Ethnic Markets: How To Identify Unfamiliar Foods

updated May 2, 2019
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
(Image credit: Sarah Coffey)

You’re shopping at an ethnic grocery store and encounter an unfamiliar vegetable, spice, or other food. Do you: a) hardly notice it – why buy something if you don’t know what it is?, b) feel intrigued but walk away, perhaps a little mournful of your ignorance, or c) throw it in your basket – this is what you live for! If you answered a or b, read on for some tips. If you answered c, share your experiences and advice with us!

For many of us, finding and learning about unfamiliar ingredients is one of life’s joys. We can’t resist popping into a Russian, Thai, or other ethnic market to discover new foods and flavors. But it can be intimidating if you don’t speak or read the language. Certain foods might not even be labeled, and others are organized around the store in a way that’s unclear. Here are some of our strategies for dealing with unfamiliar items. We hope you’ll share your own thoughts in the comments.

Ask – If store employees don’t seem particularly open to questions (though we do suggest trying; it gets easier and less intimidating the more you do it!), ask another shopper for advice. Even if they can’t tell you what it’s called in English, they might be able to offer cooking tips.

Look for context clues – This is less helpful for produce, but when it comes to condiments or canned goods, can you identify anything else around it? Is it grouped with sweet, spicy, or salty foods? This might offer clues for cooking as well as research.

Do some research – Often times we just buy the food and do the research afterward. Or we’ll hold off but jot down the name or even snap a cellphone picture check our reference sources at home or the library. Google is of course a useful tool, but we also turn to books such as Food Plants of the World, Asian Ingredients, The Indian Grocery Store Demystified, Latin & Caribbean Grocery Stores Demystified, and The Contemporary Encyclopedia of Herbs & Spices, not to mention ethnic cookbooks. Online, we might research ingredients on sites like Cook’s Thesaurus, Asia Recipe, and Ethnic Foods Co. (terrible to navigate but sometimes useful).

Post a photo on Flickr – There are countless Flickr groups for ethnic cuisines, fruits and vegetables, spices, etc. Post a photo and ask people for help identifying it.

Buy it and have someone else be the guinea pig – This can be a good strategy if you’re vegetarian or have food sensitivities or dislikes. Just be sure you partner with someone who has well-developed and trustworthy taste buds!

Buy it, experiment, and accept the mystery – Perhaps you’ll never know the name of that herb or what that sauce should “really” be used for, but that’s okay. Give it a try and think of it as an adventure!

Finally, if you’re really stumped, you can always ask us and perhaps we, or our readers, will know the answer.

5 Tips On Finding The Best Products At Ethnic Markets
How Can I Identify Ingredients At the Ethiopian Market?


Sarah Coffey