"Ethnic food is dead; it smacks of the sin of colonialism. This is a culinary — not cultural — exchange." Those words, taken from the inaugural issue of Christopher Kimball's culinary magazine Milk Street, came to mind often as I wrote this story, wandering the aisles and exploring some of the city's best international markets.
Calling a cuisine "ethnic" always rubs me the wrong way, especially in New Orleans, where the food we eat and cook daily is an amalgamation of many international influences and nudges from different cultures. And our so-called "melting pot" is growing: French, Spanish, African, Italian and Caribbean cultures formed the roots of modern Creole and Cajun cuisines, and now Honduran, Mexican, Indian, Palestinian, Vietnamese and other immigrants are making their marks on the city's constantly evolving culinary landscape.
At Michael Gulotta's celebrated Mid-City restaurant MoPho, Southeast Asian flavors mingle with Southern ingredients. At Warehouse District stunner Compere Lapin, chef Nina Compton harnesses her fine dining prowess and Italian background to her Caribbean roots. And Koreole proprietor Kayti Chung-Williams has built a solid following for her Korean dishes fused with Creole and soul food.
Because of this trend, there is a growing market for stores that stock products our everyday mass retailers don't supply. New Orleans is home to an impressive number of international grocers. These markets provide a place for home cooks to try new ingredients and for restaurant chefs to expand their culinary repertoires. The majority are in the suburban stretches of the West Bank, Metairie and Kenner — hubs for many of the immigrant communities in the city.
Compared to a decade ago, Gulotta says, the number of local chefs who frequent these markets is staggering. On his regular trips to Hong Kong Market on the West Bank, he buys everything from shrimp and crab paste (used in "almost every" dish at MoPho, he says) to fermented black beans, fresh turmeric root and galangal, black cardamom and Chinese cinnamon.
"Back when I worked in fine dining, we would still go there, but we knew exactly what we were going for and didn't spend much time," Gulotta says. "When we opened MoPho, we began spending a lot of time in there. We really had to focus and experiment. Anytime I go in there now, there is typically a chef picking up something or another. You always see someone (you know) in there. Even if it's not for the restaurant, chefs are there getting things to cook on their day off."
Here are 11 local international markets and things to get at each.
» Asian Gourmet Market
3239 Williams Blvd., Kenner, (504) 466-0077
The longstanding supermarket specializing in Asian products is tucked away in a faded strip mall on the corner of 32nd Street and Williams Boulevard. It features a large selection of Asian goods including Korean, Chinese, Thai and Filipino items. Its real tour-de-force is the wide array of Japanese products owner (and Little Tokyo proprietor) Yusuke Kawahara stocks. Here, you'll find aisles of noodle soups, teas and condiments, Japanese beauty products and bags upon bags of Chinese black rice, jasmine rice, sweet (sticky) rice and short-grain varieties used for sushi.
Refrigerated items range from natto (Japanese fermented soybeans), meat- and seafood-filled dumplings, yam cakes, mochi and prepared Filipino specialties including lumpia, pancit, and tocino — cured, spiced pork belly slices. There's also a small produce section that stocks Asian greens, fresh lemongrass, Thai eggplants, bitter melon, purple yams and other produce. A section in the back features traditional Japanese cookware and kitchenware, including chopsticks, sushi and sake sets and tableside grills.
Asian Gourmet Market is open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
» Hong Kong Market
925 Behrman Highway, Gretna, (504) 394-7075; www.hongkongmarketnola.com
The West Bank superstore functions as a one-stop shop for grocers looking to stock up on both hard-to-find Asian products as well as produce, liquor and other household staples. There are giant burlap sacks of rice next to economy-sized bottles of Vietnamese fish sauce, bags of dried squid and shrimp, and an entire back wall dedicated to fresh seafood and meat. An impressive array of tropical fruit includes durian, jackfruit and dragon fruit. Bagged and bundled Asian greens such as Vietnamese morning glory (similar to spinach) and rau ram (also called Vietnamese coriander) can be found. The store also sells some of the best — and cheapest —crispy pork banh mi sandwiches in the area.
