After Hours: Online Ethnic Groceries

Kathy Biehl is the food writer for Diversion magazine and the former longtime dining critic for the Houston Business Journal. She has reviewed restaurants as well for the Houston Press, Time Out New York, My Table and the TONY Guide Eating & Drinking 2000. Her food writing has received awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Houston Press Club. She is also the author of the LLRX.com Research RoundUp and Web Critic columns, co-author of The Lawyer's Guide to Internet Research, and an attorney admitted to practice in Texas and New Jersey.

I love to explore the aisles of ethnic grocery stores. My attraction to them began as a child, when my father’s chemistry students from Taiwan periodically took over our kitchen and prepared enormous feasts full of dishes unlike anything I’d never eaten before. Most of the ingredients were unlike anything I’d ever seen, either, and certainly not for sale in our thoroughly white-bread Dallas neighborhood. Something – rubbery-chewy dried bananas, probably, which I equated with candy – intrigued me enough for me to ask one of the cooks where it came from. Her answer amazed me: They had bought it in a Chinese grocery store. Here. In town.

For people who grew up in the midst of distinct ethnic communities, this information would not have been news. For me, though, it blew shopping forever out of the homogeneous waters of Safeway, Tom Thumb and Piggly Wiggly, which were distinguishable from my perspective largely on the basis of the amusement value of their names. (Guess which one routinely won.) Suddenly, simply going to the grocery store could mean more than shopping. The task held the prospect of traveling without leaving town.

This column offers a catalog of some of the best online ethnic markets I have encountered, but is by no means all-inclusive. If you are a happy patron of one that is not on the list, please let me know about it.

(Regarding my last request for e-mail assistance: Thanks again to the readers who responded to my plea for help with the lyrics to the Rice Krispies jingle. May all your breakfast cereals have your taste and texture of choice.)

Multi-National

EthnicGrocer.com is an international food bazaar with products from 17 countries: China, France, Germany, Greece, India, Italy, Japan, Korea, Lebanon, Mexico, Philippines, Poland, Russia, Spain, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam. The virtual aisles are arranged by country, by product, and by category of customer favorites. To facilitate stocking the larder, there’s also an Ethnic Pantry link, which groups staples by product type. (Spam is in the photo for Soups, Stocks, & Broths -- why?) The site’s specialty shops include EthnicKosher and EthnicOrganic, featuring the wares of Manischewitz, Osem and Kedem, and Amy’s and Newman’s Own Organics, respectively.

Kalustyan’s online store is as jam-packed as its counterpart on Lexington and 28th in Manhattan. Known for its comprehensive Indian and Middle Eastern stock, the store carries a wide array of products from northern Africa, Europe (including the former Eastern bloc), the Mediterranean, Asia, and island nations from both the Atlantic and Pacific. Breadth of coverage is not its only strong suit. Kalustyan’s is a reliable source for hard-to-find beans, pulses and grains, as well as herbs (culinary and medicinal), extracts, floral waters and a mind-blowing spice selection. Whether what you seek is orange blossom water or Israeli cous-cous, you are likely to find it here.

French

When Michel Bouvier decided to go into e-commerce, he found a focus for his business in his experience as a Frenchman in the US searching for products from home.  French Feast debuted in December 1999 with a diverse lineup of venerable brands that are not widely distributed in this country. It has remained a solely online store, while expanding into an array of condiments, vinegars, jams, cookies, confections and chocolates, beverages, and such classics as cornichons, chestnuts, foie gras, and truffles.

Its simply structured directory contains fine wine vinegars from 200-year-old Martin-Pouret, the only remnant of Orleans' 700-hundred-year-old sour wine (or vin aigre) industry; galettes (cookies) from Brittany-based La Mere du Poulard, which achieve melt-in-your-mouth transcendence with little more than pure butter; and candied chestnuts and jam from Clement Faugier, which has been transforming native-grown chestnuts into all kinds of everything since 1882.

Hard-to-fine items include pillow-shaped confections called coussins -- curacao-laced chocolate ganache in an almond paste shell -- from the 100-year-old Lyons chocolatier-confiseur Voisin. The store is also among the few reliable sources for the extraordinary Pommery Mutarde de Meaux. This style of sharp-to-the-max, whole-grained mustard began appearing on the tables of kings in 1632, but the Pommery family has been making the recipe only since 1760. Want to share a culinary sensation that impressed Brillat-Savarin? This is it.

German

GermanDeli.com is combination supermarket, home and houseware shop, and drug store (minus prescriptions), founded and owned by the daughters of a German mother and American serviceman father. What they sell is not merely products, but also memories and a sense of home away from home. The company’s warehouse/storefront, near D-FW Airport in northeast Texas, features a wall-mounted map of Germany dotted with pushpins that visitors have used to mark their hometowns. Every Saturday, the store feeds customers samples of sauerkraut and sausages, or whatever the latest shipments contain.

