Today we begin a new column devoted to ethnic markets throughout the Sacramento region – a universe of stores offering cuisines brought here from all over the world.
You’ve probably passed by curious little shops. If you’ve been too intimidated to go in, here is the gateway. If you’ve ever been attracted to a recipe but stopped when you saw an important ingredient was “available in specialty stores,” it’s hoped that this column will inspire you to take a side trip for that key spice or noodle or sausage.
I’ve been a devoted ethnic shopper for most of my life. My grandparents in the New York area bought meats at specialty butcher shops. When my parents moved us to the border city of El Paso, Texas, I went to little Mexican tiendas for coffee, green and red chilies, Mexican vanilla, melty cheeses, fresh tortillas and huge papayas not yet mainstream enough for our local Safeway.
Later, my marriage to a Chinese chef bonded me to Asian stores big and small. If an unexpected wipeout of an ingredient occurred during restaurant hours, I was dispatched to the closest Chinese market to buy rice noodles, preserved radish, sugar cane, fish paste, wonton skins, even incense. I’d get waylaid in the cookware aisle staring at gorgeous ceramic serving dishes. Maybe we could use this tree-trunk cutting board? A new cleaver? A plastic strainer?
The simplest reason these stores pop up is best explained by Andrey Tagintsev, who on a recent afternoon was managing Foothill Plaza Market, on Auburn Boulevard, for his Russian-born parents.
“We always want to eat our own food,” Tagintsev says. This little store is surrounded by countless other Russian shops, including the entrenched Good Neighbor European Deli Market a few miles away. Tagintsev says there are plenty of customers. He pointed across the street to Slavic Trinity Church. “That church has 3,000 members.”
At India Spices, a bright medium-size shop in Elk Grove, sari-clad Sam Palagummi stopped her shopping to generously educate me on at least 10 types of dal. At age 62, Palagummi has lived in America more than half her life, yet she never veers from cooking her native cuisine. “Never,” she says. “I go to American stores for milk and eggs. But I’m vegetarian. The ingredients I need are only available in an Indian shop.”
While many choose their mono-cuisines, Sacramento’s culinary offerings to its immigrants are available to us all to buy. There’s no way to make assumptions about who’s cooking what. We’re an international city, and everybody is part of the stew.
There’s Iraqi-owned Babylon City Market with its date vinegar, Turkish honeycombs and kebab sandwiches wrapped in fresh breads withdrawn all day long from a wood-fired oven as you watch. There’s the Pakistani East-West Foods, with halal goat meat, vicious-looking red chili from Karachi; Jordanian green thyme, and bulk non-wheat flours.
Then there’s the glut of big Asian markets in the south area – SF, Wing Wa, Vinh Phat and Welco – with fish swimming in tanks; produce much cheaper than at mainstream supermarkets; every noodle known in the noodle kingdom; fresh soy milk and duck eggs. The biggest is Koreana Plaza on Folsom Boulevard, which started as an Asian market but now encompasses the globe, even installing a tortilla machine. In contrast, a tiny Lao market specializes in fresh-ground sausages, spicy or mixed with oyster sauce, that you won’t find in the big stores.
Oto’s replicates markets in the style of Japan or Hawaii – clean and organized with sushi-grade fish; paper-thin beef ready to take home for an evening of hot pot; the best in rice cookers, and a rack of cookbooks.
Customers at Mercado Loco’s several locations shop to salsa music, so you practically polka over to dozens of labeled red chilies, bulk piloncillo, Mexican cheese in enormous wheels and a small takeout area with the store’s fresh homemade salsas.
Stores with the term “European” or “International” on the sign are most likely Russian or Ukrainian, with sour cream so thick it won’t fall out if turned upside down; butters from France, Poland, Russia, Denmark; cold cuts and smoked fish; buttery pastries, plus a surprisingly large selection of chocolates.
Over to Western Europe, Sacramento’s Italian heritage is easy to navigate. In addition to the legacy of Corti Brothers, at the smaller Sampino’s Towne Foods, you can also find fresh pastas, Italian cheeses, sandwiches and sausages mixed in a 102-year-old grinder.
And that’s just for starters.
The new edamame?
For anyone from Central Mexico, fresh garbanzos are a taste of home, a mainstay of street vendors. Now they’re the latest craze in the produce sections of Mexican markets here.
Fresh garbanzos are either from Mexico or Sanger-based Califresh, the only year-round grower/packer/shipper of fresh garbanzos in the U.S. What you’ll see in the store is a small, pistachio-green papery pod holding one or two peas.
You can eat them right out of the shell, but I like to steam-roast them in a cast-iron skillet. Two people can easily devour 4 cups, but pan-roast 2 cups at a time for quickest cooking or the interior peas will be mushy.
To eat, you “bite” the pea out of the pod as you would Japanese edamame (fresh cooked soybeans). Garbanzos are priced at $2 to $3 a pound.
Elaine Corn is an award-winning cookbook author and former newspaper food editor.