Passport to Flavor

A vegetarian cook's guide to navigating ethnic markets

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If your vacation is relegated to grocery aisles instead of tropical isles, don’t fret; a visit to your local ethnic market brings all the flavors of a far-flung holiday to your home kitchen.

“A trip to an ethnic market is like a free trip to another country,” says Dynise Balcavage, the globe-trotting blogger and author of the 2010 cookbook The Urban Vegan. Balcavage, who’s traveled from Argentina to Morocco and many places in between, relives her foreign food foraging experiences in the multicultural melting pot of Philadelphia, where African, Brazilian, and Chinese markets beckon. “It’s a dazzling assault on the senses—the smells, textures, the background music. You feel deliciously out of your element, which can’t help but influence your cooking,” says Balcavage. “What could be more fun than that?”

Ready for takeoff? No passport is necessary, but a sense of adventure is definitely required, so relax, breathe deep, and prepare to have your senses dazzled.


The Asian grocery store is a vegetarian’s dream destination, and should be the first stop on your culinary exploration. Expect a transcontinental buffet of cans, jars, and fresh produce from Japan, Korea, China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia. Once you acquaint yourself with the staples—rice, noodles, soy sauce, sesame oil—the secret to re-creating those succulent coconut curries, delectable noodle dishes, and authentic vegetable stir-fries is in the details: the condiments. “Like every chef, I have a refrigerator full of them,” says Eric Tucker, executive chef and co-owner of San Francisco’s Millennium restaurant. Before hitting the checkout line, scour labels for fishy ingredients, including bonito, dashi, and nam pla, which can lurk in Asian condiments.


Chinese Fermented Black Beans

Not to be confused with the Chinese black bean sauce found in most supermarkets, these tiny black soybeans have a pungent, intensely salty taste that, when cooked with garlic and ginger in a hot wok, lends an unforgettable flavor to Chinese-influenced dishes. A little goes a long way, so start with a light hand. “I use them in vegetable stir-fries, mabo tofu, and mushroom dishes,” says Tucker. “They really bring out the mushroominess of mushrooms. They’ve got that umami thing going on.” Look for the no-frills Mee Chun Salted Black Bean packages in plastic bags on Asian grocery store shelves, and refrigerate after opening.

Japanese White Miso

A salty, slightly sweet paste made from fermented soybeans, miso comes in a rainbow of colors, but it’s the mild, white (shiro) miso that brings subtle flavor to a panoply of dishes. VT executive chef Ann Gentry, owner of Los Angeles’s Real Food Daily eateries, uses white miso regularly. “I use it in soups, sauces, spreads, dressings, and gravies” she says. Found in the refrigerator section in plastic pouches, the Kurano Kaori brand adds creaminess to salad dressings and pestos.

Thai Curry Paste

Traditional Thai curries are made with fresh ground chiles, lemongrass, galangal, and other hard-to-find (and pronounce) ingredients, but prepared pastes can taste like you spent hours making your mix. The Mae Ploy brand, sold in small, unrefrigerated tubs, makes a mild yellow curry paste redolent of kaffir lime and garlic that gives coconut curries, noodle stir-fries, and soups a true taste of Thailand. Steer clear of pastes made with ground shrimp or prawn powder.


In Hindi, masala means “spice,” and nowhere is this word more fitting than inside the eclectic sensory experience that is an Indian grocery store. If you can tear yourself away from the baskets of luscious golden mangoes, slender purple eggplant, and pinkie-sized red and green chile peppers, mosey over to the colorful variety of dal (peas, beans, and lentils), then revel in the olfactory oasis of coriander, cumin, and cardamom—the premier spices that form the basis of Indian cooking.


Chunky Chat Masala

Chris Jaeckle, a chef at Manhattan’s Morimoto restaurant, is always scouting spices at Indian markets. One of his favorites is this salty spice powder, which gets its pungent aroma and piquant flavor from dried mango, cumin, and asafetida. “I keep it next to the salt and black pepper, sprinkling it on as I would salt,” says Jaeckle. MDH is a popular brand sold in North America.