Visitors to the online store miss out on such sensory perks, but have plenty of reasons to browse all the same. GermanDeli.com is not just authentic, but inclusive to the brink of being overwhelming. It has extensive canned, bottled, jarred, boxed, and mixes of groceries; meats and sausages, both imported and domestic; cookies, candies, and chocolates; and dairy products, too, down to butter and (be still, my heart) Quark, a yogurt cheese with an obscurity in this country that mystifies me. From greeting cards to bakeware to magazine subscriptions to bath products, this store contains threads from the fabric of life that will tug at anyone who has lived or spent much time in Germany and its neighbors. And regardless of your familiarity with the country, if you have a passion for Christmas, do not overlook that section of the holiday heading.

GermanDeli.com will alert you to the latest arrivals and specials by e-mail newsletter. German foods are also available from EthnicGrocer.com, discussed under Multi-National above.

Indian

Namaste.com has all the expected grocery aisles (beans, rice, flour, beverages, spices) and a few dedicated to items specific to Indian cuisine: chutneys, savory snacks, pickled ginger, limes, mangos and other fruit, papad, which are like tortillas only thinner, made from bean flour, and meant to be fried or roasted; and sweets.

A special word about sweets: They play a role in Indian life that is broader than desserts. Though they are commonly consumed with (not after) a meal, they are also a celebration food, offered to visitors, served at weddings and parties, and exchanged during holidays. They come in geometric shapes and eye-catching day-glo colors and are more akin to confections than what Americans normally call sweets. One source, which Namaste.com carries and which ships directly itself, is Rajbhog Sweets & Snacks. Burfi is a type of fudge, made from milk that has been boiled until the sugar in it carmelizes; three-color burfi, has layers of pink cashew, white almond, and green pistachio. Halwa is like its Middle Eastern cognate in name only; the Indian style is more of a dry pudding, which has been cooked down to the point that it can be eaten with fingers. Carrot halwa resembles moist, dense, spiced cake; sohan halwa is a hard (very hard), golden toffee. Ladoo is a sugary fried ball of dough, such as besan ladoo, which is made from chickpea flour.

Namaste.com also carries DVDs, body and hair care products, bindis and other beauty products, books, magazines, appliances, utensils, and holiday items.

You will also find Indian wares at EthnicGrocer.com and Kalustyan’s (both discussed under Multi-National above).

Italian

PurelyOrganic.com specializes in organic products from Italy. If you like to support small scale growers and manufacturers, you will find much to appreciate within this company’s directory. The proprietors, who are based in Iowa, boast only products from farms or producers that they have personally visited. Their choices include some exquisite finds, several of which I have singled out in my Best of the Fancy Food Show columns. Use the site for staples (olives and oils, vinegars, juices, coffee, rice, and the occasional splurge of a specialty item (honeys, sundried tomatoes, artichoke, hazelnut or pistachio cream, and a mind blowing marzipan).

Italian products are also available from EthnicGrocer.com (discussed under Multi-National, above).

Middle Eastern

TasteofTurkey.com bills itself as a Mediterranean super store. Indeed, it carries much more than non-perishable groceries, and its products hail from all over the Mediterranean. Though beverages, canned foods, grains, crackers, spreads and other pantry staples abound, this store also offers dairy products, such as sheep’s milk cheese, as well as bologna, salami and soujouk. (Look under Sea Food for taramosalata, a superbly creamy Greek caviar spread that requires refrigeration.) There are almost as many choices for filo dough as there are for Turkish delight. Coffees, spices, desserts, oils, olives, honey, tahini, chocolate, and cookies are also in the mix. Non-edibles include movies, music and soaps.

Middle-Eastern products are also available from EthnicGrocer.com and Kalustyan’s (both discussed under Multi-National above).

Thai

TempleofThai.com stocks staples, fresh ingredients and a range of cookware and utensils, then helps you use all of them with recipes, cooking articles and directions. It carries all the requisite non perishables, from noodles, sauces and curry pastes to sticky rice, dried shrimp and black mushrooms, and even seasoning mixes, soup pastes and other convenience foods. It also ships fresh ingredients that are often not easy to find, such as lemongrass, galangal (a root also known as aromatic ginger), Thai chilis and eggplant, lemongrass, and Kaffir lime leaves. One whole section is devoted to tools and techniques of the art of fruit carving.

ImportFood.com has much the same span of inventory (minus the fruit carving) and recipes, only with an extremely wide selection in each category. Besides having great prices, this store groups some of its products into kits. The produce section offers a fresh Thai produce kit, containing two pounds of lemongrass and eight ounces each of Thai chile and galangal. The site also has six Thai food starter kits, which range from $24.95 to $59.95 and include a rice and noodle sampler, a sauce and soup base set, and a chile paste and spices set. Don’t overlook the link on the bottom of the home page (it’s easy to miss) to a Japanese section, which houses a long page of products and recipes.

Thai food is also available from EthnicMarket.com, which is discussed under Multi-National above.


Copyright 2005 Kathy Biehl. All Rights Reserved.