sine qua nom
July 18, 2010 3:58 PM   Subscribe

I live in an area of great food-market diversity. Tell me about some awesome (vegetarian) food products of foreign provenance, and how I can use them!

I recently moved from a rural area of Europe (great fresh local produce, but very little variety) to a highly-diverse area of my home city in the US. I have easy access to Indian, East Asian, Brazilian, Central American, Slavic, Middle Eastern, Italian, and pretty much whatever other kinds of grocery stores. I want to take advantage of this variety instead of always reaching for the same old when I do my shopping.

I'd like to hear about some delicious, less-well-known products I can buy, and some ways I can incorporate them. This could be produce, a spice, a prepared product (like an integral sauce), a baked good, who knows-- but I am looking for stuff to use as parts of meals, not things that constitute a full meal themselves. Just looking to branch out and diversify here. I guess the vague guideline here is "things that could not be found in a mid-sized mainstream American supermarket".

posted by threeants to Food & Drink (23 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
That's a pretty broad base, but things like curry pastes and powdered red pepper and spice blends like chaat masala (Indian, East Asian) or harissa and za'atar and dried/canned favas (Middle Eastern) or creamed paprika in a tube and ajvar and its Balkan/Caucasian cousins (Slavic) will get the ball rolling.

It might be good to focus on the ethnic groceries one at a time, so you don't get too overwhelmed: Middle Eastern and Indian places will be your best starting points, as you won't need to check as much for hidden meat/fish.
posted by holgate at 4:13 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Japanese and Korean food stores sell inari pockets. They are, basically, deep fried and seasoned (in a sweetish rice wine sauce) tofu skins. You can stuff them with sushi rice to make inari zushi, but they are also awesome for making basic homemade asian food more tasty. I like to slice them and add them to miso soup, or throw them whole intobowls of noodle (udon or soba) soup. They are typically found in both the refrigerated and freezer sections of the grocery store in bags.

I would highly recommend World Vegetarian cookbook by Madhur Jaffrey as a source of recipes incorporating ingredients from all over the world.
posted by Ladysin at 4:17 PM on July 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Sumac. Fava beans. Ghee. Curry leaves. An idli steamer. Soba noodles. Wakame. Furikake. Rice paper wrappers. Masa flour. Tomatillos. Chiles. Tahini. Bulgar wheat. White miso paste. Frozen gyoza. Pulses. Five spice powder. Asafoetida.
posted by goblinbox at 4:18 PM on July 18, 2010

Thanks for the answers so far! I'm definitely excited by the quantity of your suggestions, but I'd be willing to sacrifice some listiness for description/suggestions. For example, I know tomatillos exist, but I would have absolutely no idea what to do with one. Or, I know bulgur is used to make tabbouleh but am unaware of any potential other uses. Etc.
posted by threeants at 4:23 PM on July 18, 2010

Sloppily, by location:

Middle East

Sumac is a spice used to make za'atar.
Fava beans make ful medammes.
Tahini goes in hummus and is used to make tahini sauce.
Bulgar wheat for tabbouli, of course, or as a side dish like a pilaf (I put 1/4 c bulgar in my veggie chili for texture).


Ghee (clarified butter) is the fat you use in Indian curries.
Curry leaves go in curries!
An idli steamer is used to make idli, little flying saucer shapes that go under sambar (a dhal with tamarind and veggies).
Pulses are lentils - red, green, black, etc. - and used to make dhals and soups.
Asafoetida is a spice used in many curry recipes.


Soba noodles are buckwheat noodles, and can be used in tons of Japanese-style pasta dishes.
Wakame is a seaweed you can make salads with or put in miso soup.
Furikake is a savory sprinkle that goes on rice (many have fish, some do not).
Rice paper wrappers are used for summer rolls (basically un-fried spring rolls).
White miso paste for miso soup, or as a flavoring in any soup or stew.
Frozen gyoza (potstickers) are available vegetarian and cook up quick.


Masa flour for tamales.
Tomatillos go in salsa verde.
Chiles go in curries and salsas.
posted by goblinbox at 4:44 PM on July 18, 2010

Wow, thanks! Sorry if I put you on the spot there; I wasn't trying to be demanding.
posted by threeants at 4:48 PM on July 18, 2010

No problem. I love all these foods and was pleased to dig up info for you. :-)
posted by goblinbox at 5:00 PM on July 18, 2010

Here's another Japanese recipe that is super delicious. I've substituted in various vegetables, so it's also easy to work with.

