First of an occasional series
I know a cook — or three — who would rather clean her oven with a cotton swab than trek to a specialty market for ingredients.
It’s not just the commitment of time and effort it would take for her to rent a Zipcar and find the suburban store that has the ethnic product she’s looking for. She doesn’t like to waste money. And that’s what she figures will happen, eventually, when she tosses the barely used containers.
Chain supermarkets offer more and more international foods, but they seldom can match the breadth of what you’ll find at a shop that features the cuisine of a particular culture.
The first time the automatic door opened for me at Yekta, a Persian market in a strip mall on Rockville Pike, I felt as though I’d entered a Middle Eastern utopia. Side by side on metro-type shelving were pistachios from Iran, baklava from Syria, olives from Lebanon and pickles from Israel. I know those items well.
Then I spotted chalky balls in a bag — kashk — with no list of ingredients and no explanation; thin leaves of chilled dough called yufka; dried berries I’d never heard of; jars of a frozen yellowish cream simply labeled “Bastani”; black fruit leathers with photos of unrecognizable produce on their wrappers. I had no idea what to do with any of those.
So began my quest. I asked the store employees. I researched online. I interviewed cookbook authors and friends of friends. I visited other Middle Eastern markets, Latino markets, Asian marts, European delis.
Why? Because I want to cook in a bigger neighborhood and shop where the vegetables and fruits are not the usual suspects. I want to introduce my family to the world on a plate; we have favorites, but we’re not the kind of people who like to eat the same things night after night.
Even if you’re in the oven-cleaning camp, you might receive a gift of date syrup someday. Together, we can figure out what to do with it. I hope this series will persuade you to take a trip and discover affordable, edible gems. Shopping in an Indian store doesn’t necessarily mean you will end up cooking a full Indian feast. But it might kick-start your own happy Indo-Russian-Japanese fusion cuisine.
First up: Middle Eastern, mainly Persian and Lebanese markets.
Iranian native and Washington cookbook author Najmieh Batmanglij shops the Persian stores in Rockville and Vienna for spices, molasses and seasonal produce. Her books, including “New Food of Life,” are displayed on the behind-the-counter shelves at Yekta supermarket.
Batmanglij says Persian stores carry “seasonal items, such as baby green almonds or fresh walnuts, that are hard to find elsewhere.” She buys Seville oranges for jam, unripe plums for chicken, and fresh fava beans that she cooks with garlic and dill for omelets. She also likes the fresh tamarind, from which she prepares a homemade paste. Fresh sour cherries have a short season, but you can almost always find frozen and jarred ones at Yekta.
The special ingredients aren’t the only lure. Batmanglij likes the fact that “you get a better bargain” in the ethnic stores, whether it’s for a large bottle of Sadaf pomegranate molasses or good Persian saffron.
“There’s a lot of ethnic influence in the new American cuisine,” Batmanglij says, mentioning American chef Thomas Keller’s recipe for sous-vide octopus, chorizo and fingerling potatoes with green almonds.
Sisters Sougol Mollaan and Sahel Dadras own Yekta, which was established in 1979 by their late father, Yadi Dadras, and his uncle to cater to fellow Iranian immigrants. The sisters and their mother, Laila, helped run the kebab restaurant next door, which Dadras and his uncle opened 10 years later. Now the market’s clientele includes a growing number of “local foodies and people who just enjoy the Mediterranean cuisine,” Mollaan says.
In any well-stocked Middle Eastern market, you’re sure to find plenty of fresh flatbreads, including pita and seed-studded lavash in white and whole wheat. Bunches of mint, dill and tarragon are generous, yet cost less than the plastic-packed ones in grocery stores. A fun find for grilling season: Persian stores stock 20-inch flat skewers that can hold a party’s worth of kebabs.
As is the case with most ethnic markets around metropolitan Washington, Middle Eastern stores that carry fresh produce typically offer it at prices much more reasonable than what you’ll find at your local supermarket. The savings you can realize on produce alone make it well worth the excursion. Look for excellent Iranian cucumbers and zucchini, baby eggplant, fresh okra, pomegranates, Persian clementines and yellow dates in season.
At the end of my Middle Eastern store mission, I can report that the jars with the yellow cream turned out to be filled with excellent Persian ice cream. Yufka dough leaves are the best store-bought phyllo for Mediterranean pastries such as borek and come in manageable sizes, as well. The kashk balls are dried whey cheese chunks — the best umami agent to sprinkle over a vegetable salad.
Next: European delis.
Do you have questions about ethnic markets in the Washington area? Guttman will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com. She writes the Modern Manna food column for Haaretz.com and is chef and owner of Cardamom & Mint Catering.