Staycation series: Exploring your town’s ethnic markets

If you’ve never been to your neighborhood ethnic market or international supermarket, now is the time to start. If you’re stuck not traveling, but you’re comfortable with in-person grocery shopping, exploring these stores is an incredibly fun and delicious way to kill an hour or so. Not only can you stock up on your normal staples (often for cheaper), but you can pick up ingredients to make your favorite meals…sushi, Korean barbeque, chorizo, chicken tikka masala…start your dreaming. Or, if you’re not into cooking, you can pick up ready-made lunch or dinner, dine in, or stock up on snacks to go. 

Almost equally as fun as shopping for food is gift shopping. If you need a gift for a travel-minded friend, international markets are the perfect places to build them a care package, gift basket, or find unique housewares, spirits, and other gifts. Below are some of my favorite staples that I often stock up on at each category of market.

Pan-Asian

Explore the wide variety of amazing, fresh, exotic, and inexpensive produce (even novelty produce like intoxicatingly scented Buddha’s hand or square watermelons)…you can find lychee, rambutan, fresh herbs, root vegetables, and things you didn’t even know existed–it’s like shopping in a Dr. Seuss book. Also, study wide varieties of tofu (love the puffs); teas as far as the eye can see; dried seaweed as far as the eye can see; fresh fish for sushi fixins; mochi (ice cream and traditional); candy and snacks galore (matcha Pocky, little mushroom shaped cookies, and shrimp flavored chips). This is also the place to grab pre-marinated meat, kimchi, frozen dumplings, stir fry sauces, marinades, Kewpie mayo, or anything else that makes cooking a full meal easy and delicious.
Favorite non food items include: Korean beauty products; sake; sushi stuff (e.g., nice chopsticks, platters, tiny soy sauce bowls in fun shapes); adorable bento lunch boxes and containers for the kids; small appliances; quirky kitchen tools; toiletries; and perfume. 

Pan-Latin and/or Mexican

Cream/crema from everywhere you can imagine…try Salvadoran cream first. I don’t know how I stumbled on this but it was life changing; swap out your sour cream for crema during your next Latin-inspired meal and thank me later. You can also find plenty of new-to-you cheeses; tortilla masa; fresh sausages (chorizo and portuguese sausage or linguiça); tropical fruits; actually ripe avocados…you know what I mean; fun sodas; cactus; nice fresh cilantro; hard to find herbs and teas; hot sauces and interesting pastes; dried chiles galore; tomatillos!; pressed, unrefined cane sugar; prepared food that doesn’t stop at delicious pastries and bread; and cookware like tortilla presses and comal. 

Indian

Indian markets are probably my favorite markets, but are in the realm of the ones I know least about. I’m most often on the hunt for mass quantities of quality spices that I use to make homemade chai, rubs, and for daily-use items like whole peppercorns–Indian marts have large bags of any spice you could ever imagine, sold at a fraction of the price you’ll pay (even for small bottles) at your standard market. I also stock up on dried beans and lentils, okra, eggplant, fresh fenugreek and curry leaves (which I dry and bottle for the year ahead), bitter melon (even though the husband hates it), and I usually pick a peck of some produce I’ve never seen before…Googling what to do with it after. Indian markets are also my favorite place to shop for snacks (other than the pan-Asian marts); if you like the flavors commonly found in Indian food, you’ll love pretty much anything you grab off of the shelf. Don’t think these snacks are any healthier than your average bag of Doritos…Indian sev (any region) is addictive and hits your stomach like bricks. You need also to seek out sweets like barfi (my favorite out of nearly all desserts), which are usually set aside in a “handmade” cooler, or you can buy them frozen. You can also find ice cream/kulfi in exotic flavors like cardamom and rose. And you will not escape the freshly made samosas by the register. 
Favorite non food items include: Soaps, cardamom oil, incense and burners, decor, rose water, orange flower water.

Halal market

These markets are my one stop-shop for huge jugs of decent olive oil, tahini, labneh (oh please buy this if it’s the only new thing you explore this year), feta, sweets like Turkish delight and homemade baklava, bulk spice blends, dates, sauces and pastes, and meat that you can trust. 

German markt

These are way more rare than the others, but I have been lucky enough to live within close proximity to one in the past. The BEST place for deli, meats, wursts, liverwurst, potato salads, unique pastries (with copious poppy seeds or cake layers), and oh my the BREADS, condiments (like curry katsup), interesting cheeses like Handkäse or Limburger, a huge variety of Haribo gummies and other candy (hello marzipan kartoffeln), overpriced imported beer and wine, and very serious and too-healthy looking snacks.  

Let us know your favorite international market adventure! We know you have one. And check out our associated but seldomly updated IG account: @chips_of_the_world!

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