Food from afar
Octopus tentacles at Tensuke Market. Photo by Dan Trittschuh
As a wiggling tilapia is scooped from the tank, there’s a staccato of Mandarin bouncing across the fish counter from customer to clerk. You glance at the shelves to ponder the indecipherable packaging. Some insistent scent lingers, a mix of durian fruit, five-spice powder, maybe those salmon heads. The long green vegetable nearly the size of a baseball bat—should you peel it, eat it raw or simmer it for hours?
Greek and Italian—easy enough. But Chinese can seem like a graduate-level course, even for decent cooks, if you’re not familiar with the plethora of ingredients. Like what to do with beef omasum? Or mao gua, a fuzzy gourd?
With the cultural mysteries ethnic markets invariably present—intimidating to some, delightful to others—it’s hard to remember that you’re still right here in Columbus. From the days when Clintonville’s Crestview Market was unique for carrying bok choy and roasted head-on ducks, ethnic groceries of every sort have sprung up around town. Best advice is to travel with a recipe in hand, take your time and ask for guidance. It won’t feel like Kroger, guaranteed. Here’s a sampling of the variety of offerings.
Columbus Asia Market, around since 1997, is huge and ready to expand again. True, they have hardcore Chinese ingredients such as pig’s uterus—store manager Xiang Yu says it’s delicious when you marinate, broil and slice it over a salad. But there also are easy-to-love Chinese dumplings in the frozen foods section. If you don’t know how to take advantage of Shanghai bok choy, lotus root, kabocha, long bean, Thai eggplant and crab mushrooms, there’s always a sweet Korean shingo pear. Experiment with a bottle of black rice vinegar sauce, or stock up on familiar sesame oils.
Tea drinkers will be riveted. Loose tea is sold from huge glass jars—Yunnan Rose Tea is speckled with dried pink roses—and also comes in ornate tins. Osmanthus tea from Taiwan, lavender green tea and the aptly named 3:15 PM brand of jasmine tea have singularly unique flavors.
Sure, you’ll find bamboo steamers in the housewares section, as well as electric medicine pots for Chinese herbal remedies. And soybean milk makers. Next to the sake cups hangs a long, sharp watermelon knife that really means business.
The store’s prepared-foods section offers peppered shrimp and whole fried tilapia. You also can take home spicy pig’s ear, beef stomach in chili sauce or deep-fried chicken feet. Yu remarks, “I’m not a fan of the chicken feet. They’re kind of chewy. But the ladies buy them—makes their skin soft, they say.”
Columbus Asia Market, 817 Bethel Rd., 442-1888, camasianmarket.com
While Tensuke Market carries all the ingredients for a superb Japanese meal—chicken thighs for yakitori, udon noodles, gyoz dumplings and hijiki seaweed—it’s a prime spot for sushi lovers. You can order fresh from their menu to take out or pick up high-quality rolls and nigiri from the prepared-foods cases. Or buy the ingredients to do it yourself.
For most of us, it’s a bit ambitious to prepare sushi at home. The rice tends to be time-consuming and tricky—all that fanning while stirring with a paddle to cool it. Shortcut alert! Tensuke will sell you cooked sushi rice—perfectly seasoned and ready to roll—at the takeout counter. Depending on the type of sushi you’re making, they can slice pristine slabs of fish, such as yellowfin or big-eye tuna, for sashimi, temaki, roll sushi or the single piece nigiri. You’ll also need soy sauce (they stock a huge variety), wasabi, the seaweed wrapper nori, Kewpie mayonnaise and a bamboo mat for easy sushi rolling.
On the way out, stop in the candy section. Caffeinated Lotte Black Black gum (“Hi-Technical Excellent Taste and Flavor”) makes a fun add-on to your list. And, yes, the gum is black.
Tensuke Market, 1167 Old Henderson Rd., 451-6002, tensukemarket.com
It’s hard to resist a crispy snack with the name “Naughty Tomatoes”—or its fiery tomato sweetness. At Bombay Bazaar, you’ll find unusual munchies, traditional fennel candy, fresh produce, raw ingredients for both northern and southern Indian dishes, pale to bright yellow ghees and frozen entrees, such as naan pizza with spinach and cheese topping. Plus shelves and shelves of pickled everything—hot onion, mango, vadukapuli lime, pickled shark and prawns, and nutmeg fruit (it’s thick, spicy hot and slightly bitter). Not to mention lots of sauce mixes, from tandoori chicken masala to fish curry masala.
If you’re stymied by complex Indian recipes, such as dahi vada or chicken murgh musallam, owner Abraham Thomas is well-versed in what goes with what, whether you cook from scratch or grab Bombay’s heat-and-eat microwaveables. Let’s say you’re craving dosa, the crispy savory pancake. You can purchase the rice, urad dal and fenugreek seeds to do it yourself or get a boxed mix. Or buy the dosa batter freshly made and ready to go.
Thomas, who’s from southern India, is a veteran spice user. He pauses in front of the four-pound bag of extra-hot chili powder. “I’d use this up pretty quick,” he says. “We put it on everything.”
