Having Fun with Unusual Ingredients

Sometimes my food budget is so tight, I can barely afford the necessities. But when things are a little more flush, one of my favorite things to do is to purchase an ingredient I'm not familiar with just to, well, become more familiar with it! As you can imagine, this has led to both happy and not-so-happy endings.

It's not unusual when food shopping that I'll stumble on something completely unfamiliar to me, either in the grocery store or at the farmer's market. If I can afford to splurge a little and take the risk it might not work out, I'll often buy it just to see if I can learn more and maybe even discover something new and delicious for my table.

The most obvious place for this to happen is in stores, or specific grocery store sections, that feature foods from other countries. But my favorite place to do this is at the farmers' market, especially those that have Asian famers that cater to shoppers from their countries. There are many varieties of Chinese greens that I haven't tried, for example, and it's been a lot of fun working my way through them. Most vendors are often happy to introduce me to their wares and, if I'm lucky, I may even get some cooking advice from a Chinese or Vietnamese grandma!

Other successes have been dragon fruit, cardoons, orach (a kind of purple spinach), puntarelle and feijoas. Where I've bombed out the most is when purchasing canned goods from other countries. I'll spare you the details, but I suspect that you have to be raised on some of these 'delicacies' to really appreciate them. Now that I have a smart phone, I can look up unfamiliar items but that also takes some of the fun out of it, too.

What unusual ingredients have you courageously discovered? Have they become a regular part of your diet or have you been happy to quickly toss it into the trash?

Related: Unusual Ingredient: The Fried Chicken Mushroom

(Image: Leela Cyd Ross)

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Dana Velden is a freelance food writer. She lives, eats, plays, and gets lost in Oakland, California where she is in the throes of raising her first tomato plant.