Take a Food Vacation, Passport Optional

Shipping off to a foreign country soon and need a way to lessen the culture shock? Bored of the same HUMDRUM food and looking for a little culinary excitement? Why not head to the local ethnic market instead? International travel is a risky, uncomfortable, and expensive business, but if you can find an ethnic market near you, exotic destinations are easily reached from the comfort of your kitchen. I realize how tiring this sounds, but when I go grocery shopping I tend to stop at two or three stores. Sure, I could get almost everything I need at my local super-mega-humungous-mart, but I tend to only go there for things like batteries and diapers for my daughter. The majority of my shopping is done at ethnic markets where I can take a break from cultural monotony all the while learning some new foreign words.

The cultural addition to my grocery expeditions started when I first moved away from my hometown. The absence of local favorites like chili-covered tamarind lollypops and atole (a sweetened masa-based drink) from the local chain stores did nothing to quell my homesickness, and each care package received from my mother was thought of as a precious commodity. That is, until I found a small, hole-in-the-wall Mexican market hiding in a shabby strip mall. It felt like home—the offerings inside, not the shabby exterior. I went there once a week to stock up on my favorite soda and exchange pleasantries with the cashier. This was also the only place that stocked—what I believe is—acceptable hot sauce. A few times I took a friend or two and they couldn’t get over all the “weird” stuff for sale and “creepy” things I did, like greet the cashier on the way in. “Do you know that guy?” they would ask. “No. it’s a Mexican thing.” I wasn’t lying, it is.

I suppose this custom comes from the fact that these little stores are usually a big part of the surrounding community. Instead of making a pilgrimage to the nearest supermarket (usually not that close, the journey made more arduous by the fact that few people drive), one can walk, or better yet, send their children, for that one item missing from the pantry to make their meal complete at the store around the corner. Though I lived on the American side of the border growing up, that nicety was an important and welcome import. It didn’t take long for me to appreciate the fact that not only was I exposing my friends to my favorite snack foods, but I was also showing them bits of my culture and language too.

My next foray into shopping at specialty markets started with a book. A cookbook, to be precise. After mail-ordering a volume of what promised to be easy—I wonder if they meant that ironically—Chinese recipes, I had no choice but to drive the extra few miles out of my way to get some of the more authentic ingredients. What I found has kept me going back for more. My local Asian market has some of the best produce I’ve seen anywhere, and fresh fish that, if you are so inclined, they will fry for you at no extra cost. Hello, FISH TACOS! Goodbye dealing with splattering oil! But the best part has to be all the interesting and exotic looking foods. Shrimp flavored potato chips, seaweed and rice snacks, and vegetables I’d never heard of before all eventually made their way into my shopping cart. Lately though, my visits include me walking down the Korean aisle while I practice reading Hangul (the Korean written language) and talking shop about a shared interest, Korean soap operas, with one of the fish mongers.

So the next time you head to a big-box store to shop for the same old dinner you have every Wednesday, head toward something a little different and a lot tastier. After all, the best way to experience a culture is through its food, and it won’t hurt to chat up the cashiers while you’re there. If you’ve already been to an ethnic market, what yummy new foods did you discover on your culinary adventure?