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When Chinese New Year approaches, I know it’s time to visit Great Wall Supermarket in Rockville, Md., to pick up mooncakes, glutinous rice flour, and other traditional foods for my family’s celebration. But shopping at international markets doesn’t need to be limited to holidays — or to your own culture. Whether you’re craving Indian dosa, West African jollof rice, or Korean bibimbap, you can find the fixings at a market that carries groceries for dishes originating in countries far from the United States.

International markets primarily serve immigrants and their descendants, but they offer a treasure trove for shoppers of any background seeking fresh, reasonably priced, and varied spices, meats, produce, and snacks. You get to explore another culture, perk up your weekly meal rotation, and perhaps discover a new favorite food.

Don’t be intimidated by a potential language barrier or by unfamiliar products. Go in with a plan for a few basics you’d like to try or a dish you want to make. Be prepared to ask for help from a clerk — or from other customers, who often enjoy giving recommendations. Apps like Google Translate can decode packaging for you: Use the camera function to translate non-Latin-based languages, like Japanese or Russian.

Apps like Google Translate can decode packaging for you: Use the camera function to translate non-Latin-based languages, like Japanese or Russian.

“These are small businesses that are trying to make it work. They’re great resources,” says Nandita ­Godbole, an Atlanta-based cookbook author who runs the website Curry Cravings Kitchen. Ask which days shipments arrive if you want to get the best ingredients. Shop seasonally and learn about cultural holidays to ­understand the significance of particular dishes — and to know when higher demand will likely mean fresher products and well-stocked shelves.

If you’re still wary, bring a friend along. Or pick a weekday when the crowds are sparser and you can linger over packaging or engage other shoppers in conversation. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions, otherwise you’ll be standing there for an hour feeling overwhelmed,” says Jose Guzman, RDN, a chef and dietitian based in New Mexico.

Bring this list of items — broken down by each section of the store — with you and start to explore.

Deli and Bakery

Many markets have bakeries as well as a deli, where you can pick up premade dishes to broaden your palate. Kung recommends Taiwanese pineapple cakes, composed of chewy bits of pineapple jam in a shortbread pastry, and Filipino otap cookies flavored with purple ube. At Persian markets, enjoy sampling breads like pita, lavash, and barbari (try this lavash recipe.)

Dry Goods

Asian markets feature large bags of many types of rice — including some you may have never seen before — all at a low price. Be sure to ask for help if you’re not clear on what you’re buying. “You don’t want a 20-pound bag of the wrong rice,” Godbole says.

Beans are plentiful in Latin supermarkets. Recipes from northern Latin America favor pinto beans; those from farther south tend to favor black beans. “Be adventurous and cook your own beans,” Guzman urges.

You could even pick up some corn husks to make tamales.

Fresh Produce

International markets are great destinations for fresh, inexpensive vegetables and fruits.

In an Asian market, you can get bags of bok choy, bitter melon, Chinese eggplant, and giant cabbage (learn how to prepare bok choy with one of these recipes). Try the tropical fruits — dragon fruit, pungent-but-flavorful durian, fresh lychee.

The ginger is often larger and less nubby than what you’ll find in a North American supermarket. “If you go to a Chinese or Jamaican grocery store, they have mature ginger that’s easier to peel and more flavorful,” explains Detroit-based chef Jon Kung, author of Kung Food: Chinese American Recipes From a Third-Culture Kitchen.

In an Indian grocery, you’ll find a variety of gourds, squashes, and okra that are sweeter than what you’re used to. For any of these vegetables, Godbole recommends simply sautéing them in cooking oil with some garlic and chili flakes.

Similarly, African markets boast a wide variety of fresh yams, all with different flavors and uses.

Think seasonally when possible. Around the holidays, Latin markets carry abundant sugarcane, guava, and tamarind pods to make Ponche Navideño, a traditional beverage that Guzman compares to mulled wine. (Host your perfect fun-in-the-sun fiesta with these recipes! All you need is a little finesse and a few fabulous details, Latin-style.)

Frozen and Refrigerated Products

This section of an international market can be an easy entry point to a new cuisine, since it includes a lot of prepared foods. For Korean food, look for cylindrical rice cakes to make tteokbokki (a hot and spicy rice cake). In any Asian market, you’ll find noodles made from flour in a variety of shapes, but also gluten-free noodles made with egg, rice, and even sweet potato. And frozen dumplings are an easy, delicious meal or snack to have on hand. Look for Indian flat breads, like paratha and naan, with a wide variety of flavorful fillings. Indian desserts tend to be fruit- or dairy-based — don’t miss the rich pistachio ice creams.

In Latin stores, look for tortillas made of cornmeal or wheat flour. Enjoy queso fresco crumbled onto a dish of your choosing or panela sliced onto a sandwich. After trying melted Oaxaca cheese to rival the stringiest mozzarella or grating Cotija cheese onto street corn, you’ll never be able to eat a three-cheese blend again.

Dairy is popular in Middle Eastern markets also, with varieties of labneh and yogurt drinks, cucumber-yogurt spreads, and feta and whey cheese.

Meat and Fish

Brace yourself when you come to the meat and fish counter of an international store. “If you’re squeamish, be prepared,” says Guzman. “Chickens might have their feet. You’re going to see claws, stomach and intestines, maybe a whole pig’s head.”

