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You walk into a grocery store that doesn't look or smell like anything you're used to. There are shelves of unfamiliar products, some with funny names (Rural Amorous Feelings, anyone?), many without any English on them at all. You have no idea what most of these items are.
Maybe the fruits and vegetables will look familiar. But instead of the shapely pear, Bartlett or otherwise, you find round, apple-like pears wearing little foam jackets. What? And that Chinese okra, it kind of looks like a zucchini, but what's with the ridges?
Welcome to the fun shopping experience that is the ethnic market. Do not be afraid.
If you love to eat and cook, there's never been a better time to explore food just beyond your comfort zone. Southeastern Connecticut may be small, but it holds its own when it comes to the number of independently owned ethnic grocery markets that do business here.
From New London to Westerly, a surprising number of Asian, Indian and Mediterranean markets abound, with several new ones in the mix. When QVS Food Center, a large Asian and American grocery store on Route 165 in Norwich, closed several years ago, two smaller Chinese markets opened in that city to fill the need.
At these markets, you'll find all sorts of hard-to-find products for those recipes you've stashed and never tried because you never knew where to buy, say, tamarind for pad thai or glutinous rice for delectable sticky rice with mango.
You also might be surprised to find items at these stores that are pantry staples across the continents, be they coconut milk, or red lentils, or spices. Often, these small stores sell high-quality products at prices cheaper than some supermarkets. This is especially true of the fresh produce.
And did we mention variety? Whereas the Asian aisle at your local supermarket may offer just one or two types of soy sauce, an Asian market might sell a good half-dozen. Same goes for noodles, rice, flour and spices.
Yes, it is intimidating to walk into these markets blindly. The experience can be overwhelming. Because a lot of these markets are geared toward people of their own culture, some or all of the signs at the store may be in a foreign language. Unfortunately, the person behind the counter won't always speak much English, so they won't be able to explain what an item is.
At Lucky Market in Norwich, when I asked whether the market accepted credit cards, the young man at the register pulled out his smartphone, found his Google Translate app and handed the phone to me to type in my question.
But what's an adventure without any challenges? Go forth, and get that packet of strangely beautiful dried snow fungus. There's always the Internet to guide you through its use when you get home.
Lee's Oriental Market
432 Williams St., New London; (860) 443-9665
Atmosphere: This small but tidy store has been a mainstay on Williams Street for more than 30 years now. The owners are Korean, but they offer goods from across Asia, attracting a good number of southeast Asian customers. You'll find a range of goods, from noodles, different types of rice and frozen goods that range from fish to jute leaves to Korean ice cream.
Three items of note: Japanese sweet potatoes, $3.99 a pound (these are pale yellow on the inside, creamy and sweet, and in my opinion more delicious than the orange sweet potatoes we find here); plastic molds to make triangle-shaped seaweed rolls, $3.49 (these rolls are a popular to-go snack in Korea); a metal wire scoop for fried foods, $7.49.
Favorite item: Melona, which is Korean melon-flavored ice pops - a guaranteed cure for any pang of homesickness I may get.
Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday; 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday
- Jenna Cho
Saeed's International Market & Cafe
464 Ocean Ave., New London; (860) 440-3822
Atmosphere: Saeed's used to be a tiny store on Bank Street before it found its much larger new home. This clean and spacious store also serves hot food of the delicious Mediterranean variety. Falafel, shawarmas and grape leaves are just some of what Saeed's offers behind the food counter. Don't forget about dessert - baklava and friends stand at the ready behind the dessert counter, which also includes gelato.
Three items of note: Frozen spanakopita, 12 ounces, $6.99; so many different kinds of olive oils; large pita breads, pack of 5, $2.99.
Favorite item: Luncheon meat "slaughtered according to Islamic law" include turkey meat, chicken, and chicken and beef. Take that, Spam!
Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday; closed Sunday
- Jenna Cho
351 N. Frontage Road, New London; (860) 447-1194
Atmosphere: We couldn't pass up mention of this supermarket, given the variety of Hispanic products the New London store offers. Looking for a specific type of dried chili pepper you haven't been able to find anywhere else? Chances are ShopRite sells it - puya chili pods, arbil chili pods, mulato chili pods, to name a few. Need to wrap your tamales in corn husks? ShopRite carries dried husks, too.
Three items of note: Hormel's pig's feet packed in vinegar, 9 ounces, $2.59; loufahs (identified as cleaning rags, but found in the produce section), $3.99; dried hibiscus flower, 3 ounces, $1.99.
Favorite item: Sweet tamarind in pods. They look so cool, and I've been dying to try a tamarind ice pop recipe.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday; 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday
- Jenna Cho
Address: 427 W. Main St., Norwich; (860) 889-9600
Atmosphere: The store isn't big, but it's packed to the gills with Indian products. Pretty bare decor-wise, and you'll have to reach over some boxes of goods that haven't yet been shelved, but look carefully and you'll find everything you're looking for (and some things you didn't even think you needed). Need flour? There's rice flour, moong flour, dhokla flour, chick pea flour, and the list goes on. Same goes for spices. Refrigerated and frozen goods include Indian ice cream, frozen meals and sweets.
