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.)
But the true highlight is the kimchi corner. There’s a six-pound bucket of the punchy, fermented kimchi vegetable dish for $17.99. There are dozens of varieties, including canned kimchi, green onion kimchi and young radish kimchi.
For the nervous novice, there are also helpful packages such as “Korean Spice Basket 101,” which has such staples as red pepper powder and beksul sesame oil along with a booklet explaining how to cook Korean cuisine.
I also love the refrigerated section, which has six kinds of tofu and at least four types of fermented ginger. The produce section has durian, with Korean labels that say the fruit is forbidden on planes because of its vomit-like odor when cut open.
Non-Koreans say the market is their secret shopping pleasure, because the produce and extensive fish selection — squid, salmon and crabs, along with live tilapia — are fresh and reasonably priced. On Saturday and Sunday evenings, there are also free cooking demonstrations and samples — the Korean barbecue is wonderful — but you didn’t hear it from me!
Seven area locations. www.hmart.com.
Ethiopian coffee and vegan delights
It’s lunchtime on Columbia Pike when I spot a half-dozen taxicabs and their Ethiopian drivers parked outside a friendly-looking set of cafes.
These two buildings house the Dama family’s ever-expanding empire, which includes a popular Ethiopian market housed in the middle of a bakery cafe and an Ethiopian restaurant.
I meet the owner, Hailu Dama, who immediately offers me a macchiato, at the bar of the main building known as Dama Pastry and Cafe.
The tiny cup of espresso with a dollop of foam tastes as rich and chocolaty as the many coffees I was offered when traveling in Ethiopia. Even the most remote villages had freshly grown green coffee beans that the women would roast in a skillet, grind and prepare in a traditional Ethiopian black clay coffee pot, round at the bottom with a straw lid.
As I walk with my macchiato, Dama says his sister, Almaz Dama, is “the best ethnic barista in the D.C. area.” But she’s even more famous for the Ethiopian-style French pastries that line several large cases. She worked as a pastry chef in the White House during the Clinton administration.
Some Orthodox Christian Ethiopians observe fasting days, for which they abstain from eating animal products. The cafe is famous for her six kinds of vegan pastries, which on the day I visit included a mini slice of moist mocha cake and a milifolle that has so many layers of creamy cake that I can’t believe it’s made without eggs.
My Ethiopian friends tell me the market also has some of the best spices along with bulla, used to make Ethiopian oatmeal. There are also 15 types of injera bread, some made with 100 percent teff, an ancient grain grown in Ethiopia and now parts of the United States.
“Twenty-five years ago, there were no places to buy injera. People had to sell them from their houses,” Hailu Dama says. “Now there are many markets.”
This one also sells bags of green Ethiopian coffee beans, for people who want to roast their own coffee, along with those pretty Ethiopian coffeepots.
1505 Columbia Pike, Arlington. 703-920-5620. www.damapastry.com.
Persian cucumbers and authentic naan
In Kashmir, Kabul and Cairo, every road trip started with my translator and driver stopping at a local market so I could buy dried nuts, fruits and seeds for snacks in what were often six-hour-plus reporting excursions on bouncy roads.
When I think back on those journeys, it’s my taste buds that trigger memories. One of the things I miss most is how my driver in Afghanistan, with a knowing smile on his face, would pull into a bakery to buy us naan bread — oval, hot and as long as my arm.
I wasn’t sure I could find anything like those markets again, but a Rockville strip mall houses Yekta Supermarket, a beautiful, well-organized Iranian and Middle Eastern food bazaar with an entrance that has Persian-style mosaic tiles lining the floors. The store has an adjoining restaurant called Yekta Kabobi (www.yekta.com), which serves Persian dishes.
Sahel Dadras, 35, and her sister Sougol Mollaan, 37, run the shop, along with their mother, Laila. Their late father, Yadi Dadras, opened the store in 1979.
He previously had worked in Iran with his uncle Haj Samad, a reputable grocer in Tehran who operated the largest grocery store in the city, Sahel told me.
Because of recent sanctions that forbid the United States from importing large-scale products from Iran, their father worked on sourcing specialty fruits and vegetables. Persian cucumbers, figs and tart tangerines are flown in from California, which has a large Iranian community and weather similar to Iran, making the produce taste similar.
