. The owner and his family are friendly and helpful. Park behind the store--go around the corner to get into the lot. Tip: two very busy oriental restaurants share the parking lot, so avoid it at lunchtime.

Liberty Department Store Inc., 315 N. Glebe Rd. Open Mon. through Fri., 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. 243-5553. This may be the best pan-Asian grocery in Northern Virginia. Chances are good that you can find any ingredient you need for any dish you're cooking. Look at the frozen meats for varieties such as tripe and heart. Vegetables are both refrigerated and kept in bins. You'll find Chinese chives, lemon grass, Chinese parsley (coriander) and fresh water chestnuts along with a good assortment of cookware, dishes and clothing. Liberty is located in the Buckingham shopping center on Glebe Road. Parking is limited.

Mekong Center, 3107 Wilson Blvd. Open every day, 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. 527-2779. This store would be worth going miles out of your way for if necessary. Located in Clarendon in the middle of Northern Virginia's Vietnamese community, it is neat and well organized. The food is displayed to advantage, the meat display case is well stocked and the vegetables look crisp and fresh. The staff is friendly and willing to help, although little help is needed in this well-arranged store. This is another place to look for hard-to-find items.

Pacific Market, 3105 Wilson Blvd. Open every day, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. 524-4680. If you can pull yourself away from the lacquered furniture and silk fabrics in this Vietnamese department store, you'll find a very well-stocked grocery in the rear, and a Vietnamese restaurant and carry-out upstairs. This is a good place to find offbeat and unusual ingredients like taro-root powder, canned straw mushrooms and an enormous selection of dried noodles. It has the best oriental vegetable section in Northern Virginia, as well as fresh meat, fish and shellfish. Look for eel, bloodclams, and occasionally periwinkles. There are many choices--nine brands of soy sauce, several brands and sizes of hoisin sauce. Located across from the Clarendon Metro stop.

Saigon Market Inc., 3147 Wilson Blvd. Open every day, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. 522-9016. This Vietnamese store has a small selection of the more basic Chinese ingredients. The store carries a good selection of unusual vegetables, but a language barrier may prevent you from finding out what they are. If it's watercress you're after, this store has the And the prices are good.

Vietnam Center, 3133 Wilson Blvd. Open every day, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. 528-5500. This is another in the cluster of Vietnamese stores in the 3100 block of Wilson Boulevard. It has a moderate selection of basic Chinese ingredients, but an excellent choice of Philippine and Vietnamese ingredients. FALLS CHURCH

Asia Center Discount Oriental Groceries, 303 West Broad St. Open Mon. through Sat., 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. 533-2112. Only nominally Asian, this store has a wide selection of Turkish and Indian ingredients. There is a small supply of Chinese foods, but no Chinese fresh vegetables and no frozen foods. Shop here for basic ingredients only. But if you need Indian ingredients (a wide selection of spices) and fresh Indian breads, this is the place. The owner is friendly and goes out of his way to help find ingredients and suggest substitutions.

Asian Foods Inc., 6613 Wilson Blvd. Open Thurs. through Tues., 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. 534-1382. This store, in the Wilson Plaza Shopping Center, has a small selection of basic Chinese ingredients. But if you live in the area, take advantage of the good selection of Thai and Philippine ingredients.

Sam-Mi Oriental Market, 6674 Arlington Blvd. Open every day, 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. 532-2066. This store features Korean and Thai foods. The selection of Chinese ingredients is limited to basics, but there's an adequate selection of frozen seafood, including mussels, clams and other more unusual seafood in the freezer.

Vietnam Imports, 922 West Broad St. Open every day, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. 534-9441. This store is surprising--there's more inside than the outside leads you to believe. Though the shelves are a bit cluttered, they are well organized, and the staff can help you find chinese parsley, canned straw mushrooms, and fresh noodles. Root vegetables were displayed in boxes but the more fragile vegetables were refrigerated.

Vu's Market, 7248 Arlington Blvd. Open Mon. through Sat., 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sun., 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. 560-6865. This store is in the Black Angus Shopping Center across from Loehmann's Plaza. It carries mostly Vietnamese and Thai foods with a small stock of Chinese and Greek items. HERNDON

K.M. International, 313 Spring St. Open Mon. through Sat., 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. 435-4617. Who'd have thought the Herndon Industrial Park would be home to the United Nations of the food world? The oriental food in this store keeps international company--Indian, Pakistani, Arabian and Greek food share the shelves with Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Indonesian items. Olives are found among soy sauce and sesame oil. Breadth sacrifices depth--don't expect more than basic ingredients of each cuisine. Be sure to look inside the small white freezer, which is packed with such items as noodles, dim sum and banana leaves--a great boon to Indonesian food fans. McLEAN

Someplace Special Giant Gourmet, 1445 Chain Bridge Rd. Open Mon. through Sat., 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sun., 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. 448-0800. If you live in the area and need just a few basics for a Chinese dinner, look no further. Most dry goods are the China Bowl Brand; good quality if small quantity and high price. Ann Brody, food coordinator at the store, says she is looking for new suppliers to provide authentic ingredients in larger packages. The fish counter and butcher shop can provide nearly anything you need at its freshest. The deli section holds oriental dumplings and oriental-style salads, which change daily. This is the place to go when you want to use fresh shitake mushrooms, fresh lotus root or fresh water chestnuts, but be prepared to pay dearly for it.

Safeway International, 1330 Chain Bridge Rd. Open Mon. through Sat., 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sun., 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Safeway International may not be an oriental grocery, but McLean residents may find it's the most convenient place to look for these ingredients. In the past, this store had a better than average oriental-food section, but marketing changes have caused supply problems. Until they are solved, expect a poor selection of packaged goods. The meat department is quite another matter; personnel are willing to find special cuts or to cut meat to order. Like many produce departments of conventional supermarkets, this one offers fresh noodles and egg-roll wrappers as well as a good assortment of fresh oriental vegetables. SPRINGFIELD

Backlick Oriental Food Market, 6681 Backlick Rd. Open Mon. through Fri., 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sun., 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 569-8139. Basically, this is a Thai grocery, but it carries Japanese, Korean and Chinese food, too. The owner sometimes special-orders, and can get you Peking duck for a special party. Fresh-cooked bamboo shoots are often available (their taste is vastly superior to canned ones). Vegetables are fresh and crisp, and the service is friendly.

First Oriental Market, 7064 Spring Garden Dr. Open Mon. through Sat., 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sun., 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. 569-1110. This store is hidden away in a far corner of the Brookfield Shopping Center beside the Army recruiting office. The extensive selection of frozen seafood includes eel, quahogs, cooked mussels and oysters. Ask to see the Benriner vegetable slicer; it makes three sizes of julienned vegetables. The owners are helpful and the store is neat and well organized.

Springfield Oriental Market/Popp Shop, 6416 Brandon Ave. Open. Mon., 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Tues., 9:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Wed., 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Thurs., 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Fri. and Sat., 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sun, 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. 451-1014. This store is located in a shopping center near the Springfield exit of I-95, across the street from the Holiday Inn. It is well stocked with Japanese and Korean foods, but carries only basic Chinese ingredients. STERLING

Oriental Gift and Grocery Store, 241-D Harry Flood Byrd Highway (Rt. 7). Open Mon. through Sat., 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; Sun., noon to 5 p.m. 450-4031. This Chinese grocery in the Sugarland Plaza shopping center is very well stocked, suprisingly complete for being so remote. It would be considered a culinary prize in any small town. The staff is helpful and offers cooking suggestions as well as help with ingredients.