If you are reading this blog, chances are you like to cook or have someone in your life that does. Today’s conversation is about ways to learn about all the cooking resources your city has to offer beyond visiting restaurants and reading cookbooks.
One of the more unique things that I have done in my free time is take advantage of all the diverse, ethnic grocery stores in my city. A couple years ago, my friend and I decided to go exploring these stores to learn about the food items available to us that fall outside the realm of our typical groceries.
We both love to cook. So, we thought we would see what unusual products we would find and then create dishes to utilize our discoveries. We chose an Asian market and a traditional Italian grocery store for our initial adventure. The first observation I will share with you is to be prepared to not be able to read the packages. That is typically one of the first things I do when I am buying products at a food store. I want to know what is in the food I am going to buy. Well, since we began at an Asian grocery, we recognized our first challenge. There were no (or at least not that we could find), English speaking employees to help us as we wandered the aisles. So, we just decided to do our best. And we had a ball! Although I will say, I would recommend using your smartphones to translate for you when possible. It helps a little and saves you from some potential surprises….
I would also suggest checking out their sushi counter. The vast assortment of fresh sushi and sashimi was amazing. And delicious! After spending hours in the store, learning about new products, flavor combinations, fruits and vegetables, we were hungry!
Next on our adventure was to visit an Italian grocery store to see what stood out to us there. Now, I have been to many wonderful parts of this country (Boston pops into my mind) with quaint, family-owned Italian markets on the street corners filled with homemade bakery and imported meats where everyone knows everyone. Where we went in Chicago was a little different. It wouldn’t be considered a “neighborhood corner” grocery as it was a large store with an even larger assortment of all types of foods. We did notice that their deli, meat and cheese counters were enormous. Instead of a handful of cheeses, you would find three times that amount. You actually feel a little like you are in Europe as you just want to buy some cheese, salads, bread, meats and wine and find a place to sit and enjoy the scenery.
As our day came to an end, we talked about all we learned and our favorite finds. And then planned our next adventure together!
Just a few weeks later, we were off to Devon Street. In Chicago, this is where you will find the many Indian grocery stores. We had been advised to not go on a weekend especially since we were unfamiliar with what we were going to find and would want to shop more leisurely. The market we chose to wander through was set up a little differently in that the amount of produce was just a small section of the store. The shelves were filled with bags of beans, lentils, herbs, spices and many more intriguing items. The store personnel were very willing to answer our questions and show us the best way to buy some of the products for our cooking purposes. We left the store with bags of wonderful smelling spices and jars of tamarind to create our curry dishes. This was a far more education packed experience than reading cookbooks!
In Chicago, we are very lucky to have a truly wide range of markets that would meet many diverse taste buds. In fact, we have neighborhoods known for their amazing food presence: Greektown, Little Italy, Chinatown and Devon Street for Indian food for example. You will also find wonderful options that include Polish delis, Mexican Mercado’s, Korean markets, Middle Eastern bakeries and Jewish delis to name a few. Don’t forget that you can also learn so much by visiting your meat market and fishmongers. They are usually very willing to share cooking tips and even recipes.
If you really want to learn more about ethnic cooking and aren’t able to travel to the country to learn their cuisine, the next best thing is to look for cooking classes that offer the kinds of dishes you are interested in making. You will find classes offered at your local cooking schools, some community colleges, and national retailers and in some cases, restaurants. Our local newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, writes an article once or twice a year showing readers where they can find cooking schools and classes as an added resource. Just a side note that if you are traveling to another country, you may find restaurants that offer cooking classes. We did while traveling in Mexico where a visit to the farmer’s market was included in the class experience.
I hope this post gave you some ideas about exploring the food markets in your town. While each city is different, I can assure you that you will meet some really wonderful, charismatic people who are happy to share their culture with you via food. I bet they will even translate those packages for you!
Have you gone in search of food experiences like this too? Please share. I would love to know what you learned and where you went. And of course, any recipes you would like to share with us!
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