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Thirty years ago, shopping for ethnic food in Baltimore meant picking up a bottle of olive oil. Now olive oil is a kitchen staple. Although the internationalization of American taste buds is a slow process, we’ve come a long way from the days of Grandma’s marshmallow-and-Jell-O mold. Credit the global economy, increased pride in our nation’s varied ethnic heritages or plain old culinary thrill-seeking, but there’s little doubt that the next step in the development of the American foodie is the exploration of new culinary horizons. A wave of immigrants from Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and beyond is bringing new flavors to Baltimore. With the wave comes ethnic markets where the adventurous or the curious can sample a taste of the new Old Country.

Latin

Latin American Foods
249 S. Broadway, Fells Point, 410-534-9070
Open daily, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

While Baltimoreans may just be waking up to the reality that there’s a flourishing Latin American community in the city, the Latin American Foods market tapped this blossoming demographic when it opened a decade ago. Located in the center of the city’s booming Latin enclave in northern Fells Point, Latin American Foods is the kind of corner grocery where one can pick up dish soap, jalape–os and a pi–ata all under one roof.

The market stocks Hispanic staples such as varieties of dried and fresh peppers, tortillas, hominy and Spanish cheeses in addition to all the Goya brand beans you can handle. For those just delving into Latin cuisine, the bottled sauces and condiments are an easy way to introduce these flavors into your cooking. Consider adding mole, a Mexican condiment of chiles, seeds and unsweetened chocolate, to poultry. Or use Chimichurri, an Argentinian barbecue sauce, the next time you’re grilling meat.

Adventurous cooks may be attracted to the oddball items squeezed in beside their favorites. It is not uncommon to find dulce de leche, a sweet, creamy spread, and hard blocks of unrefined brown sugar sharing a shelf with a mind-boggling array of pickled meats and vegetables. (The pickled pork skins are particularly eye-popping.) If you aren’t feeling that brave, it is safe to peruse the baked goods section at the front of the store for breads, buns and cakes, or simply grab an exotic fruit drink and a snack of spicy mango slices for the way home.

Most Unusual Item: Pre-packaged dried herbs— such as saint leaf and avocado leaf—  claiming to heal everything from intestinal parasites to anemia.

Best Bargain: Prepared frozen corn tamales, about a half dozen, for $1.69.

Also Try: Ramos Panaderia & Pasteleria (1817 Eastern Ave., 410-327-6100) for fresh baked goods, and Tortilleria and Tacos (1716 Eastern Ave., 410-276-3741), where you can pick up a stack of about 30 warm tortillas for just $1.50.

Asian

Han Ah Reum
800 N. Rolling Road, Catonsville, 443-612-9020
Open daily, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Aside from its dizzying array of products, the most striking thing about Han Ah Reum is its size. As part of the H-mart group of companies that began in 1982 as a corner store in New York, the Rolling Road location of Han Ah Reum is one of 20 such superstores on the East Coast. Unlike many ethnic markets that are cloistered in tiny storefronts, Han Ah Reum bunks the stereotype with its full-sized mega grocery store. There’s an in-house food court with sushi bar, a cosmetics counter and a tantalizing bakery. Shoppers can even purchase items online at hmart.com where the weekly sales specials are listed.

The place bustles with a mix of people as diverse as the food on the shelves. But while this may look like your neighborhood Giant, that’s where the similarities end. Here, the enormous produce section carries bok choy next to the lettuce and Korean sweet melons alongside the avocados. An entire cold case is dedicated to different varieties of tofu. The fish section is a wonder of choice, with snails, clams, shad, smelt and bluefish on ice for self-service. This is the place to stock up on staples like dried mushrooms, rice, soy sauce and pungent kimchi, although you can also pick up your orange juice, milk and eggs here, too. Hit the frozen food section for pre-made dumplings that are easy to prepare for your next party.

