The wallahs would bring out whatever we pointed to, cooing as we modeled so many sets that we would return home with “bangle bruises” from those that didn’t fit but were forced on our arms anyway.
We’d hail a motorized rickshaw and careen down tiny alleyways and into a series of outdoor bazaars. The kiosks were filled with Pakistani kajal, or charcoal black eyeliner, and stalls stacked with Kashmiri carpets and curly handmade Indian jutti sandals.
Then there were the saris. Showrooms the size of department stores were lined with thousands of regional styles — sumptuous silk saris weaved in the holy city of Varanasi and light white handloom cotton saris from the palm-fringed Malabar Coast region of Kerala.
The sari wallahs — usually pudgy men with mustaches — were always happy to try them on. It was hilarious.
Because shopping was our cardio, we would refuel with a South Indian “snack,” a cone-shaped, crepelike dosa stuffed with yellow potatoes that is eaten with a coconut chutney. We’d wash it down with a fresh lime soda, India’s national drink.
It wasn’t just India that was a shopper’s haven. The same held true no matter what land I was exploring, from Hong Kong to Afghanistan, Ethiopia to Sri Lanka. I also met fascinating people who ended up being great sources for stories.
So when I moved back to Washington last year, I was curious about the many ethnic markets that populate the strip malls of Washington’s immigrant-filled suburbs. I was happy to find dozens of markets that help reinforce a community’s culture. Favorite foods and products survive generations, a visceral legacy of home, even for young hyphenated Americans who might not speak their parents’ languages.
Here’s a list of spots that will make a trip to a strip mall in Centreville feel like a visit to a souq in Syria or a market in Madras.
Acupuncture needles and caboodles of kimchi
I laugh to myself as I stroll through the wide, clean aisles of H Mart in Wheaton on Georgia Avenue, which brings to mind a skit in the hipster TV comedy “Portlandia.” The main characters, who are thinking of ordering the chicken dinner, interrogate a waitress, asking, “Is it local?”
I tease Kevin Lee, a store manager: “Is it local?”
“No. It’s from KOREA! And it’s wonderful for teeth,” he said proudly about the “long life gum bamboo salt toothpaste” I found. It was amid an aisle that read “Home and Kitchen of Korea,” which included a Japanese $199 “Neuro fuzzy rice cooker,” Chinese acupuncture needles and magnetic hula hoops that Lee tells me the Korean packaging claims will whittle your waist.
The experience reminds me of a trip I took to Hong Kong, where stores were ultramodern, organized and clean. H Mart is also cosmopolitan; all of its signs and loudspeaker announcements — as in, “buy one Indonesian or Vietnamese galangal root, get one free” — are in three languages: Korean, Spanish and English. (Aisle Three is a Spanish section, a nod to the area’s large Salvadoran population.)