If 2014 is the year we leave our culinary bubbles, having an intimate knowledge of global ingredients might be the next necessary step: Enter ethnic markets.
As it turns out, there’s plenty of them to choose from. Small Korean markets on the East Side to the mega Ali Baba International Market (9307 Wurzbach), which carries foodstuffs from Iraq, India, Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon, as well as Middle Eastern and Eastern European countries, all stock hard-to-find ingredients for when you’re trying to recreate a certain sushi roll or creamy hummus.
But a trip inside any of these stores can turn confusing, and likely expensive, especially if you’re new to the particular cuisine. Here are some dos and don’ts to help you along.
I recommend an initial exploratory first visit to familiarize yourself with the store. Most markets have a similar layout, which differs from mainstream groceries. You’ll find shelves of meal enhancers such as jarred sauces, as well as an area of fresh produce, dairy, plenty of frozen meals and, if you’re lucky, a meat counter (Ali Baba is one of the city’s few carriers of halal meat). Once you’ve become acquainted with a store layout (this could take a few laps through the shelves), you might consider setting a budget because things could get pricey.
Don’t be afraid to check out all the offerings. Minnano Japanese Store, which has sat at 7460 Callaghan, Ste 310 for more than eight years, was filled with bright colors and texts, usually Japanese. To remedy this, the store includes English labels and instructions on each product. Minnano’s Pocky lineup drew me in with a limited edition green tea flavor, while the vanilla mochi in the back freezer set me back $4. The store also carries a sizeable line of high-quality short- and medium-grain rice that runs from $15 to $25. For the sushi fanatics dying to make their own rolls, Minnano carries frozen tuna steaks, squid and octopus. My initial trip to the store rang up at more than $24 with ramen, fizzy Ramune sodas (they carry more than 10 varieties), miso soup packets and dried seaweed nori snacks rounding out my purchases.
Most prices are fair, but setting a budget or building a shopping list might help keep shoppers in line or at least avoid a giant candy haul. Those with a sweet tooth may be overwhelmed by the variety of unique treats available at most of these markets. Thankfully devoid of too many sweets, the Himalayan Bazar (8466 Fredericksburg, formerly the New India Bazar) held several shelves of Indian simmering sauces, Basmati rice and atta flour (for making chapatti, roti and other flatbreads), while offering readymade naan and samosas in the freezer aisle. If you’re down to make your own tikka masala or curry, invest some time in the spice aisle. Ali Baba’s and Himalayan Bazar both carry an exhaustive line of pre-batched garam masala, a blend of peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, cumin seeds and a few varieties of cardamom, while also offering dried chilies, thyme and more. But don’t get overzealous: The spices come in several sizes for one or two ounces to almost a pound. Buy only what you need to avoid having several mason jars worth of garam masala go bad in your spice cabinet (guilty).
Another word of caution before becoming enamored with one particular market is to shop around. While Las Americas Latin Market (6623 San Pedro) caters to all of Mexico and South America with its variety of processed snacks such as plantain chips, kitchen must-haves, every Goya product you can imagine, ready-to-heat arepas and fresh root starches like yucca, yautia and ñame (or yam), the mercado doesn’t carry much fresh meat unlike your local La Michoacana. Ali Baba might be the largest store (it’s almost twice as large as the Quarry’s Trader Joe’s), but may not carry a certain brand of yogurt soda (aka doogh) available at Salaam International Specialty Food Market (3727 Colony Drive). Minnano’s carries an extensive ramen selection, but why not try udon bowls available at Tim’s Oriental & Seafood Market (7015 Bandera, Ste 8) or the Seoul Oriental Food Market (1027 Rittiman, Ste 101)?
Lastly, don’t leave the store as befuddled as you entered it, even if this requires flagging down an employee to help you decide what za’atar spice mix to go home with or what brand of samosas is best. Get ready to have your palate expanded.