Most Unusual Item: This a toss-up between the small dried shrimp sitting loose in a box with a self-serve shovel resting on top, and the many unique offerings in the meat department, where the chicken is classified as either old, young or black, and shares a case with plastic containers of pork blood and 3-foot-long oxtails.

Best Bargain: The produce section is rife with great bargains and always very fresh.

Also Try: Lotte Plaza (8801 Baltimore National Pike, 410-750-9656), Thai-Philippine Market (523 Gorsuch Ave., 410-243-6193), Grand Mart in Seoul Plaza (6901 Security Blvd., 410-277-8560), Asia Food (5224 York Road, 410-323-8738).

Indian

Patel Brothers
6400 Baltimore National Pike, Catonsville, 410-719-2822
Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

When you call Patel Brothers grocery for directions, they’ll tell you to turn at the bike shop. Indeed there’s little to distinguish this strip center from the many that dot Catonsville’s Route 40. But what’s inside Patel Brothers is truly remarkable— glistening aisles and pristine white shelving units creating a checkerboard full of goods. Almost an entire wall is dedicated to dry beans from chickpeas to lentils, split and whole, and different varieties of flour including wheat ladu, bajri and urad. Another aisle is full of nothing but spices— imagine a 5-pound bag of tumeric for only $8.99— and shelled nuts.

Patel Brothers is a virtual treasure-trove for the Indian cook. Native languages mix in the aisles with English, and the helpful staff members are willing to take a stab at explaining the uses for various items, although most products are straightforward and many have instructions in English. There is a nice selection of ready-made sauces, like the cilantro and ginger grilling sauce, and relishes and chutneys, which are traditionally used as a condiment or for dipping bread but can be mixed into just about anything the culinary imagination can conjure. There is an astounding array of curry paste and chili sauce, and Indian snack foods of spiced chickpea flour twigs, rice, beans and nuts. However, for those who don’t trust their culinary skills, the frozen food section is full of heat-and-serve meals so you can microwave your tikka masala if you can’t make it yourself. There’s even a complete line of Indian flatbreads made by Pillsbury, which are quite tasty.

Most Unusual Item: The fresh vegetable section can be a little confusing unless you know that tindola is like a miniature cucumber and loky is a type of Indian squash. Karela looks like a cucumber that caught the mumps.

Best Bargain: Ready-to-serve sauces and relishes for $2.99, tahini for $3.49.

Eastern European

Euro Deli
10520 Reisterstown Road, Owings Mills, 410-654-8660
Open Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sat., 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sun., 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Euro Deli offers a lot of visual appeal with heavily stocked shelves brimming with goods and a tempting deli counter, but without a translator, some shoppers may be put off by the lack of English explanations on packaging. The staff is not very proficient in English either and can be brusque when asked questions, but it’s worth muddling through. The patient shopper that takes time to examine all the products closely will be pleased to find jams, jellies and honey from Armenia, Poland and other areas of Eastern Europe, as well as one of the finest selections of European fine chocolates and candy bars this side of St. Petersburg. The small bakery is crammed with mouth-watering cakes dripping chocolate and cream, and deliciously sticky baklava, while baskets on the floor offer up fresh breads and bagels.

Perhaps the best reason to stop into Euro Deli is the delicatessen itself. One wall of the store is dedicated to deli products including cheeses, both domestic and imported, a wide variety of smoked fish and succulent displays of salami (although the “Alex’s Meat” brand, featuring the faces of babies on tubes of bologna, are a tad off-putting!). Like most stores, Euro Deli is equipped to satisfy busy shoppers looking for a taste of home on the go. Patrons can select a roasted rabbit and prepared Russian salads to go. For a quick borscht, pick up an instant soup packet. Or delve into some comfort food Eastern European-style with piroshki (small meat pies) and pelmenyi (Siberian dumplings), which are also great for parties. 

Most Unusual Item:  Something called haval, a gray, grainy sweet spread made with sesame seeds.

Best Bargain: Sweet or savory blintz for $2.29 found in the freezer and easily fried or baked at home.