Three items of note: Deep paneer paratha, pack of 4, $2.99 (these spicy and filling Indian stuffed savory pancakes are great with raita, a sweet yogurt dip); solid chunk of natural palm sugar, 1.1 pounds, $1.99; two whole dried coconuts, $2.99.
Favorite item: Monkey brand black tooth powder ("for dental cleanliness"), purely for the packaging.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Saturday; closed Sunday
- Jenna Cho
16 Franklin St., Norwich; (860) 383-4108
Atmosphere: This clean, expansive store offers a ton of Asian products. Probably the largest Chinese market in the region, you'll also find lots of produce, seafood and meats - including containers of live eel and frogs - and some poorly translated English on packaging that will make you laugh. (A "sauce boat" for sale has the following accompanying text on the box: "It's I never think that so prefeet as a poemMetting of snow bing to flower and grasses to send to keep The butterflys and birds lain on anyon's parade.")
Three items of note: Large straws for bubble tea, $1.99; cooked shredded dried pork product, 0.4 ounces, $2.69 (sprinkle on top of rice for an instant flavor boost); uncooked Chinese style sausages, $4.99.
Favorite item: A package of dried snow fungus. These fungi are creamy pale yellow and look like dried hydrangeas or clusters of pencil shavings, with tight curly ribbons in a half-dome formation.
Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week
- Jenna Cho
Address: 454 E. Main St., Norwich; (860) 222-3379
Atmosphere: This is a small store with just a few shelves of products and a small refrigerated section. A sign at the front proclaims a grand opening, so the owners may still be working on stocking their shelves. The store also carries some American products, including cans of Chef Boyardee and bottles of Hawaiian Punch.
Three items of note: Cooked salted duck egg yolks, $4.99; 3 Ballerina Tea dieters' drink, $3.99 (maybe the Chinese version of Slim-Fast?); Rare soybean drink, 59 cents.
Favorite item: A giant box of tea cookies, labeled "Tea Break Snacks," for $11.99.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
- Jenna Cho
New Asia Market
646 Long Hill Road, Groton; (860) 449-9177
Atmosphere: This clean, crowded, mom-and-pop-style small grocery's fully stocked shelves are packed with bright, colorful bags of candy; sacks of rice, beans and noodles; miles of instant ramen; and a garden of dried plums, peppers, seaweed, eggplant and mushrooms. Its pan-Asian inventory includes eight varieties of fish sauce, with the same diversity of sesame oil, vinegar, soy and hoisin. The freezer cases include an impressive variety of dumplings and sausages, and fresh produce runs the gamut from mustard greens and baby bok choy to Chinese broccoli and banana blossoms. The refrigerated section includes fresh lychee, sprouts, okra, and even some fresh noodles. SNAP benefits accepted.
Three items of note: A 6-pound, 4-ounce can of whole, peeled straw mushrooms, $12.99 (there are smaller cans, too); a pound of fresh lo mein noodles, $1.99; a 1-ounce bag of dried shitake mushrooms, $1.99.
Favorite item: A giant pair of cooking chopsticks, $1.79. I don't know what I'll do with them but I had to have them.
Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week
- Jill Blanchette
Raj Cash and Carry
764 Long Hill Road, Groton, in the front section of the Groton Shopping Center, between Family Dollar and the Grape Vine; (860) 445-4455
Atmosphere: A well-organized, large store with a warehouse feel. The many bulk offerings include giant sacks of flattened (or beaten) rice, lentils and dal, including urad, masoordal and channa, and bulk spices such as fenugreek, green cardamom and whole nutmeg (3.5 ounces for $4.99). Several long shelves are filled with curry spice mixes, ready to use kofta, garam masala and biryani masala; a variety of teas, including green, ginger and chai. Cooking oils run the gamut from ghee (32 ounces for $12.99) and coconut oil (15 ounces for $4.99), to peanut, corn, almond and olive oils. A dizzying array of flours ranged from singoda (water chestnut) and moraiyo (rice), to bajri (millet) and rajgano (amaranth). The was coconut water, coconut juice and just plain coconut in sliced, flaked and powered form.
Three items of note: A 28-ounce bag of cashews, $10.99; fresh paneer (cheese), 14 ounces for $3.99; a staggering variety of incense; and many kinds of hair oil.
