Sunday, October 12, 2008

The United Nations of Food

For weeks now Barbara, my foodie pal, and I have been planning an ethnic food tour of Jackson Heights, Queens – the neighborhood where she resides. Barbara has been telling me about all of the green grocers and spice markets and how one could find hard to come by ingredients. From Colombian meat markets to Indian spice stores and Peruvian restaurants to Indonesian – my curiosity and appetite for new cuisine was peaked.

We started mid-morning with a walk down the main street with bakeries, restaurants and stores featuring Latin foods from South and Central America. It was a Spanish cornucopia. The Colombian butchers and bakeries were bustling with activity – we walked into one of the bakeries to check it out and I picked up a sweet roll for our walk to Little India a mere few blocks away. Like from day to night, the store fronts went from selling plantains to exotic curries and gorgeous saris.

The Indian shops were fascinating, rows and rows of fresh vegetables, spices and giant bags of rice. I was like a kid in a candy store when my eyes feasted on all the bagged spices. I would find things and ask Barbara, “How would I use this?” or “What in the world is that?” She was delighted to tell me about the veggies and spices that I had never seen before.

I had my mental shopping list in my head and as we continued our tour I kept on adding exotic ingredients that I wanted to buy. The air was perfumed with the scent of incense and the blare of sitars flooded my senses. We headed to Patel Bros. Supermarket to knock some items off my list. Inside the busy market it was hard to focus on one single item – again the kid in a candy store problem – but I zeroed in and found cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks and black sesame seeds. Barbara told me to ask for saffron at the cashier – I thought she was kidding – but knew I wanted some. So, I asked and from below the cash register vials and containers of saffron emerged like highly-guarded jewels. It almost felt black market and clandestine so I had to buy some!

After our jaunt through Little India, we headed to lunch and had spicy, wonderful Indonesian food at a small local restaurant. The sauces were sweet, spicy, peppery and just delicious. With our stomachs satisfied we went through the Asian markets which is always an eye-opener for the uninitiated.

Sweet soy, star anise, frozen banana leaves were all crossed off my international shopping list. Just meandering through the aisles is an education in food – I wondered what half the ingredients are and I am amazed by the variety. Where else can you find Chinese chives or galangal? The eggs in the dairy section had a small sign that said “baby chicken inside” – ok, I’ll pass on those! – nearby there were trays of duck eggs and speckled quail eggs.

Laden with my purchases we sauntered back to a Latin market to pick up some plantains since I was craving them all day. The October day was filled with bright blue skies and cool weather. Walking along the streets in Jackson Heights you would come across specialized food vendors making homemade quesadillas, tacos, freshly cut fruit and Chinese dumplings with lines of pedestrians queued up for tasty snacks.

I was comforted by the array of cultures represented in this one neighborhood and thought if these people could live together and co-exist in such harmony with respect to their varied cultures, food, language and customs then why in today’s world is there so much aggression with war, genocide, and hatred. It makes one consider how special this country really is – accepting all people to have a place at the communal table.

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