It’s Saturday. The fridge is empty, and it’s time to trudge down the aisles of the usual supermarket for the same items you’ve bought a hundred times. When was the last time grocery shopping was an adventure, the last time you saw something new or even unusual at the supermarket? If it’s been a while, consider spicing things up by taking a trip to one of Rochester’s 15 ethnic grocery stores featuring Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, Mexican, East African and European specialties.
“Come into the store. We will help you find the ingredients for different dishes,” suggests Eav Ngov, owner of Asian Food Store. Among the more popular items exclusive to ethnic grocery stores like Asian Food Store and Saigon Far-East Oriental Market are fresh herbs used in stir fry and soups: citrusy lemongrass, potent, sweet Thai basil and astringent Kaffir lime.
Both stores carry a variety of seafood, Asian vegetables, noodles, soups, 10- to 50-pound bags of a variety of rice, and unique items, like Japanese eel and Durian (a spiky, pungent fruit), not found anywhere else in town.
All the labels at Rochester’s international grocery stores are in English (and the language of the country from which they derive) and are inspected and subject to the same FDA and Minnesota-state health standards as any other market.
Some of the products sold at international grocery stores are actually made in the U.S., but with absolute adherence to foreign recipes, such as Cevapi—a Bosnian breakfast sausage sold at Europe Grocery Store. There you will also find a nice selection of eastern European sauces and seasonings; Italian, French and Swiss cookies and chocolates; Turkish coffee; even a Dr. Pepper-like soda from Slovenia called Cockta.
Gems on the inside
Rochester’s international grocery stores don’t have as much flash as the big supermarkets, but as Karla Meyer, grocery manager of People’s Food Co-op (formerly the Good Food Store), says, “[the store] may not be as polished on the outside but there are gems on the inside.”
At the People’s Food Co-op, its gems are organic, non-GMO ethnic sauces and packaged goods, and its expansive bulk-food section filled with every spice, tea and herbal supplement from Agar powder to Xylitol.
Sample before you shop
If you’d prefer to try a few dishes before shopping for ingredients to make your own, check out the East African deli and coffee shop at Muna Halal 2 Market, where the Somali meat dish—chicken, goat, beef or camel—is Mediterranean and Indian influenced and served with a choice of rice or spaghetti.
La Poblana and Texano Groceries and Western Wear both offer authentic Mexican dishes at their food counters, as well as a small selection of Mexican groceries. A larger selection of beans, fresh meats, rice, canned traditional Mexican sauces, dried corn husks for tamales, colorful sweet breads, and spices can be found at El Gallo Mexican Grocery and El Gallo Mexican Grocery 2 (where there are also three walls of spices and herbs, including more than 10 different varieties of dried peppers).
No, it’s not all spicy
Two misconceptions about ethnic grocery stores are that Caucasians don’t shop there and the food is spicy. Jeevan Kanthi Rao, owner of Rice-N-Spice, an Indian grocery store, says about 10 percent of his customers are Caucasian. In the 10 years he has been in business, Jeevan says he has seen a consistent increase in Caucasian customers.
As for the flavor of Indian cuisine, Jeevan says, “Indian cooking is spicy—not hot—but balanced and flavorful.” It uses spices like warming cinnamon and cardamom, sour tamarind and dried mango and sweet Indian cane sugar.
Rice-N-Spice sells those items and various jarred chutneys and sauces, rice, noodles, dried beans, and an extensive section of prepared, frozen Indian dishes. For a list of Indian recipes to try, visit Rice-N-Spice’s blog at rice-n-spice.blogspot.com.
Marlene Petersen is a Rochester writer who had never had Somali cuisine or camel until this winter…and found it delicious.