We all know what to expect from traditional grocery stores. We know we can find our go-to favorites and if we happen on the international aisle, we have a few options to choose from like basic noodles and sauces. But what if you want to branch out and try your hand at cooking some international foods? All of a sudden, that small aisle at the grocery store seems pretty limited.
Enter the international market where they cater specifically to different types of ethnic cuisine.
Going to an actual international market for the first time can feel like stepping into an unknown universe. The first impression, for me at least, were the smells. Fresh fish, simmering sauces (if there is an attached eatery), and new fruits and vegetables all have their own unique aroma and it all gets mixed together. The packaging is bold and it’s all in languages I can’t understand. There are TEN varieties or more of soy sauce alone, not to mention the oodles of noodles, marinades, curries, spices, and other packaged foods. It can feel overwhelming and make you wish for the store that only carries three types of soy sauce instead of TEN plus.
Fear not, though!
Walking into an international grocery store is an adventure! I fancy myself a type of culinary Indiana Jones, except I can’t pull off all-over khaki and bugs freak me out. But you get the point. International grocery stores typically offer much cheaper goods than you can find in traditional stores, so your budget will thank you. This means you can also afford to experiment a little and try new and interesting foods. Snack type foods are generally the same as other stores or a tad more expensive, so be choosy when it comes to those items if you’re on a tight budget.
Here are some simple tips to help you on your adventure:
Figure out what type of cuisine you want to try and look around the internet for basic recipes (or check out the ones below). Pinterest is your best resource for quick and simple recipes that you can build on as you get more comfortable. See what the staples and flavor profiles of the cuisine are.
2. Go Fresh
You can find a wide variety of exotic fresh fruits and vegetables that you won’t find in traditional grocery stores. These will often be much cheaper too, so be sure to check out this section. If you’re a vegetarian, vegan, or on a specialty diet, this is a great section to shop as you can find jackfruit, specialty mushrooms, and plenty of fresh herbs.
3. Ask for help
There WILL be a time when you simply can’t find a product or you have questions about ingredients or how to use something — so ask. I’ve found some amazing products and creative ways to use them simply by asking and talking to the staff and/or owner. After all — you will typically buy more products and come back if you know what you’re getting, so it’s a win-win for the staff and owners to answer your questions.
4. Make a List
Make a DETAILED list. Simply writing down ‘curry paste’ won’t do when there are AT LEAST three different types of curry (red, green, and yellow as well as curry unique to Japan, Vietnam, and India). Do you need fresh ginger, ginger leaves, or powdered ginger? A very detailed list will save you a lot of trouble.
Here are three international and locally owned grocery stores. Below you can find their information, what they offer, and what are the best (budget wise) items to buy, and some simple recipes to get you started.
Holy Land Market & Deli
3601 Sutherland Ave.
Facebook: @HolyLandDeli for specials
This is a true gem of Knoxville specializing in Middle Eastern foodstuffs and cuisine. Not only can you find an amazing selection of specialty ingredients from saffron to labneh, but they also offer a deli and prepared foods section that cannot be missed. You enter and are immediately greeted by a wall of olives sold by the pound. I don’t know about you, but that pretty much sold me on this place. Olives and baklava and tabbouleh, Oh My! Owners Walter and Denise man the store and prepare the food. Walter kindly answered ALL.THE.QUESTIONS I had and made sure to let me know that they offer samples of some foods so you can try them before you buy. They have an attached deli and let me tell you — bring your appetite. Ya’ll. It was a party up in my mouth. I had the gyro, tabbouleh, and garlic hummus. I also had the rueben. I also had the chicken shawarma. I also had the stuffed grape leaves. I mean, I had them all at different times, but it pretty much ruined me for places like Taco Bell or McDonald’s. My intestines are happy about that. I mean, who wants to suffer the intestinal wrath of Taco Bell? Not me. Do your stomach a solid and grab some delicious grub from this place. (Also, let’s take a moment and give a virtual “high five” for the fact that Walter is a man that cooks really well.)