I've recently fallen in love with South Indian food, which is mostly vegetarian, and just ordered this book. I haven't actually gotten it yet, but it sounds like it's going to be great w/r/t Indian foods/spices.

And (since I basically also have to suggest this) Mark Bittman's How to cook Everything Vegetarian, has lots of 'ethnic' recipes, and goes into detail about how to cook all kinds of vegetables, fruits, and with all kinds of spices.
posted by grapesaresour at 5:12 PM on July 18, 2010

My local Chinese market (in Boston) carries pressed tofu, which works well in stir-fries if you marinate it first (in soy sauce and a bit of rice vinegar say). Myers and Chang makes a pretty good sandwich using pressed tofu that might be fun to emulate. I've also had success using Chinese broccoli in a stir-fry (stalks and a bit of the greens).
posted by serathen at 5:18 PM on July 18, 2010

Came in to talk up ajvar, holgate beat me to it.
posted by gimonca at 6:08 PM on July 18, 2010

Just Hungry will give you the run-down of Japanese kitchen staples and cooking methods. There are similar (if not as comprehensive) sites for lots of other cuisines, and they can be your reference point.
posted by holgate at 6:09 PM on July 18, 2010

Came in to talk up ajvar, holgate beat me to it.

Heh. It's fantastic: roasted pepper and aubergine/eggplant puree, used as a dip or a sandwich condiment (with meat or meat substitutes) and packed with flavour. The local Russian market has Serbian and Moldovan varieties, in mild or hot varieties.

Something I've mentioned here before: you may prefer the tea and coffee that's sold at the ethnic groceries to the supermarket varieties, and they fill the gap between lower end Folgers/Lipton stuff and premium single-estate stuff. Eastern European groceries also sell really good concentrated fruit syrups meant to be diluted with still or sparkling water, which are far better than supermarket "juice"; Middle Eastern ones often sell Vimto concentrate.
posted by holgate at 6:16 PM on July 18, 2010

A fun and easy Indian snack is papad, a savory lentil wafer. You can often buy them in pre-made packages (they look like this) that only take a few seconds to cook in a hot skillet with a little oil. The varieties with pepper in them taste especially good dipped in a sweet chutney, which you can find in jars in the Indian section. Or you can eat them with finely chopped tomatoes, onions, cucumber, and a sprinkle of lemon juice, like Indian corn chips and salsa.

Chaat masala, which you can also often find in the Indian section, is a hot and sour spice mixture used on a lot of Indian street snacks. It's great on corn roasted in the husk, cucumber slices, fresh roasted nuts, and a variety of other vegetables and fruits. Watch out for chaat masalas that contain kala namak (black salt); it has a very sulfurous taste and is acquired taste.

Ginger-garlic paste in jars is a quick and very useful addition to Indian recipes. Many great recipes start with several heaping spoonfuls of the stuff browned in oil. Also look for high-quality Indian curry powders and masalas, especially if there are local stores that grind their own spice mixtures; they'll be miles above the tinned yellow turmeric-based stuff you get at the grocery.
posted by bookish at 6:23 PM on July 18, 2010

I know bulgur is used to make tabbouleh but am unaware of any potential other uses.

I posted Lemony Bulgar Salad with Olives, Raisins and Pine Nuts over in MetaChat awhile ago. It's adapted from Cool Kitchen, one of my favorite cookbooks.
posted by marsha56 at 6:56 PM on July 18, 2010

Roasted rice powder, found in SE Asian markets, is great to sprinkle on salads to add a nice toasty flavor. (It goes in larb, if you've ever had that)

Fried onion paste (Asian or Indian markets) is basically umami concentrate. Add a little to rice or grains before you cook them, or to stir-fries, or in a quesadilla, or basically anything that needs a little more deliciousness.

You probably already know about sriracha, but if not, get some right now! It's a delicious garlicky hot sauce that is good on everything.

Most Asian markets also have peeled garlic cloves, which taste way better than crushed garlic in a jar and give you more options of how to use them, but are still soooo much more convenient than garlic with the skins on.
posted by exceptinsects at 10:26 PM on July 18, 2010

Try the pomegranate molasses in Middle Eastern supermarkets. It's lovely on salads, drizzled on grilled aubergine with freshly ground pepper, or even ice cream.