The rewards in Latin markets, however, include finds like inexpensive whole chickens and pork shoulder or short ribs that you can thinly slice and grill.

Some Indian grocery stores are vegetarian, but in those that carry animal products, look for goat meat and fish like pomfret, some species of which are native to India and absorb spices well, Godbole says. If you find crab meat, it has likely been extracted raw, so it’s more tender. For lamb, hit a Middle Eastern market — you can substitute it for goat in any Indian recipe (learn more about the spices used in Indian food at “An Intro to Indian Food.”)

Asian markets often carry live fish, so you can take home a portion fresh enough for sushi or delicately steamed Cantonese fish. “You’ll find the best deal on lobster and shellfish at any Asian market,” Kung says.

You’ll also find chicken feet, stewing hens for stock, and black Silkie chickens, which some Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners view as having medicinal properties.

Snacks and Beverages

In Latin markets, try the coffee beans from different regions. Pick up an Inca Kola from Peru or a Jarritos soda from Mexico — our family’s favorite flavor is mandarin. Snacks tend to be spicier and include sweet flavors, such as chili-tamarind. You’ll find pork rinds and other crunchy snacks dusted in chili powder or lime. “Snacks are a good entry way,” says Guzman, “but be prepared for them to be spicy and acidic.”

In Asian markets, the tea aisle will contain countless varieties. Consider flower teas such as osmanthus, often in beautiful containers, or try a type of boba or milk tea. Look for convenience items like boba sachets or instant green-tea lattes. For snacks, shrimp chips are a mainstay, as well as potato or Singaporean fish-skin chips dusted with egg yolk. Kung’s personal favorites include Taiwanese beef jerky and dried squid. “It’s 100 percent protein, so it’s a healthy snack.”

Dried fruits and nuts abound in the snack section of a Persian market. The dried fruits are like a healthier version of a fruit rollup, with all-natural ingredients. Typically, sour fruits like pomegranate, sour plums, or sour cherry make tasty dried snacks. You may find barberry, a tiny red fruit, either dried as a snack or included in rice. Sample roasted seeds like pumpkin, and the many nuts, notably pistachios.

Spices and Condiments

International markets offer abundant spices and condiments. And because turnover in their spice racks is likely higher than at a conventional North American grocery store, the offerings tend to be fresher — so even if the names are familiar, the taste may be new.

In Indian markets, look for black cardamom for its pungent, smoky taste. Pick up star anise or mace for curries and chutneys, and seek out big bags of whole chilies (try our Stir-Fried Chicken and Vegetables With Coconut Curry Sauce or this Fresh Coconut Chutney recipe to start). There’s also an array of pickled fruits and vegetables, such as raw mangoes and green peppers, often with different ingredients, like lemon and berries, Godbole says. Condiments like tamarind sauce and Maggi ketchup bring a different kind of tang to your table (explore this array of 13 international condiments and sauces).

Mexican and Latino groceries offer a variety of whole spices and herbs, like cumin seeds and oregano. Mexican oregano is more citrusy than Italian; both can be mashed by hand to add to soups and stews, says Guzman. Ground annatto seeds make achiote paste, which gives al pastor its reddish color and characteristic smoky flavor.

Unlike the Asian-sourced cassia cinnamon sold in most conventional U.S. markets, the cinnamon in Mexico is Ceylon, a thin-bark cinnamon with many layers. “It’s less spicy, more sweet and complex,” Guzman explains. (Use these tips to find the best cinnamon.)

And, of course, shelves are usually overflowing with a variety of chilies, the pillar of Mexican and Latin cuisine: ancho, pasilla, chipotle, and more. Consider making your own flavored waters from tamarind pods or hibiscus leaves, which create a stunning red beverage with natural acidity.

Asian groceries carry more kinds of soy sauce than you might have known existed: dark, light, sweet, and others. Pick up something that looks ­interesting and experiment with it.

There are larger, cheaper bottles of sriracha and dark vinegar than you’ll find at a grocery chain, as well as a huge array of fermented products — soybeans, chilies, and tofu — that you can keep in your fridge seemingly forever, Kung says. ­

Korean markets offer several varieties of kimchi, made from cucumber, radish, and many other vegetables beyond cabbage.

In Persian markets, seek out the big containers of tahini and an assortment of high-quality olive oils stamped with place of origin (try this Tahini-Yogurt Sauce). And don’t miss the dried or fresh spices and herbs, such as turmeric, cumin, mint, parsley, and fried whole limes.


All these inspiring ingredients may require that you pick up the appropriate cookware. Find a pressure cooker at an Indian market, or a tortilla press at a supermercado. Or maybe you want a comal, a flat pan to reheat tortillas over a high flame. The comal uses a dry cooking process, without oil, so you can also use it to toast chiles. You’ll find a citrus squeezer for the many limes in Latin dishes, and delicate veils to keep bugs out of drinks and salsas, with weights on the edges.

Asian markets often carry high-quality, inexpensive heavy clay pots and earthenware you can use to make clay-pot rice, shabu shabu, or hot pot. Steaming is a mainstay of Asian cooking, so browse the metal, wood, or bamboo steamer baskets, which will likely be higher quality and lower cost than online shopping. Kung also recommends buying a spider: the large, mesh metal basket for pulling dumplings out of simmering water or tofu squares from hot oil.

Ambitious cooks can pick up fermentation vessels at Korean stores or a mortar and pestle at African markets.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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