Issue 28

The Ethnically Enhanced Pantry

The Ethnically Enhanced Pantry

Define Ethnic:

The categories of culinary ethnicity in this article are mine, and are a very general clumsy way to clump an entire globe and time-line of human eating into a very small space. The clumps and delineations are not even real, geographically speaking, and even if they were, we couldn’t give props to all the differences between regional cuisines within each area; that’s what books and ethnographies are for. I know India and the Middle East and Japan are considered part of Asia, and I know there are lots of other types of markets and ethnic traditions out there. This little jaunt is meant to be a summary, a tasting menu, if you will. And if I’ve left out anything, you have to realize that not everything will fit on the table, or the page. These are simply some of the foods I look for, and the different types of markets I look in, and I hope you will, too.

Define Tradition:

What would traditional Italian cuisine be without tomatoes? There would be no Pizza Margherita or Marinara Sauce, that’s for sure. And what would Indian and Southeast Asian and Chinese food be without hot peppers (chiles)? There certainly would be no fiery Tikka Masalas or Thai Curries, or Szechuan Chickens without little capsaicin bombs. But those dishes are no ancient tradition: tomatoes and chiles (both hot and mild) evolved, were domesticated and originated in America. And though some Europeans might have been initially skeptical about these members of the nightshade family (some others are poisonous,) tomatoes and chiles became integral building blocks to so many cuisines outside the Americas, we couldn’t list them all here. Hmmm. If some of the most ancient food traditions in the world could change so radically, maybe it’s time for a little more culinary broad-mindedness.

Define Local:

When you want food that is as fresh as possible, as authentic as possible, and as cheap as possible, you should go to the source. Buying local produce makes sense because it is fresher and comes in greater variety at the Farmer’s Market than at your typical grocery. Local meats such as the grass-fed beef and farm range chicken sold by the Nebraska Food Coop and other local growers are tastier, and the farming practices are easier to find out about. Increasingly, more local produce is found in our regular groceries, but what about the stuff we’ve never bought locally? What about spices? Try buying local cinnamon and nutmeg in Nebraska…. Of course you can’t, these are tropical products, as are vanilla, bananas, coffee, tea, and black pepper. And who cooks without at least one of these? You can find soy sauce and curry powder in groceries, but what about basmati rice? What about whole dried ginger? What about sesame seeds? You might find these things at a mega-mart, but like most Europeans in historical times, you’ll get a precious little container of dubious quality that cost you a mint. But there are other cultures, tropical cultures, let’s say, whose cuisines use these things with much greater regularity.

Define Gourmet:

I would argue that there is no such thing as gourmet food or gourmet food items. Aren’t gourmet foods just ones that someone else rates as tres magnifique? And expensive doesn’t mean good. If caviar makes you yak, it could cost a thousand dollars and to you, it’ll be just icky fish eggs. Exclusive might be another synonym for gourmet, but what is hard to find for one person might be run of the mill for someone else. Recall that the poor laborers in the New England of our colonial days demanded that they not be fed lobster more than three times a week because it was poverty food. Many foods are common enough but are not found cheaply (really good green or black tea, for example.) It could be, however, that something very similar exists for less money and is being bought all the time by people who use that product much more frequently.

Define Unusual:

A few years ago, offal (innards and organs) was a huge trend in the fine dining restaurant world, giving credit to the statement that one man’s trash is another man’s tripe. I’ll never forget trucking over to a meat-packing plant in search of a sheep stomach for my dear Scottish husband’s Thanksgiving haggis recipe. The man I ordered it from must have thought I was a raving lunatic, and I was inclined to agree when he handed me a twenty pound box. Here in the Midwest, cow’s stomach was all I could find … and who knew it was so much … bigger? We ended up using aluminum foil.

Maybe you need an “unusual” holiday ingredient like pickling spices for lutefisk or decent marscarpone for tiramisu. Or maybe you just want some variety in your diet: an alternative starch for dinner, a new variety of eggplant, something fast and frozen besides tater tots. Maybe you need chickpea flour, not because you’re making papadums (Indian crispy flatbread) but because you have celiac or some other version of gluten sensitivity, or perhaps you just want to up the protein quotient in your baked goods. There are plenty of unusual things in ethnic markets, but there are even more that you will recognize.

All Roads Lead to India:

Westerners once used whole armies to acquire black pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, and other exotic spices, but now all you need is a few dollars and an Indian Market. Throw those horrible dusty little cans of powder in the trash and assign a micro-grater or coffee grinder to some whole spices. Why are whole spices better? Because the minute you cut into them, just like a watermelon, they start to go bad. The longer they stay in their natural state, the fresher they’ll be when you use them. If a nice mild curry is anywhere on your radar, you need to google and pick a recipe, and get some whole spices.

