Monday, June 15, 2009

Crossover Dreams

A skill worth cultivating in an urban setting is to actually take advantage of the wealth of cultural diversity in residence. We celebrate how diverse we are, we read of the happenings around town, but the fact is we rarely if ever actually venture beyond our respective ghettos to get up close and personal with those with whom we live in close proximity. How do I know? Because whenever I am strolling the aisles of the ethnic grocery I am shopping, I am virtually the only round eyed, white, english only speaking, guy in the store. I have also noticed an ethnic food aisle growing in my supermarkets, yours too. The difference is the super market offerings have been culled down to the most neutral "suggestions" of the real thing, without actually being the real thing. I give you Pace salsa, or Prego spaghetti sauce.

Locavore's beware, almost none of the food I am going to suggest you consider is grown locally, but then neither is your pepper, salt, grain, cinnamon, raisins. or nuts. Cities of at least 75,000 are going to be host to stores that cater to one or more of these recent immigrant populations: Chinese (which has now evolved into a pan asian emporium), Indian, which ought to be considered the entire sub continent, Middle Eastern which usually includes the Mediterranean crescent Greece,Turkey, Cyprus, and Hispanic, which again sweeps the entire latin world and demands that you appreciate the distinctions between peoples from South America, Mexico, Cuba, the Caribbean, and African.

Shopping expeditions would be worth it for the sauces and condiments alone. If you crave the fire then you haven't lived till you bring home a sambal, sirancha, or banana sauce, or one of the variety of chili pastes available in any Asian market. Kimchee and those bags of ground chilies will lift you to new heights. New to my larder are large containers of fried "shallots" and fried garlic. Unlike the onion and garlic powders on supermarket shelves, these flakes are rich in flavor, and have real substance.

Let me share the items I regularly find in my Asian markets. Fresh vegetables including the ubiquitous Napa, long "japanese" eggplants, pea shoots, various forms of what I call Bok Choi but enjoy their own identity, sprouts, guava, persimmons, garlic, melons, and frozen purees of exotic fruits (also in Hispanic markets). I will create my own dim sum brunch from dumplings found in the freezer case. Fresh noodles, and dried formed from wheat, rice, and bean flours. Cans of pickled veggies, shoots, sprouts of things I almost can't imagine eating but enjoy. There is a cultural education to be had in these aisles.

Condiments include wide varieties of soy sauces, vinegars, bean spreads, mushrooms and dried blossoms and buds. Chinese style sausage is a treat as are the 6 packs of quail and ducks from Canada. In big city markets there is usually fish for sale and you won't believe how cheap it is. Freshness isn't an issue as most of the available fish are swimming. Spices round out the trip for me and I am always on the lookout for something advertised in native script which I have to ask about. There are never less than 10 distinct varieties of rice available. Try red.

The hispanic markets often have prepared foods available to eat in or carry out. Fried things, roasts, rice, and forms of stuffed packets filled with meats or veggies. We've mentioned hot sauces and herein the variety can be excruciating, both in scope and fire. The hispanic branded spices and dried pepper varieties are exciting and challenge the buyer to start to experiment with their own takes on moles and adobes. Olive oils from Spain, coffees from Miami based roasters, rices and a wide variety of beans are always on the shelves. Fruit drink offerings are exotic and make great mixers if you're into that. Many sizes and shapes of bananas (yes there are more than just one), plantains, and other roots can be the source of carbo loads. Excellent corn meal is always available.

Indian stores often sell travel tickets, pots and pans and videos among the dal, and curries and chutneys. Saris, scarfs, and rice cookers round out the experience.

Middle eastern stores also have types and styles of feta and other mid med cheeses, breads flat and twisted, stuffed veggies, olives, peppers, and prepared giant beans. Jars of eggplant and pepper spreads are delicious and easy to serve as a side or a sauce. Jams and canned fruits are usually high in fruit content and Halvah the ever addictive sweet sits on the counter near the cashier, "ok throw in a pound".

Russian immigrants are starting to aggregate and the market follows. In Chicago and NY Polish neighborhoods are redolent with the tang of kielbasa and other deli meats and treats.. Why wouldn't you visit? You will never buy a Hillshire smoked sausage again.

The point is: When coming to terms with what benefits accrue to those living in smart, sustainable, urban places, you might stop into the local market and leave some bread and while in the process pick up an entirely new set of resources to sustain, both your body and mind. You might just stay for coffee, tea, and a bowl of soup. You will extend the borders of your neighborhood. The true spirit of community.


  1. Us Locavores are not trying to “turn back the clock and replant the groves on which (the cities) were built.” We are trying to support a local economy and abutting rural entrepreneur farmers in addition to eating foods that we know how and where and with what they were grown. If I were to live in the euphemistically named Big Apple, I would be trying to buy as much fresh produce from local farms in New Joisy, upstate NY, and The Guy Land.

    Don’t forget that the diversity in our chain supermarket stores is due to the fact that they see a revenue generator in stocking packaged ethnic foods to cater to the growing international community. And yes, it is wonderful to explore and partake in those foods. No different then going back thousands of years to the spice traders who made a living hauling exotic spices from far away lands to their homelands. By the way, you CAN purchase local salt from the Maine Sea Salt Company.

    Personally, I like to know where and how my food is grown. Many local farmers are now growing some of the not so common produce. And they are supplying local ethnic restaurants and groceries with their produce. In our garden we are growing two kinds of Pok Choi, Kale, French Melons and many of the regional standards.

    On a recent stay in Boston I was surprised to see so many rooftop produce gardens from the top of my hotel room. Isn’t this just another “way and means to broaden the scope of human creativity”? I invite you to visit a local blogger’s site:

    Until you grow your own food in an urban environment then you may not realize the “truly meaningful exercise in the practice of urban living.” But actually, I didn’t know that one had to “practice” living in an urban environment.

  2. Asian markets are one of my favorite places to visit and shop and freshness and variety is always exciting... and I thank you always to introducing me to Marky's in Miami... great food! Your blog makes me hungary!
    By Tarina... who is currently in Europe and loving the markets in France and Italy!!!