You may have noticed that I often go to ethnic markets to find the ingredients that I use in my recipes. These markets make up a regular part of my food shopping routine. And yet often when I am there, I look around and think I may be one of the only non-immigrant Americans in these stores. Well, let me tell you- you are missing out!! Perhaps I am a little odd in the thrill I get when I go to ethnic markets and find a whole new range of products and tastes right in my backyard. But I am going to try to convince you that you should not ignore this precious resource, especially if you live in a major urban center. There are a few things I love about ethnic markets:
1) The prices are sometimes shockingly lower than at the regular grocery store. I think that part of this has to do with the fact that they don’t really compete with local grocery stores, I guess because very few mainstream Americans go there. This goes especially for produce, dried goods like lentils and rice, and spices. At Indian markets, I promise you can get large packages of fresh spices for a fraction of what you pay at the grocery store. I NEVER buy spices at the grocery store.
2) I love finding a reliable source for delicious things that are outside the scope of usual American grocery stores. I get giddy when I find oregano from the Greek Peloponnese, Jamaican Jerk paste, mustardy European mayonnaise, or even more basic things that simply do not match with mainstream American tastes or buying habits, like whole fish or shrimp with the heads on (did you know that shrimp come with heads? They impart a ton of flavor!). Incidently, I get the same thrill from stashing French toiletries in my bag and pulling them out at home, as if returning from an illicit shopping trip. It has always irked me that we are beholden to the narrow preferences and tastes of our countrymen, and I enjoy flaunting this whenever possible. I do the same in France, where I arrive with chipotle and hot sauce, my silent protest against their stubborn and near-fanatical national refusal to accept heat in their food. (This goes even for Tex Mex restaurants in France, where you will find things like chili without the chile powder spice, which strikes me as not unlike a black and white print of an impressionist painting.)
3) In case you haven’t noticed, I kind of have a beef with many American processed food products. Often, I find them artificial-tasting, over processed, overly sweetened, and containing far too many weird chemical ingredients. If you’re not extremely vigilant, you can end up realizing that the coffee cream you bought (in the dairy section) is actually made from partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, or the apple sauce you brought home (as I recently did) contains high fructose corn syrup, “natural apple flavors” and Yellow 6. One taste of the apple sauce and I thought I was eating green apple candy, which I hate. Americans either are used to or actually prefer these tastes, but this is not the case in other countries. I am constantly amazed that other manufacturers from around the world manage to produce comparable, shelf-stable products with nothing more than what you would add if you made it from scratch. Why is this so??? I have no idea but my solution is to mostly make things myself or sidestep the US food product market altogether (except for high-end or organic products) and buy imported sauces, frozen foods, jams, crackers, etc. which are easy to find thanks to Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and a variety of ethnic markets that I frequent.
I was talking to a friend of mine the other day, however, and she brought it to my attention that ethnic markets are completely unfamiliar to many people. This includes not only knowing what to buy but even where to go to find them. So I thought it would be useful to do a post about ethnic markets and specifically where to go in the Chicago area. I will offer an overview of what I especially like to look for in different types of markets and which ones in particular I love the most (these are skewed toward the North Side because this is where I live).
Like any city, the array of markets in Chicago is reflective of immigrant populations, and as such there are some notable absences. Most sadly to me, there are no extensive Italian markets, although I hear that Mario Bataly’s Eataly is coming soon. Don’t count on great prices there though!
Asian Markets (most common in Chicago are Chinese and Korean)
H Mart – 801 Civic Center Dr., Niles, IL – This place is truly the queen of Asian markets, and is worth a visit if you are at all interested in Korean cuisine or culture. It’s kind of a mall, with a gigantic grocery store surrounded by various food stalls, bakeries, cosmetic shops, and more. You can even buy a Korean-style toilet with lots of fancy buttons (what are they all for??) if you find the American ones inadequate. The real treat here is the extensive selection of fresh seafood. Look for: Homemade noodles, Korean pickled vegetables, great produce, and the best selection of fresh seafood in the entire Chicago area.
Joong Boo Market – 3333 N. Kimball – More convenient to downtown, you can get all the Asian staples here and they have a well-stocked home goods area. Look for: High quality tofu, ingredients for Korean barbecue.
Thuong Xa My Broadway Supermarket – 4879 N. Broadway- Well-stocked Vietnamese market that also carries a variety of Asian products. Look for: Very inexpensive knives that are fit for a samurai.
Middle Eastern Markets
Middle East Bakery – 1512 W. Foster – This small but excellent Middle Eastern market offers many of the Middle Eastern staples such as spice blends, olive oils, nuts and dried fruits, and flat breads. They also have some prepared foods including little pies, hummus and other dips. Look for: Labneh yogurt cheese, yogurt dips, and beautiful jars of honey and nuts that make a great topping for yogurt:
Nazareth Sweets – 4638 N. Kedzie Ave. – This place is a tiny bakery with the most exquisite, densely packed, rows of Middle Eastern pastry. They are uniformly sticky, gooey and nutty, made with various combinations of filo, honey, butter, pistachios or walnuts, and rose or orange flower water. Nut allergies, stay away.
Devon Avenue boasts a number of excellent Indian and Pakistani grocers. These are great for spices, rice, lentils, and a beautiful array of produce. I also highly recommend the frozen Indian meals which offer delicious vegetarian options made with straightforward ingredients and for very reasonable prices. The last one I bought was a sweet vegetable curry called Navrattan Korma, made by Deep Indian Gourmet, and it was great. Look for: Frozen naan, inexpensive spices, red lentils, and exceptional frozen breads and meals. Check out Patel Bros.- 2610 W. Devon Ave. and Fresh Farms- 2626 W. Devon Ave.
Eastern European Markets
Devon Market- 1440 W. Devon Ave.– This little grocery store has a convenient parking lot, a lot of nice produce and an array of Eastern European products, mostly Polish. Good Eastern European products include yogurt (you’ll never go back to Dannon Light…), bread, smoked sausage, jams, chocolate, and real fruit syrups for drinks. Look for: Blackcurrant Syrup, house-made bread, honey, and chocolate.
City Fresh Market- 3201 W. Devon Ave. Another great little Eastern European to check out if you’re looking for jarred vegetable spread, baklava, fresh breads and more.
These are all across the Chicago area (and many other cities with large Hispanic populations) and they are excellent places to get a wide variety of produce at good prices. Of course, there is also an array of (mostly Mexican) products if you are interested in exploring them. Some things to look out for are fresh tortillas, dried chiles, Mexican-style sour cream, Dulce de leche (cooked sweetened condensed milk) and tamales. You can also buy all the materials for making homemade tortillas, a fun project which I plan to do in a future post.
A few to check out are: Edgewater Produce – 5509 N. Clark St., Cermak Produce – 4234 N. Kedzie Ave., and what we like to call the Whole Foods of Mexican markets, Pete’s Fresh Market, which has a number of (all very inconvenient for me) locations across the Chicago area. There is also a small South American market on Southport called El Mercado – 3767 N. Southport Ave. that has a meat counter and a variety of Argentinian and Brazilian products.
So don’t be shy, check out your local markets and you will find a treasure trove of interesting things and tastes from other parts of the world!