“His vision for Yekta began as a place where Iranian immigrants could shop for products reminiscent of loving memories from back home,” Sahel said, adding that Yekta means “one of a kind” in Persian.
I visited right before the Iranian New Year last month. The front of the store was lined with Persian sesame and chickpea cookies and nuts and almond baklava, “different than the Greeks, who use walnuts,” Sahel said. The freezer was stocked with saffron and rose water ice cream, all made locally. (Order it or ask about their supply before you venture there.) And in the back: dozens of varieties of naan.
It wasn’t straight from the oven. But when I took the long bread home and toasted it, I was surprised at how authentic it tasted.
I wanted to call my driver and tell him.
1488-B Rockville Pike, Rockville. 301-984-1190. www.yekta.com.
Indian shampoo and bling-y saris
My search for my favorite Indian items started in a tiny butcher and grocery shop called Halal Meat and Grocery. It’s run by a Muslim Indian merchant who sells the Koran in Spanish and Arabic along with statues of the elephant-headed deity Lord Ganesh, the remover of obstacles.
From the outside, the shop’s not much to look at. But inside I found many of my favorite Indian brands of herbal and henna shampoo and conditioner along with jasmine and sandalwood soaps. Moreover, there were bangles — cute ones sized for a baby’s arm. And I was shocked to find the Pakistani kajal!
They also have popular Indian mixes used to make dosas and idilis, or puffy rice pancakes eaten with flavorful chutneys, as well as mint and pineapple chutneys, some from Mumbai. Their paan — a mixture of cloves, areca nut and betel leaf chewed and then spit out, to freshen the breath after a meal — comes from Hawaii.
U.S. customs officials were a little befuddled by a shipment of “Fair and Lovely” skin whitening cream that’s popular in India, said Kaser Khan, the store manager, who is from Hyderabad. “We had to explain that Indians want to be fair and pale, even though Americans like to get a tan.”
Next door is the India Sari Palace, which sells heavily beaded, bling-y wedding saris; sherwanis, embroidered tunic suits worn by men at weddings; and the more casual kurta pajamas. You can also buy material there and have the store’s tailor make what you want.
A highlight of the shopping experience is leaving with the Sari Palace’s signature purple shopping bag that says: “We know quite a bit about Sari business since 1971. But woman is still a complete mystery to us.”
According to ISP’s Web site, the store is a cultural ambassador: “Many American Legislators and Diplomats visit our store to buy Indian costumes needed for their official trip to India!”
The store also has a huge selection of Bollywood, Tollywood and other regional Indian movies. And a few doors down, the Indian restaurant Tiffin can fix you an authentic fresh lime soda if you ask.
Halal Meat and Grocery, 1335 University Blvd E., Takoma Park. 301-431-3361.
India Sari Palace, 1337 University Blvd. E., Takoma Park. 301-434-1350.
Jamaican callaloo and marinated mangos
At the Caribbean Market, you can buy a bag of “hot” for 99 cents.
“Hot” means “super hot” — peppers that punish, making you sweat and reach for yogurt, water, a fire hose, anything to cool your burning lips.
This welcoming store in Takoma Park had me reminiscing about all the hot chili peppers I had survived during my Sri Lanka and India travels.
Decorated with flags from all the nations of the Caribbean, the market has a sign out front saying it sells music from the homeland, including “Reggae, Soca, Calypso, Gospel and Chutney.”
It also sells such varied items as cricket equipment — including the bat-and-ball sport’s distinct white pads and bats — and “ram goat soup mix.”
There’s also food from Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana, including bread fruit, tamarind balls, pigeon peas, cassava pudding and black cake.
“In my grandparents’ place we would just go into the cashew fields and eat them,” said Bernadette Ambrose, 63, a retired nurse from St. Vincent and the Grenadines who lives near Howard University. “Now we come here. The bread fruit is a must!”
The food has Indian influences that I recognized — such as mango wedges marinated with chilies — largely because Indian indentured workers were brought over to the Caribbean by the British, Dutch and French to work on the sugar cane fields during colonial times.
Even with the Indian flavors, there were new items for me to try, such as the vegetable Jamaican callaloo. It was nice to know that even though I wasn’t living abroad anymore, I could return to far-off lands just by taking a road trip to the suburbs, this time without a translator.
7505 New Hampshire Ave., Takoma Park. 301-439-5288.
Quiz: Test your knowledge of the area’s international markets