You’ll never use curry powder again, unless you’re like my husband, who sprinkles it on anything pre-prepared and bland like a mad Cajun with a bottle of hot sauce. The Indian Markets carry lots of different curry powders as well as whole spices such as anise seed, black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, fennel, dried ginger, mustard seed, and star anise. Everything from roasted potatoes to grilled lamb can go from so-so to superb with a whole ground version of one of these spices. You’ll smell and taste the difference, even if all you do is make hot cocoa or cider and put a whole cinnamon stick in the cup.

Chickpea flour (or garbanzo bean flour or gram flour) is a fabulous gluten-free substitute for flour, and it makes an awesome protein kick to anything and lightens up baked goods such as waffles, pancakes, crepes, cookies, and breads. I now use it as a starchy binder for my home-made granola, and its nutty flavor is stupendous for making chewy moist chocolate chip cookies.

Sesame seeds are expensive and come in teeny little jars, except at the Indian markets where they come in bags for much less. If you are making sesame cookies, granola, sesame chicken, or sesame yeast rolls, this is a much better place to get them, and you can get black sesame seeds too, which are pretty on stir-fry and have an intense complex flavor.

Tea is something the British take seriously, and that still goes for inhabitants of many of the countries that were colonized by them, the US included. But our tea has become so weakened down and powdered out that most of what you find in grocery stores has very little of what you’re actually paying for: tea. You can buy a ridiculous miniscule tin for seven or eight dollars that is supposed to be gourmet and authentic, or you can go to an Indian Market and get some fantastic loose leaf black tea in a huge box for about 4 bucks. I know, you have to strain it, but most people have a strainer. I served iced black tea that I’d made in a few seconds to a friend and she exclaimed, “This is the best tea I’ve ever had! What’s in this?” I smiled. “Tea.” Trust me, it’s worth it.

If you still haven’t had basmati rice, then you need to run out and get some now. Basmati is a fragrant, fluffy, quick cooking (15 minutes), nutty-tasting, firm rice that is increasingly available here. It appeals to many Americans because it is not sticky, and every grain separates nicely during cooking. Indian markets have many varieties and brands, but if you are not sure which one to get, ask the people who work in the store. Most of the time I say, “Which one do you use?” This works great for soy sauce, too, because the employees aren’t going to buy the cheapest one, but they won’t buy the most expensive one either. You have to really be trying to mess up basmati, a pan with a lid and an inch more water than the top level of the rice is all you need. Brown basmati takes longer to cook, but I like it much more than most other brown rice varieties.

 

Other things to also look for at the IM:

  • Lentils, or Daal, yellow or red or green or brown.
  • Coconut milk and dried coconut (much better than what groceries offer) sweetened and unsweetened.
  • Chutneys such as Mango Pickle to accompany meats, fish and potatoes.
  • Whole wheat and regular flatbread or roti in the refrigerated section.
  • Fresh produce such as okra, eggplants, melons, turnips, fresh ginger and a wide assortment of Indian veggies.
  • Frozen prepared food (I know! But sometimes you need a break!) like curries, pakoras and samosas.
  • Deserts like gulab jamun (my kids love these) a kind of doughnut soaked in syrup.

 

The Glorious Middle East

Not to be underestimated are Middle Eastern markets, where you can find a lot more than grape leaves and rosewater. There is small couscous and the bigger variety as well, bulgur wheat, a great array of dried figs, dates, apricots and other dried fruits. Most of these shops have frozen lamb and goat. Yes, goat! It is great in stews and braises. The flatbread is gorgeous, and tasty and it is kept in the freezer to be thawed when you need a piece. That pita bread you’re getting in the megamart will look sad in comparison. And there is Mahamul, which a Lebanese friend once presented me with, made from scratch. They are little pastries made with semolina flour and filled with dried fruit and they are addictive! You’ll see a lot of spices here too, as well as good black tea.

Land of the Rising Sushi

Of course you can find fun things at a Japanese market, like chopstick holders and spoons with little kitties on them, but you can find staples too, that belong in your pantry and are much better than the American-ized versions. Soy Sauce is something I never buy in groceries anymore, and there are so many nice ones in generous bottles. Remember the soy sauce question and ask the employees. If you enjoy green tea, and almost everyone does now, since they put it in practically everything—what’s next? Green tea coffee and muffins?—you should really go the Japanese Market.

You can find good green tea in bags, awesome dark-roasted and fermented green teas, full-leaf bitter green teas, and even powdered green tea which is great for making green tea ice cream (my son’s fave.) And you don’t have to like raw fish to eat sushi. One more time, it never hurts to repeat: Sashimi is raw fish, Sushi is rice with lots of different things like egg, smoked fish, caviar, vegetables, tofu, seared fish, and smoked eel. Miso (white and darker varieties) is a fermented salty bean paste that gives flavor to soups and stir-fries, and is kept refrigerated.