Middle Eastern

Punjab Groceries & Halal Meat
345 E. 33rd St., Baltimore, 410-662-7844
Open daily, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.  (meat department, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.)

Punjab Groceries in the heart of Waverly is no larger than the average convenience store. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in service. The attentive staff is happy to explain the various products, which split almost evenly between Middle Eastern specialties and those from Asia and India. Because beans are an important part of the Middle Eastern diet, and not simply relegated to side dishes in Middle Eastern cuisine, there are mounds of dried legumes for sale.

The other staples available in large supply are basmati rice (there’s even a sugar-free version), olive oil from Lebanon, ghee (clarified butter) and whole tapioca. What makes the market special are its unique items, like the variety of pickles. No, these aren’t your average gherkins, but rather mango pickle, mixed pickle and carrot pickle, which are used like salsas in other cuisines. Some of the most popular items are the cilantro and mint chutneys (used on rice or bread), yellow and green jack fruit in cans and canned mango pulp that when mixed with plain yogurt, milk and sugar makes a refreshing drink called a lassi. Another beverage favorite are the syrups from Pakistan that can be mixed with milk or water.

The market specializes in halal lamb, goat and beef that comes to the shop about twice a week from Pennsylvania and is hung in the “meat section,” a meat locker and small hallway that have been converted into a butcher’s shop. A staff member explains that halal means the animal is killed by hand “with a knife” and sold fresh. The store also specializes in sweet water fish that are frozen and imported from Bangladesh and Thailand. For the sweet tooth there are cookies stuffed with dates, figs or raisins, and creamy ice creams made from exotic fruits.

Most Unusual Item: For the uninitiated, the sight of a whole lamb hanging in a meat locker could be overwhelming.

Best Bargain: Spices here are dirt cheap, from the fresh curry leaves and hot peppers to the dried spices. Consider that ground cinnamon is just $1.99 for 3.5 ounces.

Afro-Caribbean

Afro Tropical Market
5845 York Road, Baltimore, 410-464-0700
Open Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

A visit to the Afro Tropical Market is truly a transporting experience. The first thing one notices upon entering the market (located catty-corner from the Senator Theatre) is a distinct yet hard-to-place smell. One peek into the first aisle and it’s not hard to figure out the scent’s origin: an entire shelf dedicated to dried fish, some as long and weighty as baseball bats, others cut into small pieces, and packaged dried crawfish. Mostly these bits of dried fish are used for mixing into sauces. Even the cold beverage case is full of unique wonders; in place of Cokes one can choose from tamarind, coconut or tropical carrot juices.

Most of the market is dedicated to items that bring Afro-Caribbeans a taste of home. Consider, for example, the clear, unmarked bags of unique dried leaves or the shelves dedicated to NIDO (powdered milk), which is often used in rural Africa to supplement fresh milk. While not popular in the United States, there are multiple forms of millet for sale, a staple in West African cuisine. There is also a large variety of corn meal, cans of coconut milk and powdered yam, which when mixed with water is a bit like instant potatoes. Almost one whole wall is dedicated purely to rice, sold in bags weighing up to 100 pounds. Squeezed in between the meat case and the frozen food there are boxes of cassava (a root vegetable common in African, Caribbean and Latin American cuisine) and sweet potatoes.

Luckily, almost all items in the store are labeled in English or occasionally French, making it easy to decipher what some of the more unique packages contain. If the food wares aren’t what you’re looking for, you can always stock up on sundry items at the counter where there are African clothes and fabric for sale as well as boxes of tamarind candy, lotions, hair gel and even phone cards to call home and get mom’s recipe for cooking goat.

Most Unusual Item: The meat case is a bevy of unusual items from goat meat offered with or without the skin and cow’s feet, to eviscerated poultry.

Best Bargain: China Green Tea for $1.99 or couscous, $2.99 per package.

Also Try:  Big Boys (218 N. Paca St., Baltimore, 410-685-0686).

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