What I learned from ethnic markets

Foreign Delights

by Karen Haid


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Some people think that living in Las Vegas is like being perpetually on vacation. In what other city does the pilot wish the passengers luck while taxiing to the gateway? But when I pop into one of the casinos in an attempt to save on my home air conditioning bill, I realize that I'm surrounded by Americans just like me, only from other places.

One day while driving through a previously unexplored neighborhood, a giant red sign caught my eye. The parking lot was full. Not being familiar with Seafood City, I first imagined some sort of newly developed Vegas mirage. Families pushing grocery carts brought me back to reality, and without any other plans for the afternoon, I entered the store.

I thought I'd have a look at the seafood. The first thing I noticed, however, was that I was surrounded by Asians. And then there was the seafood. Whole fish in all shapes and sizes glistened on the long, stainless steel iced tables with tentacled crustaceans and cephalopods swimming in nearby tanks. I suddenly felt part of an exotic travel show on cable, except for the fact that everyone was using plastic gloves and long tongs to handle the merchandise. The multi-lingual customers confidently threw packages of milkfish heads into their carts, bagged up the barracudas, and strolled over to the meat section where I couldn't help thinking of little ET's crooked index finger as my eyes scanned the two-pound packages of chicken feet under plastic wrap.

It was fascinating! And who knew that we grew ong choi kang kong and saluyot leaves, two seemingly popular green, leafy vegetables, in California when my grocery store can't seem to locate a producer of lamb any closer than New Zealand? I'm not sure what I'd do with a 40-pound bag of rice, but a quail egg omelet might just hit the spot. Suddenly those free-range brown eggs in my fridge strike me as rather ordinary.

On my next visit to my regular supermarket, I started babbling about my experience to the checker. She looked at me as though I were that travel host ready to crunch down on a deep-fried insect. In that moment, I realized that I as good as had my passport stamped. I hadn't even mentioned the glatt kosher restaurant I had been to the following evening where I may have committed a major faux pas in not ceremoniously washing my hands before eating. Unbeknownst to me, a sink had been expressly placed outside the bathrooms for that purpose.

Clearly, I didn't have to go halfway around the world with so much to explore in my own backyard. Instead of cruising past those signs in foreign languages, I could stop, look in the window, and see what the businesses were all about. I began leafing through the yellow pages, asking people of other ethnicities where they ate, opting for smaller, family-run operations as opposed to their larger, generic counterparts, and occasionally winding up being the odd man out, armed me with a sense of adventure that led to diverse, new experiences.

I doubt that I'll ever learn my way around beef bile or develop a preference for name-brand as opposed to store-brand pork blood. I have, however, downloaded a few new recipes from the internet.

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