The massive shopping complex on Behrman Highway also is home to Yum Yang Ice, which sells Asian frozen yogurt and the Korean shaved ice dessert bingsu. Outside the market, the newly opened Kho Bo Ngoc Quyen stocks Vietnamese beef jerky in bulk, including the silky, crunchy pork floss and smoked abalone flakes.
» Oriental Market
3324 Transcontinental Drive, Metairie, (504) 457-4567
This tiny market deals exclusively in Korean products, a good thing for Koreole proprietor Kayti Chung-Williams, who frequents the store for hard-to-find products such as napa cabbage and Korean gochu peppers, both used in the preparation of kimchi. Though readily available at other specialty grocers due to its widespread popularity and purported probiotic qualities and health benefits, the fermented cabbage condiment is highlighted here and includes several house-made varieties, including one made with radishes and another made with cucumbers and peppers.
On Saturdays, owner Jackie Lee sets up a tiny to-go operation inside the shop, selling her Korean sushi rolls, bowls of japchae, a stir-fried glass noodle and vegetable dish, and topokki, made with rice and fish cakes dressed in fiery gochujang sauce.
Quart containers are filled with banchan, the side dishes often seen accompanying meals at Korean barbecue restaurants, including cooked, chilled black beans, spicy squid, squid salad and dried radishes. There's also a wide selection of meats prepped for traditional Korean grilling, including thinly sliced beef used in bulgogi and beef short ribs used to make galbi, cut into thin strips and marinated.
The market is open 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.
» Central Grocery
>923 Decatur St., (504) 523-1620; www.centralgrocerynola.com
The famed French Quarter Italian grocery dates back to the early 1900s and is credited with serving the quintessential muffuletta. The tiny shop also is known for its brusque counter service and for drawing large numbers of visitors, who line up every day for the signature meat, cheese and olive salad sandwich. The store's supply of canned seafood, cold cuts and cheeses, dried pastas and Italian condiments shouldn't be overlooked. Here's where to source hard-to-find imported Spanish, Greek and Italian products ranging from vegetable seeds, smoked clams, Italian mackerel fillets soaked in olive oil, jarred morello cherries and wheels of cured porchetta. The deli counter also stocks the store's signature olive salad, fresh Italian sausage links, stuffed artichokes and marinated mushrooms.
The grocery is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
» Eastern European Foods
3320 Williams Blvd., Kenner, (504) 466-1982
Father and son Sal and Leon Abud opened this tiny market in 2003 in a strip shopping center off Williams Boulevard. The idea was hatched when Sal's wife, Russian-born Inna Goldvarg, missed the foods of her homeland and figured she probably wasn't the only one.
"There was really no place to find anything from Eastern Europe or Russia," Leon says. "The closest you could get would be in Houston or Miami."
The family stocks products from Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary and several other countries. Matjes, brined herring‚ is joined by jars of caviar. A deli case stocked with smoked sausages includes kielbasa, Hungarian salami, Russian Doktorskaya kolbasa (a product similar to bologna with a slightly spongier texture), kabanosy (snappy, smoked pork links) and rossiyskiy, a rich, semi-hard cow's milk cheese.
There's a strong pickle presence, from bright yellow pickled pattypan squash to Polish pickled grape leaves. Other jarred specialties include sour cherry compote, Russian smoked sprats packed in oil, garlicky fried zucchini slices and Bulgarian ajvar, a spicy eggplant and red pepper spread.
The store is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and noon to 6 p.m. Saturday.
» Ideal Market
250 S. Broad St., (504) 822-8861; 653 Terry Parkway, Gretna, (504) 262-8883; 3805 Hessmer Ave., Metairie, (504) 883-5351; 4421 Airline Drive, Metairie, (504) 309-9214; www.laidealmarket.com
The local Latin supermarket chain now operates multiple stores in both Orleans and Jefferson parishes. The Broad Street location includes a wide selection of Central American products ranging from fresh chorizo and Honduran crema to queso fresca and masa. It's one of the best places to get dried chilies, fresh tortillas, Mexican and Central American canned goods and condiments, including achiote powder, guava paste and several varieties of hot sauces. A sprawling meat department includes harder-to-find items like tripe and oxtail, and a popular prepared foods section features crispy pork cracklings, whole roasted chickens, steamed and fried yuca, plantains and menudo, the Mexican tripe soup (and traditional hangover remedy).
