Monday, December 9, 2013
Portland ranks fairly high as a food-resource center. I’m referring to imported products like specialty oils, imported canned goods and such highly specific ingredients as dried Mexican chilies, sundry Asian oils, sauces, pickled fruits, noodles and exotic vegetables and greens such as Thai basil or yuzu juice.
The new Veranda Asian Market has plenty to offer from exotic canned goods to produce, meat, fish, poultry and prepared foods
Of course most anything can be found on the Internet. But if you need something immediately local availability can be spotty at our specialty markets.
It would be ideal to have one central store for one-stop global shopping. But we don’t. Instead, international shopping is accomplished with trips to multiple food purveyors in town.
Whole Foods carries a decent if not limited selection of Asian foods. They have a good selection of Indian curry pastes. But food fuel for fusion cooking is hit or miss. They generally have lemon grass, the Thai cooking staple, but the last time I needed it there were only two stalks left in the vegetable cooler. It’s always available, however, at all four of our Asian markets (Hong Kong Market, Mittapheap, Veranda Asian Market and Sun Oriental).
Plenty of Asian greens and fresh produce at the Mittapheap Market on Washington Ave.
Generally, our Asian markets have a good selection from the basics to the esoteric. Communication, though, with store personnel is tricky. Recently when I needed Chinese chili bean paste for Chef Danny Bowein's recipe, Henon chicken stew, I was met by blank stares. At Sun Oriental the owner asked me what kind of chili bean paste I wanted. Well, I didn’t know exactly and the recipe hadn’t specified.
I’ve since learned there’s an infinite variety, and at the least, Sriracha, a Sri Lanka hot sauce, is a good enough substitute (and very spicy hot!). Also called for in the recipe was black vinegar. That was a cinch to find at all of our Asian markets.
Ingredients for Mexican cooking are nearly impossible to find anywhere easily except in the Southwest and West Coast markets. However, Gryffon Ridge, the local specialty spice and herb purveyor, has a great selection of authentic high quality Mexican dried chili’s that’s carried by Whole Foods, Leroux and a few other shops. It’s also available at Gryffon’s farmer’s market booths at Brunswick and Bath or mail order.
Occasionally I’ve been surprised by Hannaford’s inventory of imported foods.. One time I searched high and low for roasted peanut oil, only to find a well known brand from France on the shelf at Hannaford’s. Alas, they no longer carry it, and since their product and aisle renovations, the store barely stocks beyond supermarket basics. To wit: Whole Food’s doesn’t have roasted peanut oil either. Leroux does.
Still no roasted peanut oil at Whole Foods but plenty of local oil brews
Last of my recent travails in finding specialty foods was when I needed preserved ginger, an ingredient in a custard tart recipe by British cookbook author, Jamie Oliver. Again I performed a city- wide search on foot and by phone query to no avail. The city’s Asian markets didn’t carry it or even know what it was. They thought I meant sushi ginger. I also tried Whole Foods, Hannaford’s, Aurora Provisions and Rosemont without success. Leroux said they normally have it but were out of stock. .
Preserved ginger—I now know--is an ingredient that British cooks use often. It’s fresh ginger that’s put through a blanching process several times and then preserved in sugar syrup. In a pinch you could use crystallized ginger and even ginger preserves. It is available, along with everything else in the world, on Amazon.
John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.
In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.