“Do you have anything to declare?” the customs agent at Dulles asked. I had just returned from a business trip to France, where others might have crammed shoes, couture or fine art into their luggage. Not me.
“I have a couple jars of mustard, a bottle of pastis, a box of cocoa,” I told her. “Oh, and a bottle of olive oil in my cowboy boots.” The woman looked at me, paused, then laughed and waved me through.
I had the same experience returning from Glasgow one time, when I toted home oatmeal, crackers, brambleberry vinegar, a bottle of apple brandy— and nary a bit of tartan.
Some girls make a beeline for Cartier; I can’t resist the food market at Le Bon MarchŽ, where jars of jam glisten like rubies and garnets. Or the cold case in Marks and Spencer, which holds more cheese than I have shoes. Or the Mexican-owned Rogers Park Fruit Market in my old Chicago neighborhood, where the number of limes you could purchase for a dollar increased exponentially as the summer wore on (the best deal I ever saw was 20 for a buck).
To me, food stores are treasure-troves. And since I moved back to Baltimore, I’ve caught up with my old favorites: Mastellone (for sausage and white anchovies) and Mueller’s (multi-grain bread and brat- wurst). I’ve tried places new to me: Krakus Deli on Fleet Street (smoked sausage) and Punjab Groceries and Halal Meat in Waverly (Asian spices). I had heard folks rave about the sushi and vegetables at H-Mart, the Asian grocery superstore near the intersection of Rolling Road and Route 40, but it wasn’t until I had the craving to grill a whole fish that I made the trip.
Nothing could have prepared me for the diversity of seafood (and everything else) at H-Mart. The fish case sparkled brighter than the Las Vegas Strip with scales, tails and eyes. Plastic containers of silvery fresh anchovies abutted boxes of fish roe in all the colors of a roll of Life Savers (including lime green and pineapple yellow). Pinky bronze croaker glowed next to cream-colored salt cod. I swear a pollock winked at me. Feeling slightly overwhelmed by all the foreign fish, I approached the counter and ordered a whole red snapper and a salmon fillet.
That task accomplished, I browsed the meat section and discovered pinkish hog maws and other pig parts I didn’t even know existed, much less had names for. And if I thought the produce would be any more familiar, I was only fooling myself. I stumbled upon conical burgundy banana flowers and the aptly named fuzzy squash, tiny okra-like tindora and the almost scary durian, a round brown spiky fruit nearly 6 inches in diameter.
I had resolved to be brave and buy only vegetables that were unfamiliar to me, since I had wimped out on the fish, but at $1.49, the nearly 5-pound durian would have cost me a small fortune (all right, I got a case of the cheaps), so I passed and settled on a less intimidating bunch of parsley-like leaves called dropwort, a thin Korean cucumber curved like a grin, a handful of slim Thai peppers in Christmas red and green, and a pale yellow-striped Korean melon. As my hands hovered over a pile of choy sum, an Asian green that looks like a cross between broccoli rabe and bok choy, I turned to the woman shopping next to me and asked her how to cook it.
“I don’t know. I cook this,” she answered, pointing to the clearly marked baby bok choy. Then, smiling, she urged, “Try it. It looks good.” So I did, grabbing another bundle of greens, Yu Choy, in the process.
I had invited some friends over for a “dinner experiment” that night, so when I got home I unpacked my bags and considered my options. The snapper I would prepare simply, I decided, sprinkling it with lime juice and stuffing it with Thai basil from my garden before grilling it whole. I kept the Asian theme with the salmon, mixing up a marinade of fresh lemongrass, ginger and some jarred chili garlic sauce I found in the refrigerator.
I needed some inspiration for the greens, so I Googled and learned that both choy sum and yu choy are indeed akin to boy choy. Using a recipe I found on a blog, I blanched the choy sum and then stir-fried it, adding a savory-salty mixture of soy, oyster and fish sauces and some red chilis so hot they took my breath away when I sampled a fragment. For the yu choy, I braised the green right in the skillet with a combination of garlic and chicken broth.
The result was milder, but still tasty and the pale green stalks felt silky on my tongue. Next, following a recipe from cooks.com, I sliced the skinny cucumber and tossed it with sesame oil and rice wine vinegar, throwing in a chopped handful of the earthy, grassily fragrant dropwort, which I learned is also known as “Japanese parsley” (yes, I was mixing nationalities). Finally, I sliced the pretty yellow melon to plate for dessert. The slices looked like Asian pear, but the flavor was more like a cross between a cantaloupe and a honeydew, syrupy and a little floral. Despite my trepidation, I had made the right choices.
But the scary durian haunted me, so later that evening I Googled it, too. Never in my life could I have imagined what it is: a fruit grown in southeastern Asia that is so tough it must be split with a cleaver, and whose marshmallow-like flesh smells like dirty sweat socks though it supposedly tastes like vanilla custard. Right. Next time, I will try it, I swear.