When I step into an international market, my cooks heart quickens a little.
So many flavors, so many products, so many things I want to know. There are treasures here, I know it, if I could just crack the codes.
North Carolina is such a global state, we have good world markets in every city. So I asked four experienced cooks to take me shopping. We went through the Latin American chain Compare Foods; Grand Asia; and the national Indian market Patel Brothers.
We found bargains, tools I had never seen and produce I hadnt tried. And we certainly found common ground in our kitchens.
The Colombian way, at Compare Foods
Clara Delgado, 41, is definitely a daily cook. Shes mother to a 4 1/2-year-old son, and she has a business, Gelitas, in Charlottes 7th Street Public Market, where she makes eye-popping gelatin creations using real flowers and natural ingredients.
She loves to explore markets from other cultures. With the Internet, you dont have to have money to travel. You can travel with your food, she says. When you like food, you want to know everything.
Bargain: Limes, 10 for 99 cents, compared with 2 or 3 for a dollar at mainstream supermarkets.
Frozen food: She loves fruit pulps, like passionfruit and guava, and banana leaves. She puts a circle of banana leaf on top of rice when she cooks it. It makes a lot of difference in flavor.
One favorite tool: A 1-cup Colador coffee strainer. It looks like a white cotton windsock with a handle. She boils hard brown sugar (panela) in water, then pours it over coffee to brew it straight into the cup.
This is how we make coffee (in Colombia), and we make the best. We dont believe in the machine.
Great tip: Quinoa, the darling grain of the healthful-food crowd, is $3.89 for a 15-ounce bag (a 12-ounce box at another store was $4.99), and its from Peru.
Theyve been growing it in Peru for centuries, she says, laughing. Dont you think theyd grow the best?
Cant live without: A wooden mortar and pestle, for grinding garlic into paste with a pinch of salt. Every single dish has garlic.
How to cook rice: She uses Canilla long-grain. She sautes 1 cup with a little olive oil, garlic and salt. Then she adds 1 1/2 cups water, brings it to a boil, covers it, reduces the heat and simmers for 20 to 30 minutes. Oil is key. It gives the rice a smooth texture and keeps the grains from sticking together.
Favorite fast dish: American professors in Colombia taught her to love peanut butter. Her version of a PB&J: 12-grain bread, crunchy peanut butter, queso fresco and guava paste.
The Southern Indian perspective, at Patel Brothers
Vani Narra, mother of two young boys, works for Bank of America. But she takes cooking so seriously, she once wrote to tell me how people in India make breakfast.
Thats the thing about Indians, she says. We cook a lot. Every day. Now, with demanding schedules, people use (premade curry mixes). But we can tell.
Bargain: $5.99 for 14-ounce bags of green and gold candied cherries. Indian people love fruitcake. Whole nuts are cheaper here, too. Remember that when you do your Christmas baking.
One favorite tool: A stainless-steel spice box, $19.99. Inside, theres a tray for fresh chiles, small bowls for spices and a small spoon. Everything is organized. I love this you take off the lid, youre ready to cook.
Cant live without: A pressure cooker. Every Indian house has one.
Frozen food: No one uses canned beans, but they do use frozen beans and frozen breads like chapati and roti. Indian stores also are a good place to get frozen freshly grated coconut, for $2.99 a bag.
Great tip: Whole spices usually are bargains at Indian stores. That is so true, Narra says. In India, people either dry-toast whole spices in a skillet and grind them, or they fry them in a little oil to use as a topping.
How to cook rice: Basmati is flavorful, but its expensive. For everyday, she uses sona masoori, a type of polished, short-grain rice. She rinses 1 cup rice and cooks it in 2 cups boiling water. She doesnt add salt, because its served with curries, which are full of flavor.
Favorite fast dish: Mix tikka masala powder into a paste with yogurt and a little fresh lemon juice. Rub it all over chicken pieces, poking them with a fork or knife tip, and then marinate for 1 hour before grilling or baking. Thats the easiest recipe I ask (my American friends) to try.
2 brothers from Taiwan,at Grand Asia
Food brought Kevin and Ben Cheng to America from Taiwan. At their Charlotte restaurant, TOMI, named for their mother, Kevin is the manager and Ben is the chef.
Americans are always asking which Chinese ingredient is the best which soy sauce, which sausage, which chile paste. The answer always depends on what you want.
They might use dark soy sauce for a pot roast and light soy sauce for a stir fry; or fattier Hong Kong sausage for rice and sweet Taiwan sausage to grill.
It all cooks different, says Ben.
Bargain: Anything in the produce department in summer, such as baby bok choy. They particularly love dragon fruit bright pink on the outside, its creamy white inside and flecked with black seeds. Fresh mangosteens arent cheap, at $14 for a dozen, but theyre hard to find and the custardy texture is unforgettable.
One favorite tool: Three-level steamer pot, for $37.99. It comes apart, and you can take out the steamer inserts to just have a noodle pot. One pot to do it all, Kevin jokes. Like the shopping channel.
Frozen food: Frozen dumplings are so popular, theres a whole freezer section for them. The brothers like Li Chuen Homemade Dumplings, made in New York. They taste the closest to homemade.
Great tip: To judge soy sauce, pour it in a saucer, says Kevin. It should be dark brown, not black, and smell like soy beans, not salt. Taste it; it should have a little natural sweetness. His favorite all-natural soy sauce: Kimlan Light Soy Sauce, with the blue label. The only ingredients are soybeans, wheat, salt, water and sugar.
Another great tip: If youre cooking something slowly, use whole spices. If youre cooking fast, like a stir-fry, use ground spices.
How to cook rice: Ben uses Kokuho Rose short-grain, premium quality. When he trained, he was taught to measure it this way: Rinse the rice and put it in the pot. Then put your middle finger on the surface of the rice and add water until it comes up to the first line of your joint. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer 10 to 15 minutes, until the water is almost gone. Then turn off the heat and let it stand 15 minutes.
Or use a rice cooker you wont burn it.
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