Ethnic groceries sell authentic food from countries from Korean through North Africa, from Mexico through South American, from Jamaica back to West Africa. Some produce. Lots of packaged goods. All the spices that inspired people to sail great oceans in small boats in order to carry flavor home to their shores. At Food Cravings, you can even buy Indian interpretations of Chinese sauces.
But then, we're getting ahead of ourselves.
The key to ethnic shopping in Howard County is a basic map. Nothing is obvious. Very little is advertised. I started HowChow, in part, because it had taken me months to piece together where to buy food when I moved from Virginia. The only players with a large presence are Asian supermarkets -- and I'm going to write a separate overview of H Mart in Catonsville, Lotte in Ellicott City and Grand Mart in Laurel. They're spectacular for Asian products, produce, fish and Mexican food, including cheeses, tortillas and packaged goods.
For other cuisines, the markets are small. They're not on main roads. But they're all reliable with employees who speak English and who have routinely been happy to answer questions. These stores are as modern as anywhere else you shop. You can go for the ingredients that you need to cook these cuisines from "scratch" like corn meal, lentils, and spices, or you can check out convenience foods like frozen samosas, jars of curry sauce, and cans of stuffed grape leaves . You can search my posts by cuisine or by market in the links in the right column, but below is a list of the markets that I recommend:
- For Indian, you have four choices for spices, Indian sauces, frozen naan, boxed Indian lunches, and other ingredients. Check out the candied fennel seeds or buy the basics for pani puri. Mostly, the stores sell Indian or U.S. "import" brands -- from tea to spices to Ching's Red Chili sauce straight from Bombay. The one real advantage is Eastern Market, which has more produce than the others. The four: Food Cravings in Columbia, Desi Market in Columbia, Eastern Bazar in Laurel, and Apna Bazar in Laurel. (Update: In comments below, Hal and anonymous recommend a fifth and sixth: Ganesh Brothers on Rte 40 in the Normany Plaza just east of Rte 29 and Patel Brothers on Rte 40 in Catonsville.) (I have also heard that Food Cravings might be expanding to Elkridge.)
- For Middle Eastern, you drive to Caezar International Market in Elkridge or Aladdin Market on Main Street in Laurel. Both stores sell breads, spices, cheeses like feta or Kashkaval, and packaged basics like lentils, tahini, chick peas and bulgar. Caezar is the larger, expanding at its Elkridge location (with a Persian restaurant next door) after 13 years in Columbia as Sizar's. It moved in 2009 to expand and offer a halal butcher. If you go to Caezar, please try the pistachio nougat.
- For Latin American, you should start at Lily's Mexican Market in Columbia and also consider the Panam Supermarket in Laurel if you want produce or a full butcher. Lily's sits off Dobbin Road. It has a small butcher, a takeout-taco counter, freshly-made corn tortillas, cheeses, dried peppers, and all the packaged goods that you need to cook Mexican food. Not much produce, but the easy exotic fun of cactus for nopales tacos. Panam is off U.S. 1 at Rte 198. This is a supermarket, not a grocery, and it sells all those basics -- along with a huge butcher and a full produce section.
- For West African and Jamaican food, you should check out Afia International in Jessup or Accra Foods in Laurel. Both stores appear to sell Ghanaian and Jamaican brands. I don't know these cuisines, and my explorations have not been successful. I would love any comments if you have suggestions. (Another market -- Julie's International in Elkridge -- closed in 2009.)
Of all these places, Lily's and Caezar's are my favorites. They're pretty comprehensive for someone who needs basic foods. The people have always been helpful, and the butcher and produce make them quite useful. I recommend a visit to any of these markets to anyone interested in trying new food. Federal law requires every bottle and box to list the ingredients, so you can know what you're eating even if the original label isn't in English. Plus, people have been gracious and helpful every time that I had a question to ask.
This is part of the "What I Learned" series of posts. They're organized in rings. See below to continue on the ring about shopping in Howard County. Or click to switch to the posts about different cuisines or posts about areas and ideas.
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