If your local ME supermarket is bustling, and especially if it sells goods by weight, try getting pine nuts (and other nuts) from here. They'll be better, fresher, cheaper. How to use them: snack on them, toast them gently in a pan and sprinkle on pastas or salads. Have a taste and you'll see what prepared foods you want to use them for.

As a Pakistani, I urge you to go to a South Asian store to buy some proper basmati rice and Chaunsa or Alphonso mangoes which are presently in season. If you choose to get boxed spice mixes (which come with fairly detailed instructions), I recommend the Shan brand. They also have my favourite garam masala, which is typically used to add depth and roundness of flavour by sprinkling on foods as they're cooked.
posted by tavegyl at 1:24 AM on July 19, 2010

I don't know where you were in Europe but have you had samphire? It tastes a bit like asparagus but is naturally very salt. It just needs to be steamed for a couple of minutes and can be served on its own with butter or goes great with fish.

Perhaps a bit obvious but tamarid paste is wonderful stuff - sweet and dark and thick and rich - and is an integral part of pad thai and loads of other Indian and Asian cooking.
posted by ninebelow at 3:51 AM on July 19, 2010

Could I piggy back on this question and ask for a miso primer?

Tried to make miso soup recently and it didnt go too well. Came away from my local chinese supermarket (in the UK) with some Miso in a tub with a foil cover like a margarine, it was a brown paste, I think Korean in origin. The only other form I could find it in were packet soups which I avoided since the idea was to make the soup from fresh.

The resulting soup wasnt a success, very bitter with an unpleasant aftertaste, not sure if that is what its supposed to taste like.

Did I get the wrong miso, is it always going to be a paste?

I guess I should figure out what miso soup is supposed to taste like, are the packet soups in the Japanese product isle representative?
posted by Ness at 4:33 AM on July 19, 2010

Not a food, but a cookbook suggestion: Madhur Jaffrey's World of the East Vegetarian Cooking. Lots of good recipes, from Indian to Korean to the Caucasus. Most recipes ar pretty basic, but there will be some specialized ingredients, all of which are detailed in the glossary in the back.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:41 AM on July 19, 2010

Ness, miso will become bitter if boiled.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:46 AM on July 19, 2010

Ssamjang- it's a spicy fermented Korean condiment. Noted chef David Chang uses it at his Momofuku restaurants. The typical use is to wrap a protein with lettuce and use the Ssamjang as a sauce.
posted by melissam at 10:34 AM on July 19, 2010

Smoked paprika - what it sounds like, good on pretty much everything
Panko - japanese breadcrumbs, great for putting a crunchy exterior on zucchini fritters and anything else that wants it
Fancy vinegars - I keep aged sherry vinegar, balsamic vinegar and apple cider vinegar in my cupboard. If I had to choose one, I'd choose the sherry. Careful when buying balsamic...most cheap vinegars (and many expensive ones) have caramel colors and flavors added. Look for something that says how long it's been aged. Great for livening up everything.
Dried peppers - I go with chipotles (the smokiness can be fantastic for adding a bacon-y note to vegetarian dishes) and gaujillo peppers which have a very complex taste. You can find your favorites, but I'd suggest using less than the recipe calls for until you know what your spice tolerance is
Rice - for me, one of the revelations of urban life was how many different kinds of rice are out there.
Dried fruits, fruit juices and jams - almost always better from ethnic grocery stores...especially the fruit juices, which tend to be too sweet in the US. I like the selection at Turkish and Central American stores
Frozen passionfruit puree - available at Central American stores, good in all sorts of drinks and desserts
Real limes - Real limes are yellow, not green. Again, Mexican and Central American grocery stores are your friends. If you see a small, thin-skinned yellow fruit, those are Key Limes and are fantastic.
posted by psycheslamp at 7:42 PM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've been on a kick with preserved and fermented Chinese ingredients. Red fermented tofu isn't as off-putting as it sounds; it has a fruity/winey taste to it. Here is a great easy recipe featuring that flavor prominently:

Tianjin preserved vegetable come in little clay pots and are very salty. Their great with green beans and pork or
with noodles.

La ba do is a specific kind of fermented soy bean. Fry them up with some ground pork, red chilis and cilantro stems. They're so flavorful. It can be daunting to find the right jar since so many look similar. The brand I linked is a good one. There are others too; you'll need to look for the Chinese characters: 腊八豆.
posted by Hubajube at 1:28 PM on July 20, 2010

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