Saturday, May 16, 2009

International Food Field Trip

As we headed out of the building, one of my fellow travelers said, “I can’t believe we’re really going!” I couldn’t, either – we’d been plotting a lunchtime field trip to Jay International Foods for at least a month. Besides me, there were three young coworkers, all guys, all creative and funny and adverturesome in their eating and cooking.

When you enter the store, you get a small idea of what it smells like to travel the world. Myriad unidentifiable scents form a semi-sour wall built on fresh-fish base notes; I’m always relieved when it fades, as stinkiness is not my favorite part of traveling.

There are at least a hundred kinds of jam: rosehip, plum, apricot. I picked up a jar of ginger preserve. They sstock more kinds of fish sauce than seem logical, tubs of spices for less than half the cost of a single small grocery-store bottle, enormous bags of rice and tins of oil that will last for years. In the frozen section, you can find squid, whole jack mackerel in two sizes, very cute flat fish of some sort, and the infamously stinky durian.

Part of the fun of going to any international food store is gawking at the packaging. We found a bottle of “Chee-zee” spread with a cheesy-looking kid on it, an ingredient list that included “lovely,” and many products that were clearly named but still unfathomable, such as “Beef Iron Wine.”

The dry goods are arranged by country, and because I lived in Japan for a few years, I tend to get nostalgic in that section. This time it was the mayonnaise that made me think of the adventures I had figuring out what to buy in Tokyo’s grocery stores. It was Kewpie brand, with its nonsequitur image of the ‘40s-era doll, in a bottle made of thin plastic that ensures you’ll get every drop out. I’m good on mayo, though, so I picked up a box of Vermont curry mix – this is Japanese-style curry, a block of trans fat and spices that you add to your meat and veg to make a viscous, sweet gravy. One of the guys picked up nori and wasabi, and ingredients for spring rolls.

Another guy needed tamarind paste, but the closest thing we could find was tamarind chutney. I asked a nearby Indian man whether it could be substituted for the paste. At first, he thought I just wanted him to get out of the way so I could get to the shelf beyond him, but when he realized I was asking him a question, he smiled broadly and attempted to answer it. Then he asked me to wait a moment, and called his wife over. She had been in the other aisle, and by the time she got to us, she seemed a little annoyed, said something vague, and gave me a head wag that I had trouble interpreting. My husband has told me many times that Indians hate to say no, and this particular wag seemed too vague for a “yes.”

Later on, still bothered by the Indian woman’s watery answer and the thought of a friend making Pad Thai with the wrong form of tamarind, I asked a store employee about the tamarind paste. “Aisle 17. Chinese and Thai.” Sure enough, there it was, blocks of it stacked up right across from the Indian section, where I had righteously expected it to be.

One of the guys, who had a Vietnamese friend growing up, bought a packet of sweets that were green, chewy, tasted like popcorn, and were filled with a sweet white bean paste. He handed us each one in the car on the way back, which prompted all kinds of commentary and discussion, capped off by a “Thanks, I think.”

We must have stayed for more than half an hour, but it felt too fast. Next time, I want to start earlier and have a meal while we’re out.


  1. I was in Jay International today, and a couple looking for tamarind paste was examining a container of tamarind chutney! This must be a common problem at the store.

  2. That is so funny, but more support for my assertion that it's in the wrong place! Or maybe it's a demographic thing -- more Chinese and Thai customers, so they put the tamarind paste where they can find it easily, and let everyone else hunt it down.


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