Nong Vongsuna plopped the salted gooseberry in her mouth, savoring the flesh around its seed, as she surveyed the delicacies that lined the shelves at the Duangrat Oriental Food Mart in Falls Church.
There were individually wrapped "litchi gummies" from Southern China. The package says, "Favored by Yang Guifei." (She was the concubine popularly blamed for distracting the ninth T'ang emperor from affairs of state, thus bringing on the catastrophe of 755. Apparently, she knew a good candy.) There were Malaysian coconut cookies, chalky, light, almost like baked dust. (Favored by those who like a dry, chalky cookie.)
Vongsuna was considering all of them for the big day: Halloween. At Vongsuna's house on Sunday, her 7-year-old daughter, Tara, will gobble her gummy worms and peanut butter cups. But Tara and her friends will also have a taste of her mother's traditional sweets from Thailand and other neighboring countries.
For those willing to endure some curious looks as they drop the unfamiliar objects into trick-or-treat bags, Halloween is a chance for new Americans to share the sweets of their homelands, and by extension, a part of their culture. Like Italian, Chinese and Jewish immigrants before them, they have a chance to include their culinary delights into the ever-expanding, pluralistic American diet.
"Ethnic groups have been using food to say, 'No, I don't want to be a homogenized, white-bread American,' " said Amitai Etzioni, a professor of sociology at George Washington University. "But they also use it as a benign way of sharing their culture. It's a sentimental way of sharing."
When immigrants find they can't relate with language, mass culture or religion, food becomes a vehicle for getting America's attention.
For Sleiman Kysia, the holiday provides a captive audience for Lebanon's fried green peas.
"We try to do something a little different," said Kysia, 65, who stood inside the Mediterranean Bakery Inc. in Alexandria, amid containers stuffed with halvah, a mixture of ground sesame seeds, pistachios and sugar.
Kysia, a manager there, set up a special Middle Eastern display for Halloween. He pointed out treats such as apricot fruit rolls, coconut and sesame crunch bars and macaroons deep-fried in honey.
"We also have Turkish delight," said Kysia, who dashed about the store with packages of Egyptian "super seeds" ("high quality" watermelon seeds, he explained) and trays of mini "bird's nest" pastries with pistachios and almonds. "But some things are too good to give out."
Frozen fruit balls are sold at the Salvadoran markets in Adams-Morgan, and orange balls of laddoo (chickpeas, flour, milk and almonds) are made at South Asian sweet factories in Annandale.
Many immigrants say they prefer their own treats on Halloween simply because they taste better. They are the familiar, the comfortable. Think of Americans making a beeline for the first cheeseburger they can find in Paris.
Teshome Seyoum, a cabdriver from Ethiopia, likes to eat what he knows. On Halloween, he gives out samples of spongy Ethiopian bread.
"Most of the kids are very polite, and they like it," said Seyoum, 40, who lives in Southwest Washington.
Inside Misha's Deli in Southeast Washington, a thin man rushed to explain the joy, the delight, the sheer bliss of Russian Jewish dark chocolate. (Actually made in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, but with its heart in Odessa.)
"The kids can get all they want from the Safeway, but this is the real stuff," said Misha Vasilevsky, who runs the store. "The American kids come on Halloween for this, you don't believe how many."
Some are more shy about giving out a taste of their culture, especially when the children expect prepackaged, pre-advertised regulars.
"I stick with the stuff you can buy at CVS," said Louis Marroquin, who is from El Salvador and lives in Adams-Morgan. "The kids would laugh."
Standing in line at a Salvadoran market in Adams-Morgan was Cristian Martinez, of Columbia Heights, who was ready to risk surprised trick-or-treaters. She bought a bag of small frozen mangoes to distribute to her neighborhood. The pleasure of sharing is worth the curious looks, she said.
Those who fear the fried green pea can just consider this: Imagine landing in another country and trying to explain just why anyone would eat the waxy, orange triangles of intense sweetness we call candy corn.
CAPTION: At the Mediterranean Bakery in Alexandria, Abdallah Al-Sawwaf wraps up maamoul, a type of Middle Eastern cookie, in preparation for Halloween.