It's open 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
» Norma's Sweets Bakery
2925 Bienville St., (504) 309-5401
Though smaller than Ideal Market, Norma's carries a solid selection of Latin products, ranging from Nicaraguan chorizo blends and Honduran sausages, vats of fresh pork lard and guava jelly to Mexican votive candles and pinatas. An excellent hot-line selection includes spicy chicken tamales, seafood-packed sopa de mariscos, Salvadoran pupusas, quesadillas and burritos. The real draw are the Latin bakery items, which include flaky guava and cream cheese pastelitos and tres leches sheet cakes decorated with colorful frosting for special occasions. Norma's also is one of the few places in town to get an authentic Cuban sandwich, which comes oozing with cheese, layers of ham, pickles and yellow mustard.
Norma's is open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.
» Jerusalem Market
2544 Williams Blvd., Suite A, Kenner, (504) 336-4300
If the hookahs lining the shelves aren't a dead giveaway, the scent of cumin, turmeric and coriander wafting from the kitchen in the rear should indicate what's in store at this new Middle Eastern supermarket on the south end of Williams Boulevard. Part grocery, part restaurant, the market keeps a wide variety of Middle Eastern, northern African and Mediterranean items in stock.
"It's a multicultural selection, so we have something for every- body," says manager Ahmad Jarrar, who is Palestinian and opened the shop this year. Jarrar says the majority of his customers hail from India and Pakistan and come for Middle Eastern spice blends used to make biryani, which has Persian roots and is made with chicken or lamb, rice and spices including nutmeg, cloves, coriander and ginger. Fresh Medjool dates line the counter at the entrance, and shelves are filled with tubs of halva — the Middle Eastern confection made from sesame paste — rows of spices, dried lentils, mung beans and split chickpeas used to make dal, pomegranate, apricot and date syrups, and a large selection of teas and coffees from Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco. On the sweet side, there is an impressive selection of date cookies and Turkish delight confections. A restaurant in the rear serves fried eggplant sandwiches, hummus and falafel plates, Greek salads and shawarma.
It's open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.
» International Market
3940 Barron St., Metairie, (504) 888-8832
The massive warehouse space off Cleary Avenue in Metairie shelves a wide selection of Indian and Caribbean staples, including the clarified butter product ghee, flavored chutneys ranging from apricot and mint to lime and coconut, fruit and herb extracts, jerk spices and ackee fruit, as well as Moroccan spice blends like ras el hanout and harissa paste, methi (dried fenugreek) leaves and Kashmiri chilies. A room spanning the length of the store features rows upon rows of dried legumes and grains in bulk — chickpeas, lentils, mung beans, rice, freekeh and more. In addition to groceries, the market houses a selection of Indian beauty products, art, cookware and an entire aisle of incense.
It's open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.
» Kased Brothers Halal
3804 Williams Blvd., Kenner, (504) 468-1950
Specializing in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean foods, Kased Brothers Halal has one of the city's largest selections of freshly butchered halal meats, including whole and half lamb, goat, beef and chicken. The majority of the store's customers are of Pakistani and Indian heritage, but there's also an extensive selection of Moroccan, Jordanian, Egyptian, Turkish, Palestinian and Lebanese products. Rows of Middle Eastern spices in giant, vacuum-sealed pouches are available alongside cans of Indian chutneys and mango and garlic pickles, jars of pickled labneh and vats of black and green olives. Puffy golden rounds of freshly baked flatbread are delivered daily by a local Palestinian woman. Frozen fish flown in from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh include freshwater breeds such as rohu and catla, two species of Indian carp, and hilsa, a herring relative found in Bangladeshi waters. The store stocks clay taginess, too.
The market is open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday.
» Mona's Cafe & Deli
3901 Banks St., (504) 482-7743
The Middle Eastern restaurant chain's Mid-City location includes a small grocer that stocks Mediterranean and Middle Eastern products that are hard to find in Orleans Parish. There are rows of specialty cooking oils, giant jars of green and black olives, falafel mix, dried beans, fresh labneh, preserved lemon, tahini and za'atar: everything needed to create a Middle Eastern feast.
It's open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.