The JM will have just about any type of noodle from rice to bean thread to wheat and buckwheat udon. It can be really fun to just experiment, and even just trying a different type of instant ramen can be an eye-opener. There are wonderful rice crackers, some spicy, some sweet, and all delicious. And there is lastly, not to say leastly, rice. You cannot make sushi or fried rice or decent stir-fry without a good Asian variety of rice. And there are many … maybe too many. But just ask. Use the goldilocks rule here too (not too cheap, not too pricey) and do read the label because most Asian rice is labeled in English as well, and you don’t want to end up with sweet rice (used in desserts and turns to mush) unless you are looking for it.

Asia: It’s Big, Really, Really Big

An Eastern Asian Market is going to have an enormous range of foods and produce, and “Asian” is a pathetic abbreviation for so many wonderful culinary cultures, but it is a fact that most markets outside of large coastal cities won’t specialize much, and are generally stocked with a range of products from China, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Korea. You can usually find nice produce, including fresh ginger, snow peas, fresh coriander or cilantro, bamboo shoots, bok choy and other types of eastern greens and cabbages, and different types of tofu. Chile paste and chile sauces are very common, and fish sauce may not be your thing, but you cannot make good Pad Thai without it.

As Marco Polo saw, noodles will be there in abundance, made from just about anything you can think of. And there are plenty of different rices, especially Jasmine, which is fragrant and very like basmati. In general, Japanese soy sauces tend to me quite mild, but Asian sauces can be much more robust, and often are good for cooking where intense flavor is wanted. For those seeking starches and flour with no gluten, Asian groceries offer flour made from rice, tapioca, millet, sorghum, and buckwheat (which is related to rhubarb and not actually wheat.) You can also find arrowroot powder which is the single best thickener for Asian style cooking and wonderful because, unlike cornstarch, it can be added straight into boiling liquid and will not clump. Check out the frozen fish, and don’t forget to try the kimchee.

South of Many Borders

Latin Markets were one of the first ethnic groceries I learned about when my Venezuelan friends introduced me to arepas. These are little corncakes made from very fine grits, called harina, which are hydrated and then toasted on the outside and stuffed with ham and cheese for breakfast. I learned to make arepas from a master, but there are videos online, and you can learn too, but be warned, they are good enough to make a grown man cry. I know, I’ve seen it—just so you know. There are many varieties of harina, from course and gritty to light and floury, and most are used for tortillas, the wrappings for tamales, and for thickeners in stews. Pumpkin seeds and pine nuts are common, and not in itty bitty packages. You can find tomatoes, tomatillos (a tomato relative and the stuff they make salsa verde from) and many, many varieties of chiles: hot, mild, fresh, dried, smoked, canned, pickled and fermented.

There is other good produce, including plantains (a starchy banana relative) and yuca (not yucca like in the Mojave Desert, this is a starchy sweet root) and many wonderful tropical fruits that will usually be much fresher and riper because these markets experience high turnover. You can get corn husks (yes, in Nebraska!) that can be soaked and used to steam tamales in, and you will also find many of the same spices that are available in Indian markets. Cinnamon and cumin are essential to a great many Mexican dishes, and the web is chock full of great chefs dedicated to showing the much varied faces of Mexican and Latin American cuisine that do not involve hot chiles.

What About the Rest of the World?

It’s a big tasty world out there, and how lucky are we to be able to sample it? As you shop, you will see a lot of crossover in these ethnic markets. So many African dishes rely on New World Foods like chiles and corn, as well as the Old World staples of okra, squashes, and rice, and an Indian or Asian market is likely to have a lot of the things an African chef might be seeking. Increasingly, these foods are getting their own market share and their own markets. Less and less, do we see many markets with specific European foods on offer, simply because our country was early overrun with European foodways, and that has become our regular old way to eat. Still, it behooves us to seek out Italian cheeses, French wines, German sausages, Lithuanian tortes, and Jewish hallah bread wherever we can find them, and as close to the source as possible.

A narrow, limited diet is not a healthy one. Humans were meant to eat and thrive on a broad, varied diet. A well-travelled palette can be had right here in the Midwest. Ethnic markets are places to gently educate palettes and they are also havens for people with restrictions of diet or taste: you can decide what you like and what you want to try. So go ahead. Start your own odyssey of food, a kind of Food Trek … to explore strange new worlds of flavor and seek out new civilizations of taste, and boldly go where no man has gone before!   Sorry. Okay, lots of people have been there before, but if you haven’t yet, get a move on! Where first? Well, as Captain Kirk famously said when asked what heading to plot, he flipped his hand at the star-filled screen and said, “Out there … thataway.”

Ann Summers

Ann Summers

Ann Summers is not a 40-umpthing-year old rock climber who got shut down in Boulder Canyon and drowned her failure in a microbrewery. She is neither a mother of two, a fan of Latin plant names nor a lover of fine Italian Grappa. You’ll not catch her shooting guns for fun or hollering like a redneck. She hates Shakespeare, and doesn’t call a certain fast food chain “The Scottish Restaurant.” She turns her nose up at organic yellow beets, eschews fresh oysters, and loathes chubby guinea pigs with Violent Femmes hairdos. She is also a dreadful liar


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