Saturday, August 9, 2008

How to Buy Ethnic Ingredients

Why do Indian dal and Thai tom kha gai taste so much better at ethnic restaurants? Because of the quality and authenticity of the ingredients. If you want to re-create the flavors of your favorite cuisine, buy authentic condiments, grains and spices. The real thing makes all the difference in the world.

Because of the overwhelming number of international ingredients, it's best to explore by food or country of origin. For instance, Oaxacan tamales are banana leaf-wrapped (versus corn shuck), but banana leaves are commonly found in Thailand, as well as Mexico. From a western perspective, Asian cuisine offers particularly unique flavors. Buying a cuisine-specific cookbook or visiting a corresponding website usually gives a pretty in-depth breakdown.

Understand some of the common uses of different ingredients. Most often, what really differentiates a meal isn't the main ingredient--meat, fish, large vegetable. It's the herbs, spices, rices, small vegetable, liquids, etc., that takes your food abroad. These can be used to season or marinate. Combined with a simple broth, stock or even water, they can make soups. You'll soon find the most common ethnic ingredients are powders and leaves, both used to create flavors.

Find out where to buy them. Sometimes, spices like curry or chili paste can be found at the local supermarket. But many require a bit of a field trip. Seek out Indian grocers or hispanic mercados. In fact, many Middle Eastern and Asian items can only eb found in Asian markets. If you live in a larger metropolitan area, there's likely to be a section of town where Asian markets abound. In smaller areas, you may have one or two, or you might have to substitute with a specialty market. Most specialty markets can order items for you if you give them fair notice. If all else fails, find out what immediately available ingredients can be combined as a substitute flavor.

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