- Spices. Standouts include blends like zaatar and baharat, cardamom, harissa, tumeric, and sumac. They also offer spice blends for chicken, fish, beef, and spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, etc. These are sold in large containers and typically run about $5-9!
- Good quality olive oils.
- Tahini. This is a staple ingredient in hummus and can also be used as a topping for meats and vegetables.
- Rose and Orange Blossom Water. These are used in desserts, cocktails, and skincare.
- Labneh. Epicurious calls it “everything Greek yogurt wishes it could be.”
- Date Syrup and Pomegranate Molasses.
Tabbouleh (perfect for a light lunch or as a side dish paired with chicken or fish)
8509 Kingston Pike
This store carries many types of international cuisine from Asian, Jamaican, Hispanic, etc. They have a large selection of exotic fruits and vegetables such as jackfruit, specialty mushrooms, daikon, buckets of fresh kimchi, bokchoy, etc. If you want fresh fish, go to the back of the store. There are tanks of fish swimming around just waiting for you to pick one to take home and eat (they’ll take care of the gross parts). It doesn’t get fresher than that. They have unique meat offerings such as ox tail, duck feet, enormous whole fish, animal heads, etc. Hit this place up on the weekends and try boba tea. What’s boba tea? It’s basically liquid happiness with little pearls in the bottom.
My favorite part of the store are the snack aisles. Let me tell you: Asian snack food KILLS IT. The packaging alone is enough to pull me in with their cute pandas, Hello Kitty, and anthropomorphic animals. Many times the packages will have English writing letting you know what’s inside, so keep an eye out for that.
Have you watched those Facebook videos of people trying snack boxes from foreign countries? Well, you can create a box like those by picking a few snacks that catch your eye. Try them with friends for a fun treat or give it as a neat gift to your adventurous friend.
- Soy Sauce. They have TONS of varieties and look out for gluten-free and low sodium versions.
- Dried Mushrooms. Porcini, shitake, oyster, and cremini are a great deal and give your dishes that perfect umami quality.
- Potstickers. You’ll find a variety of frozen potstickers from vegetarian to meat based.
- NOODLES. I could write an entire post on the variety of noodles they carry alone, and the price is much better than traditional stores. My favorites are ramen, fresh udon, and buckwheat soba.
- Mochi and Mochi ice cream. If you buy nothing else, buy the mochi ice cream. You’re welcome.
- Condiments such as hoison, yum yum sauce, ponzu, teriyaki sauce, plum sauce, etc.
- Tea. My favorite is this easy Thai Iced Tea recipe.
- Panko breadcrumbs
Stir-Fried Pork Udon (can easily be made vegetarian)
Peanut Sesame Noodles with Veggies (very kid friendly!)
4829 Newcom Ave.
This store offers great deals on Hispanic grocery items from fresh fruits and vegetables to dried chilies and chorizo. Don’t let the exterior keep you out — there are some great deals inside and the attached restaurant is delicious. I met an extremely kind woman inside while browsing with my two children and she pointed me towards a YouTube channel that features authentic Hispanic recipes. Side note: don’t be like me and drag your small children here to shop — the aisles are small and a bit cramped (lots off good stuff in a small space) and those little hands just need to touch all.the.things. Try out the restaurant and get the tacos Al Pastor, the barbacoa tacos, and the carnitas torta. The horchata is nice too — a refreshing cold rice milk with cinnamon, vanilla, and other spices.
- Dried chilies such as ancho, chipotle, guajillo, etc.
- Fresh peppers such as poblano, jalapeño, and piquillo
- Tortillas, both corn and flour
- Drink mixes like those for tamarind drink, hibiscus tea, and various agua frescas
- Masa harina flour used to make tortillas, tamales, and other corn-based goodies
- Pork lard
- Jarred salsas and sauces
Arroz con Leche (the perfect comfort food dessert for fall)
Migas (try this egg and tortilla bake for your next brunch or when you want some GOOD food)