Favorite item: Aside from a bag of Lay's potato chips, India's Magic Masala flavor, I loved the produce section's very exotic offerings, from methi (fenugreek leaves) and guvar (cluster beans, flat and slightly bitter) to beautiful karela (bright green, spikey bitter gourd) to tiny round eggplants, like a pile of deep purple jewels.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday
- Jill Blanchette
2310 Norwich-New London Turnpike (Route 32), Montville; (860) 848-6690
Atmosphere: Apart from a simple sign on the storefront in both English and Chinese, there's not much to catch the eye of someone driving by on Route 32. Inside, it's a little drab and a bit stuffy, but don't be fooled by appearances. This is what true Chinese markets are like - the kinds that aren't catering to foreigners or even other Asians - where you're mostly likely to find the goods that are integral to authentic Chinese cuisine. Most of the signs are in Chinese, especially the refrigerated products, so this may be the trickiest of the Asian markets to navigate without some understanding of Chinese food or the language.
Three items of note: 1 gallon jug of soy sauce, $11.80; a Filipino product called Agar-agar (towers of compressed seaweed dyed in bright colors), $1.29; a dark reddish brown half-cob of glutinous corn, $1.
Favorite item: You'll find a giant bucket of peeled garlic here, for all your vampire-warding-off needs.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday, Thursday and Friday; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday and Saturday; 3 to 10 p.m. Wednesday; 2 to 10 p.m. Sunday.
- Jenna Cho
Westerly Packing Co.
15 Springbrook Road, Westerly (in the far northwest corner of town); (401) 596-3404
Atmosphere: Enter through the spotlessly clean, hyper-air-conditioned butcher shop to find meat and cheese cases and freezers filled with hormone- and antibiotic-free poultry, grass-fed beef, lamb, rabbit, duck and veal, and a huge selection of frozen seafood and fresh frozen pastas. An adjacent small retail area is packed with imported Italian specialty items and opens to a large warehouse section, filled with bulk food and paper goods fit for restaurant supply or a large, extended family. The staff members are charming and friendly and let you wander around and marvel at will. You'll find soupy (sopressata sausage) - in mild, medium and hot - prosciutto and pancetta, beautifully sliced and packaged, or choose the cuts you'd like at the butcher and deli counters. Pick up some fresh frozen chicken and walnut or sweet potato ravioli or perhaps some smoked mozzarella agnolotti. An array of grapeseed, truffle and olive oils are next to an assortment of both exotic and utilitarian vinegars, pickled peppers and olives, and an interesting selection of cookies and crackers.
Three items of note: House-smoked dog bones, $3, pigs ears, $1.50; 1-pound, 13-ounce can of scungilli (sliced, cooked conch), $12.99; the largest, plumpest ceci beans (chickpeas) I've ever seen, 13-ounce jar for $2.99.
Favorite items: The selection of pasta, which fills an entire wall, is unparalleled. About half of the shapes and names were unfamiliar to me: anelletti - a little pasta circles that look like mini curtain rings; long, rolled, free-form sticks called strangoloni; spaghetti al negro di sepia (spaghetti colored with squid ink); one kind looked like 3-inch lengths of horizontally ribbed pipe; giant radiatore and fusilli; and amazing lumaconi, ribbed elbows the size of a toddler's fist, most at $3.59 for a 1.1-pound bag.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; 8 a.m. to noon Sunday.
- Jill Blanchette
62 Franklin St., Westerly, in Ocean Plaza next to the Golden Chopsticks restaurant; (401) 596-7926
Atmosphere: This no-frills, crowded mom-and-pop grocery feels very authentic and utilitarian. Many of the products have little if any information on the label in English. Refrigerator cases lining the back wall are filled with bags of mystery produce - I did spot some great looking baby bok choy. Dry goods are loosely organized, packed cheek by jowl on shelves and stacked in aisles. You'll find a big selection of dried fish - including fish filets (5.3 ounces for $5.95), octopus, cuttlefish and shrimp - and snacks, such as pollock fish snacks, 90 cents for 1 ounce, shrimp chips and shrimp crackers. The tea shelf is overflowing with quantity and variety - dried chrysanthemums, $4.95 for 4 ounces, and dried honeysuckle, $4.95 for 3 ounces. The store stocks many choices in rice and tapioca pastas - my favorite was a sack of small, flat flower-shaped rice pasta that I could picture floating in a bowl of chicken soup. This market also features household goods, dishes and cookware - a set of three medium bamboo steamers, $9.95. A small freezer case in the back includes prepared dumplings and pork and duck sausages.
Three items of note: Bars of laundry soap, two in a package, for washing your delicates in Shanghai. Six preserved duck eggs carefully packaged in plastic foam and plastic, the picture on the label showing them green on the inside. Bargain alert! Package of spring roll wrappers, $1.50 for 12 ounces.
Favorite item: A large, clear plastic box of dried wood ear mushrooms, beautifully displayed like a corsage fresh from the florist, $7.50 for 8 ounces.
Hours: Seven days a week, 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fresh produce arrives on Thursdays.
- Jill Blanchette