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How To Shop a Specialty Market

Speciality markets are such sensual and tactile places to shop. I love the exotic-to-me fruits and vegetables, the spices and the shelves of mysterious pantry staples. Sometimes when I need inspiration, I just roam around the aisles.

Speciality markets are sometimes called ethnic markets, but since the US is getting more diverse by the day, I think this term is a little troublesome — and kind of retro in a maybe not-so-good kind of way. So I’m sticking with specialty market as a name until we come up with something cooler. They tend to be named by the region, country or philosophy they represent — in my neck of the woods, most are Asian, Mexican and Halal, but every city is different.

Anyway, here are ten  easy ways to go on a little adventure in your own city.

1. Buy that thing you came in for: If you’re making curry or sushi, ghee or nori will certainly be much cheaper at a specialty market than at a supermarket or big box store. They’re the best place to stock up on essential ingredients that may be hard — or impossible — to find elsewhere.

2. Then wander: Different cultures have different palates, which mean unique smells, colors, textures and packaging preferences. It’s fun to open up your senses to new experiences.

3. Now throw something in the cart you’ve never tried — bonus points if it’s something you’ve never heard of before: Pork buns. Wasabi Rice Crackers. Chinese eggplant. Chili Sauce. You can have an international experience for just a few bucks. Don’t know what it is or what to do with it? Google it and you will find recipes. Now have an adventure.

4. Stock up on spices: I will never buy spices at a supermarket again, after I got a half pound (!) bag of paprika for the same price as the tiny pouch I could buy at the grocery store. Since spices have a limited shelf life, split your stash with a friend (or two or three) to maximize your savings and keep your spices fresh.

5. Buy incredibly fun junk food: My husband, brother and I went to Japan in 2009 and one of our favorite memories is shopping for snacks at gas stations in and around Tokyo. None of us read Japanese and, since the English on the wrappers was either non-extistant or, more often, inadvertently hilarious, we had a great time purchasing the items that amused/confused us the most.

We sampled Crunky Bars (which turned out to be crunchy white chocolate bars), Pocari Sweat (a sports drink) and, my favorite, a delicious candy bar called — bafflingly —Ghana. I will never understand why they named after a country, but eating it was almost as fun as shopping for it. You can save up for your plane ticket and purchase all kinds of zany convenience foods at a specialty market in your zip code.

Fresh Mint

6. Stock up on herbs: My favorite shop stocks big handfuls of fresh mint and basil — just like you’d pull from your garden in the heat of summer — for next to nothing. They’re more fragrant, fresher and cheaper than the vacuum packs in your grocer’s cooler.

7. Make friends with the staff: More often than not, these shops are family owned, so the staff has experience cooking and eating their inventory and a strong interest in making sure you have a great experience and come back. Owners and employees are a great source of information and they’re often quick to order something if they don’t have it in stock.

Plus, it makes you realize what small world it is. Sometimes it gets crazy small. I started talking to the owner of Lotus Blossom – my favorite market here in Fargo – about Japanese desserts (because I’m obsessed, obviously) and found out that, although he’s from Cambodia, he went to high school with my brother-in-law in Grafton, North Dakota. That blows my mind every time I think about it. And it I hadn’t shared my slightly weird passion for Hello Panda cookies and Pocky Sticks, I never would have known.

8. Ask about cash payment policies: Some specialty markets offer a discount for purchases made in cash, which is always worth looking into.

Purple Eggs

9. Stock up on staples: Asian markets sell a fantastic variety of rice, while Mexican shops will have amazing tortillas. The staff isn’t going to sell anything they wouldn’t use in their own kitchens. You can buy in bulk and browse a greater variety of options than what’s available at your local grocery.

10. Look for other cultural opportunities to explore: Is there a bulletin board by the front door? Check it out — that’s how I learned about language classes and a multi-lingual youth soccer league I’d never heard of. A cashier noticed the noodles in my cart and mentioned that the store offered cooking classes once a month. And many specialty markets have food carts or dining counters where you can try new things on your lunch break.

In case you’re in Fargo-Moorhead, go see the crew at Lotus Blossom, my favorite speciality market in town. And if you have a favorite market in your neighborhood, tell me about it.

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