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Blessed are the food makers and food sellers in these coronavirus-afflicted times. The shutdowns and restaurant closings of 2020 had me cooking at home every night some weeks, which prompted masked shopping excursions beyond the realms of Costco, King Soopers, and Whole Foods in search of new ingredients. There’s a wonderland of global goodies out there. If you’ve never been to H-Mart, the giant, cheery, Pan-Asian supermarket in Aurora (there’s also a location in Westminster), for example, prepare to be gobsmacked by its astounding selection of fresh and frozen treats that cater to our deepest carb cravings. There are buckwheat noodles; puff parathas stuffed with chives; dumplings filled with Chinese spinach, pork, and shrimp; Korean scallion pancakes; and pot stickers galore. Recently, I paced out more than 250 feet of noodles, breads, and dumplings—and that’s just the doughy stuff. There’s another hundred feet or so of soy sauces, vinegars, and ponzu concoctions for making a gyoza dipping sauce or broth for noodle soup.
It wasn’t that long ago that such food markets were filled with products largely inscrutable to any shopper not versed in the languages and cuisines involved in their making. Now, though, a little box of achari gosht masala—one of dozens of dish-specific masalas sold at India’s Grocery in Boulder—is labeled in six languages, includes an English recipe, and provides an explanation that it’s a “spice blend for pickle flavoured mutton.” It contains dehydrated unripe mango, musk melon, fenugreek seeds, and nigella, providing a tangy, completely different flavor profile than you’ll find in a generic curry powder. I used it in a lamb curry that was a huge hit at our dinner table.
Each of the stores detailed here sells prepared frozen foods—kebabs at Zamzam Halal International Market & Deli in south Denver, tamales at the five Mi Pueblo Markets spread across the metro area—but beyond H-Mart’s noodle fest (and array of fresh produce and all manner of meats and seafood), I mostly shop for the complex, umami-rich pantry ingredients that form the backbones of dishes native to Tokyo, Marrakesh, Mumbai, and Mexico City. These items reflect artisanal traditions of curing, pickling, culturing, fermenting, and salting. They are, as a chef friend of mine says, “the gift of time in a bottle,” with versatility far beyond their customary uses.
After stocking my cart in the produce and frozen sections, I happily lose myself in the pantry aisles. There, for $9.99, you’ll find 16.9-ounce cans of Chung Jung One premium sesame oil, which delivers the sublime, toasty, slightly bitter sesame flavor you’ll recognize from meals at the best Korean restaurants. It’s delicious drizzled onto a stir-fry, and I also sometimes add a teaspoon of the oil when I cook Three Ladies Brand jasmine broken rice ($4.49 for five pounds!). Broken rice is exactly what it sounds like and yields a sublime, sauce-absorbing texture when cooked. Miko low-sodium sweet miso ($7 for a pound) is so tasty, I sometimes eat a bit straight from its pink carton. Both sweet and salty with a malty undertone, it’s great in gravy, stews, soups, and even homemade caramel. ABC kecap manis (sweet soy sauce; $3.99 for 21 ounces), meanwhile, is akin to soy-salty dark molasses; mix it with minced garlic and brush on grilled or broiled meats in the last few minutes of cooking, or add a bit to a stir-fry near the end.
This packed-to-bursting strip-mall shop is where I go for Alreef pomegranate molasses ($2.99 for 12 ounces), a staple for creating the fruity, astringent zing in Middle Eastern cooking. It brightens lamb stew, can glaze grilled meats, adds flavor to vinaigrettes, and is beautiful in a sour bourbon cocktail. Zamzam also offers a large selection of mixed spices for making everything from pastrami to biryani. (Ask or Google what the names mean, because there are no ingredient lists.) Mihshi spice mix ($4.99 for four ounces) turned out to be an earthy, aromatic blend traditionally used in stuffed vegetable dishes. Detecting allspice and mint, I brushed it on slices of delicata squash with olive oil before roasting.
I’ve never met a feta I didn’t like and have never had one as dense and tangy as Rodopa Bulgarian feta ($6.99 for 14 ounces). It begs to be crumbled into a tomato sauce for pasta or onto a pissaladière-inspired pizza I make with caramelized onions and cured black olives. And if you haven’t used ghee as the cooking fat in a curry, you’ve missed out on a foundational flavor. Made from the butter of grass-fed New Zealand cows minus the milk solids, Aseel pure butter ghee ($15.99 for an 800-milliliter tin) has an almost beefy quality that’s marvelous. Sauté onions, garlic, ginger, and curry spices in a melted dollop of the stuff, then add the lot to cooked basmati and bake for an aromatic pilaf.
El Aguila Foods’ Oaxacan black mole paste ($6.99 for a pound) at Mi Pueblo Market is far more complex than most factory-produced moles. Made from ancho chiles, bananas, raisins, cocoa, onion, and lots more, it’s cooked into a dense paste I can’t wait to stew with black beans; it can also be made into a rich sauce for chicken or pork. Too many salsas claim to be spicy hot and then disappoint a Scoville masochist like me, but not Texas-made Salsas y Curtidos de Chihuahua salsa de chile de arbol con habanero ($7.49 for 16 ounces). Beyond its nuclear-fusion fire is the unique, grassy flavor of the arbol chiles; the version without habanero is still mighty hot. And for a breakfast treat, Genesis Baking Co.’s champurradas ($4.99 for a 10-ounce bag), baked in Greeley, are Guatemalan “toasted breads” that remind me of huge, deeply browned, not-very-sweet cookies, which are simply the best coffee-dipping treats I have ever tasted.
At colorful, bountiful India’s Grocery, located in a strip mall off Boulder’s 28th Street, the label on a package of Lijjat Punjabi masala papadums ($2.99 for 200 grams) sports a demented-looking pink bunny, but inside are paper-thin, plate-size wafers made from urad-dal (lentil) flour, cumin, and other warm spices. A flash-fry on both sides in a shallow pan of oil transforms them into my favorite crackers, not only for eating with curries but also with Latin American salsas or Southern pimento cheese. Idli—the South Indian and Sri Lankan steamed cakes made from semolina, curry leaves, and mustard seeds—can be yours at home if you grab a bag of Gits rava idli mix ($2.19, makes 12). Steamed in an idli pan (or small ramekins, as I used), they’re like airy cornbread cakes, redolent of Indian spices and incredibly tasty with coconut-cilantro chutney, which can be found in the freezer section at this overstocked shop. Finally, fresh curry leaves ($.99 per packet) from the produce section deliver that elusive, fragrant, toasty flavor you cherish at Indian restaurants but which always seems absent from home curry attempts. I like throwing them into my rice cooker when I make basmati rice, and I store the glossy leaves in the freezer, where they wither but don’t lose any of their flavor.
These four stores are just a few of the markets bringing a global bounty to the Front Range. I find that a weekend excursion to any of them replenishes my refrigerator and pantry for a month, helping me cook with the bright, complex flavors that ease these pandemic days.