Curry Leaves

“We have to have these in stock every day or our customers are disappointed,” says Bharti Parmar, who, along with her husband, Suresh, has been vending all things Indian at San Francisco’s Bombay Bazar for more than 30 years. Parmar suggests adding a few leaves to soups, curries, and lentil dishes, where they impart a rich, musky flavor. Store them wrapped in a resealable plastic bag, and freeze.


These tortilla-like lentil-flour wafers come in a variety of flavors, including cumin, garlic, and black pepper. They’re meant to be flash- fried in oil, or toasted over an open flame—your gas range works well—until they turn opaque and the spicy aromas emerge. Serve alongside salads, curries, soups, and chutney. Look for the Lijjat brand, from a women’s co-operative in India.


If the piñatas hanging from the ceiling don’t invite you to look and linger, the countertop chafing dish of warm, sweet-corn tamales just might. Inside your local Latin market, you’ll likely find endless varieties of canned beans, hominy in multiple hues, a half-dozen varieties of tortillas, hot sauces in every heat category, and fruits that speak of warm-weather climes: avocados, guavas, plantains. Once you’ve double-checked your chips, prepared masa, and refried beans for manteca (better known as lard), dare to go bold. Latin American flavors drift far beyond the borders of Mexico, into Central America, Cuba, and beyond.


Chipotle Peppers in Adobo Sauce

Chipotle peppers get their distinct flavor from the dry-smoking process that turns ripe, red jalapeño chiles a rich, deep brown. When canned in adobo sauce, the peppers turn soft again, their flavor enhanced with the addition of tomatoes, garlic, and onions. Chopped into small pieces, chipotle peppers in adobo sauce give black beans a smoky campfire flavor, and can be added to soups and marinades or blended with ketchup for a spicy dipping sauce.

Aji Molido

This crushed red pepper from Argentina looks like the red pepper flakes found in Italian restaurants, but that’s where the similarity ends. Sold in resealable bags in the spice section, aji molido is moist and fragrant, its subtly sweet flavor balanced by a hint of heat. When blended with olive oil, garlic, and parsley, aji molido transforms that tastiest of South American exports—chimichurri sauce—into something magical. For a piquant tang, sprinkle a pinch onto pizza or pasta.

Crema Espesa

Crema espesa is an authentic (and tastier) version of the sour cream served on Americanized Mexican restaurant plates. Found in jars in the refrigerator section, this mild garnish is traditionally drizzled over beans, roasted corn, or fresh fruit.


Visitors to Sahadi’s, the landmark Middle Eastern market in Brooklyn, are greeted by the alluring scents of just-baked bread, roasted nuts, and freshly ground coffee. Like many Middle Eastern grocery stores, Sahadi’s sells products in bulk—olives, spices, nuts, grains, dried fruit—and a cornucopia of regional condiments. “We consider ourselves an ingredients store,” says owner Charlie Sahadi, whose family has been in the grocery business since 1895. Don’t just look, but ask: your ethnic-market grocer is likely a fountain of culinary wisdom.



A staple in Middle Eastern cuisines, this divine spice blend varies from country to country, but usually includes thyme, sesame seeds, and salt. Blend with olive oil to make a paste, spread on bread, and toast in the oven. Toss za’atar with steamed potatoes, or shake over pizza and spaghetti.


Ground into coarse powder, this tiny red berry is one of the most common ingredients in Middle Eastern cuisines. Available in bulk at most Middle Eastern markets, sumac can be sprinkled over salads, hummus, and grain and bean dishes, or added to salad dressings and marinades for a light, lemony taste.


This mild sheep and goat’s milk cheese has its origins in Cyprus, where locals grill it, drizzle it with lemon juice, and serve it as an appetizer with hummus, grilled eggplant, and stuffed grape leaves. “It fries and grills nicely,” says Elliott Prag, chef-instructor at New York’s Natural Gourmet Institute.


Even if you don’t live in a multicultural metropolis, the flavors of the world are still at your fingertips.

This South Asian store offers several varieties of chutneys.

Manhattan’s affordable spot for Middle Eastern and South Asian edibles is now online.

Can’t find cuitlacoche at your corner store? Head here for all things Latin American.

If it’s Asian and you can eat it, you’ll find it at this comprehensive online store.