Growing up Lebanese, I often accompanied my mother or grandmother to the local Arab grocery store. Not only did it carry the bread, spices, nuts and olives my family liked to use, it was the only store around that did. This was the 1980’s – za’atar, tahini, Syrian allspice, dried pumpkin seeds and assorted Greek, French and Italian olives were not available at every Whole Foods. #thestruggle.
I loved the warm comfort of knowing the aromas and familiarity of seemingly “exotic” items in the stores, and how my family often knew if not the folks working at the store at the time, than at least some of the other shoppers.
For this reason, I love browsing in ethnic grocery stores. They’re often tiny and crammed to the brim with stuff. There may be some dust on the jars or you might find the rice in 3 different places, but for me that adds to the fun of the browse.
I know that ethnic markets can be intimidating if you don’t speak the language or are not familiar with the ingredients. More often that not, the shop clerks are happy educate you on what you’re seeing; but I personally like to ask a fellow shopper what they plan to do with an item. I like to browse the shops using the aisle markers or pictures on the ingredients (seriously) as a guide. The additional benefit to shopping in your local ethnic market is that it’s usually way, way cheaper than purchasing from a grocery store. Items are not “specialty” here, they’re just items!
One of my favorite spots here in Cincinnati is Saigon Market. Specializing in all Asian foods, as well as some Middle Eastern and European items – Saigon Market always offers up something new to try.
On this visit, I purchased some Asian staples to restock my freezer and pantry:
Tom Ka paste: I was looking for peanut sauce for noodle and stir fry dishes, but was told they were out. I decided to try this instead. I love Tom Ka soup (and it’s unique flavor of galangal, lime, coconut and shallot sauce sings to my umami -loving soul) so I thought this might be an interesting substitute sauce.
Green Pickled Mango: I love all things pickled and do prefer mango to be tart versus overly sweet. A staple of SE Asian meals, pickled mangoes appear often with Indian meals as well.
Coconut milk: At Asian markets they sell coconut milk in smaller cans, amen! Sometimes you just need a little, not a full 14oz can. (plus this little guy was .95c – a full size can at my Kroger costs $3.19!)
Chicken/Vegetable Potstickers and Vegetable Spring Rolls: I keep both of these items in my freezer at all times for quick snacks or when friends stop by
Brown Rice Vermicelli Noodles: I make ALOT of Asian-style soups at home, so these noodles are a constant at my house. Finding BROWN RICE noodles can be difficult to find; but again, the Asian market stocks it easily AND his huge packet was $1.69. Um, YES.
Big ole piece of fresh ginger: Something I always have on-hand for soups or throwing into tea.
Dried Woodear mushrooms: I’m a big fan of dried mushrooms as they don’t expire and are easy to use. Already dried and sliced, these mushrooms make a perfect dumpling filling or tossed into a stir fry with chicken. Bonus; this bag was $1.59. Yup. I’ll take them.
The grand total for these “specialty” items was $18.80. Yup, for less than $20, I have a whole assortment of fun new items to experiment with in the kitchen.
Get out there and explore the world through food.