Ethnic markets are fabulous places. You can find offbeat ingredients that are integral to making authentic dishes that you can't find anywhere else. But what happens when you walk in the doors and find 25 kinds of fish sauce and you can't tell which is the superior product? You can't read the label and you're left standing clueless, confused and overwhelmed. What to do? We've been there and trust us, it can be a little scary. Ethnic markets usually smell a little different than the smells we're used to in an American grocery store. There's a hustle and bustle around you and there is often a language barrier, too.
So how do you choose between aisle after aisle of what can sometimes seem like the same thing? We have 5 tips below to make you feel a bit more confident in your shopping and by result, hopefully you're cooking as well!
1. Don't Buy Dusty Things: It sounds pedestrian, and there's probably a more glamorous way to say it, but dusty products have been there for at least a week and most good markets see enough foot traffic to warrant a minimum of every other day stocking.
2. Snoop In Other People's Baskets: Of course if you're brave enough you can always ask, but that defeats the point of being a foodie elitist right? We aren't saying we're snobby or better than anyone else, but dang it, we like to be the one's who are on top of the game and get asked the questions, not the other way around. Anyway, see what people who look like they are regulars at the market are buying. Chances are they're using a product that came by reference or is one they have been using for years. Always a good sign!
3. Read Cookbook Intros: Now this may sound silly, but when we get a spare moment with the husband, we like to head to the local bookstore and camp out with a beverage and a stack of magazines and books to flip through. During these times, we've taken notice that many chefs will tell you in the intro to their books, or to specific chapters, their preference for certain ingredients.
With the invention of product placement on TV, it's not as easy as just paying attention to what the chefs on TV are using; most of their products don't exist in markets as someone has the task of creating fake labels for all their products, although you can watch for specific bottle shapes and sizes.
4. Look For Overstock: Some markets will keep their extra stock above the shelves. Check for large amounts of a product waiting to have its turn on the shelf; usually it means it sells quickly! You can also check for double facings of a product (how many are side by side on the shelf); assuming they were stocked correctly, it can also mean a better selling product. In regular supermarkets, companies pay for prime shelf location, eye level, how much space it takes up and so forth, but in smaller markets where most of the goods are imported, this rule of thumb goes out the window and they are just trying to make the most money, which means selling the most stuff!
5. Trust Your Instincts and Don't Be Scared: Chances are if you're brave enough to tackle a new dish or food, you're brave enough to make an educated guess as to which product will be a winner. If you choose one that isn't a winner, make sure you make a note of it and keep the note in your phone, purse or wallet so next time, you can try again!
Have fun with it and when all else fails, ask for help!
Do you have a tip to add? Let us know in the comments below!
Related: Food Gift: Ethnic Spices and Recipe Ideas
(Image: Flickr Member beketchai licensed for use under Creative Commons)