I had a pretty sheltered upbringing, culinarily-speaking. I didn't know what phở was until I was in my late 20s. I thought tacos were always made with ground beef. I'm a bit more worldly now, but I am still prone to panic when I walk into an unfamiliar grocery store and see 40 different kinds of fish sauce.
Even though I have confidence in my ability to follow recipes for ethnic foods to get good results, we all know it starts with the right ingredients. When it comes to hormone-free chicken that's one thing, but what about green curry paste? Fish sauce? Even rice noodles! There seem to be a hundred different kinds in my local Asian market and heaven help me if I walk into an Arab or African market. I'm literally clueless. So what do you do?
Here are a few tips for making the most of your shopping excursions to unfamiliar grocery stores.
1. Ask Friends: Assuming you have culinary-minded friends (or even just a friend) ask them about the brands they use. Don't be shy, just ask! See if there's a reason they use the brand of product they do or if it's as simple as they bought it once and it didn't suck so they kept on using it.
2. Ask the Cashier: Even though there might be a language barrier between you and your cashier, there's a good chance you can still communicate your confusion with a local store clerk. Ask which product they buy and you're probably going to end up with a better product than you could have taken a gamble on.
3. Are the Shelves Empty?: Just like blue box mac and cheese, there are certain brands that folks favor. That doesn't make them amazing (see: blue box mac and cheese) but it does make them a traditional flavor and should produce results people enjoy.
Are there still cuisines that throw you for a loop? Which ingredients give you the hardest time when shopping? Add your thoughts and shopping hints to the comments below.
Related: Ethnic Markets: How To Identify Unfamiliar Foods
(Image: Sarah Rae Trover)