Bombay Bazaar, 58 Dillmont Dr., 593-3262
One of the butchers at La Michoacana turns from the slab of beef he’s carving, shakes his head and smiles slightly. “No, no, just Friday, Saturday, Sunday.” Those are the only days you can get the visually stunning three-foot square sheets of pork rind, or chicharrón. The rest of the week, the store sells the rinds pre-cut, same price per pound, just in a more manageable size.
Like you’d expect, the market has extensive displays of jícama, papaya, tomatillo, fragrant cilantro, bittersweet pear cactus and whole cactus leaves, plus Mexican spring onions. But if you’re just not in the mood to chop everything for ensalada de nopales, they make a great cactus salad. It can serve as a salsa dip with El Ranchero tortilla chips, but—warning—have a frosty Corona close by. They don’t stint on the jalapeños.
Cooks and herbalists, check out the wall of dried ingredients before you leave: avocado leaves, nettle, eucalyptus, chia seed, chaparral, arnica flowers, epazote, feverfew and buckthorn sacred bark. And La Michoacana has every configuration of dried chilies, ground chilies and chili mix imaginable.
La Michoacana Mexican Market, 2175 Morse Rd., 471-4500, lamichoacanamexicanmarket.com
There are those shoppers who go to Carfagna’s just for the meats. They scurry to the counters at the back and pull a number from the red dispenser. Check the queue while scanning the displays of bacon-wrapped filet mignon, pork ribs and meatball mix.
Perhaps it never occurred to them to turn around and look for a block of tangy Amish roll butter, chocolate pizzelles or Bel Aria artichoke spread. Need a quick hors d’oeuvre for Saturday night? Crisp green Castelvetrano olives and a fiery peppered salami from San Francisco pair nicely.
Take an extra five minutes just to hang out in the pasta aisle. Imported Italian noodles are stocked in all shapes—from racchette tennis racquets to long tubular ziti campani that you cut into pieces once it’s cooked. And there are all sizes—tiny anellini pastina to extra long (20-inch) Rummo spaghetti noodles. If you’re making bucatini all’amatriciana, try the De Cecco perciatelli noodle. Perciatelli resembles bucatini in thickness, but is hollow and perforated—sauce clings, and it’s lighter.
For the locavores, Carfagna’s uses only Ohio-grown tomatoes for its own brand of canned peeled tomatoes. With a super deep tomato flavor, it stacks up well against La Valle San Marzano tomatoes, the top Italian import, and it’s less than half the price. Either makes a superb pomodoro sauce with a little sautéed garlic, fresh basil and flakes of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Carfagna’s, 1405 E. Dublin-Granville Rd., 846-6340, carfagnas.com
To set the mood for shopping at Zeta European Emporium, start by flipping through the rack of scenic note cards. With those lush images of the Aegean coast, and the Greek music that owner Bill Chappel favors—opa!—you’re in a great frame of mind for this nicely edited shop.
Vintage olive oil tins and sepia prints of Chappel’s father lend an Old World flavor. And many of the items are time-honored, from sun-dried kalamata crown figs and orzo to dolmades and Kourtaki retsina (the white wine with a trace of Aleppo pine resin that Chappel admits is a love or hate thing). There’s a large selection of imported Greek olive oil; Horio is a top-selling brand.
Ever had saganaki in a Greek restaurant, the fried cheese that’s flamed in brandy tableside and served with a fresh squeeze of lemon? Zeta has two kinds of cheese that work for this simple dish—Haloumi from Cyprus and Kefalograviera. (Just shoot for a reasonable flambé, not one that will summon the fire department.) Pair the warm saganaki with a fresh green salad, kalamata olives, Zeta’s pita bread and Greek hummus for a nice Mediterranean meal.
Save room for a small triangle of homemade baklava, the butter and phyllo dough confection layered with nuts, honey and cinnamon. Made locally by AnnMarie Stremanos McCallister (who, by the way, is a freelance designer for a sister publication of Columbus Monthly), the baklava is sticky and buttery with a perfect balance of sweetness.
Zeta European Emporium, 751 N. High St., 421-7122, zetathegreek.com
The deep cardboard box at the end of the aisle in Accra African Market is lined with plastic. It’s filled with smoked whole chickens that are steamroller flat and as hard as a brick; they might pass for a cousin of beef jerky, except the bones are left in. The shop’s James Danquah pauses from restocking the shelves and offers an explanation. “They have a spice rub, like a chili powder,” he says. “They’ve been smoked for a long, long time so the bones are crispy. It’s good!”
He then motions to the next cardboard box and peels back the plastic cover. A box full of heads! With little teeth! “These are smoked goat heads—good for putting in stews, soups,” he says.
A bin of primitive brooms made from bundles of grass and small wooden pestles speaks to simple, utilitarian needs. Next to the double aisle of yellow corn, yam and cowpea flours are huge jugs of palm oil and African coconut oil—along with cocoyam leaves and ogbono seed from the wild mango plant.
Alata samina, or African black soap, comes from Ghana and looks like a cross between brown lava rock and oatmeal cookie dough. Break off a chunk and lather up—it’s made from palm kernel oil and ashes of the plantain leaf. It smells surprisingly nice and leaves your skin feeling soft. It’s good for cleaning up after the goat stew.
Accra African Market, 5266 Cleveland Ave., 899-0843
Rhonda Koulermos is a freelance writer.