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Shopping internationally in Memphis.

click to enlarge ERIC SWARTZ

Eating at international restaurants has always been an interest of mine. Recently, though, I've been trying to cut back. Doing so hasn't stopped my craving for things like wonton soup, chorizo con huevos, or shawarma, so I decided to check out some of the international markets in Memphis.

Most grocery stores offer a wide variety of international ingredients. But if you need to get special ingredients, you will probably have to go to an international market.

As I set out on this adventure, I was surprised to find several great markets throughout the city. These were my favorites:

Day 1

The Mediterranean International Market on Park was my first stop. I anticipated being there for 15 minutes. An hour later, I walked out with two bags of groceries and I could have bought five more. I really wanted a jar of massive capers but settled for a box of falafel mix, a tiny container of hummus, canned Moroccan sardines, and baking dates.

Since it was hot outside, I grabbed a Malta India soda for the road. It was carbonated and tasted like molasses, with a slight spicy undertone that I couldn't quite identify.

The Mediterranean International Market, 3561 Park (320-5757)

Viet Hoa Food Market on North Cleveland was a familiar spot. I go to the laundromat just down the street and usually stop at the market on my way home. One thing I always buy is a basil-seed canned drink. It's thick and cold and has tapioca-like sprouted basil seeds. I also bought some tofu, a coconut, limes, and sesame mochi candy.

Some items that I didn't buy (but wanted to) included shrimp chips, instant sizzling rice, and peeled corn that look like tiny teeth. The market has a great produce selection that's fresh and inexpensive.

Viet Hoa Food Market, 40 N. Cleveland (726-9388)

Day 2

At the Great China Market, on Summer Avenue, I was very impressed by the extensive spice and herb section. Some of the most intriguing offerings: dried lotus bulbs, aged citrus peel, and velvet deer horn.

Perhaps the most useful items at the market are the cookbooks. They have lots of pictures and recipes in English. I definitely want to go back, buy a book or two, and shop for ingredients. I also want one of the giant woks. They're almost as big as a bathtub, which is probably what I would have to use it for, considering my stove is tiny.

click to enlarge food_feature1-2.jpg

I ended up leaving with two types of iced coffee, a huge bunch of fresh Chinese spinach, some ready-to-cook spring rolls, a package to make a dessert of seabed coconut, some tamarind hot-chile candy (amazing!), and a can of bird's-nest drink. Despite the fact that bird's nest really is a bird's nest, made from bird saliva, the drink was quite good.

Great China Market, 5137 Summer (682-8220)

By the time I made it to India Imports on Trinity Road in Cordova, it was after 5 p.m., and I was starving. The rich, thick smells of curry and spices made my stomach start growling. I've always heard that you should never grocery-shop hungry. I found out why after I spent way too much buying a can of baby dark chickpeas, whole white pepper, vegetable curry mix, and packages of pre-made aloo matar (peas and potatoes) and surti undhiu (Indian beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yam, eggplant, plantains, and spices).

Most of the products are prepared and packaged foods. India Imports has a small produce section. The cashier was very helpful. He helped me find a special rack for warming udad papad, a crunchy tortilla-like bread.

India Imports, 7845 Trinity (756-0810)

Day 3

Before I even walked into Super Mercado El Rey II, I knew I wanted some chorizo. The slightly spicy, rich Mexican sausage is perfect for mixing with eggs and serving wrapped in a tortilla. The meat counter at El Rey was immaculate. I ordered a pound of chorizo and grabbed a juicy mango and some corn flour on my way out. The market isn't huge, but it has a good selection of ingredients and fresh produce.

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Super Mercado El Rey II, 3699 S. Hickory Hill (797-8412)

Checking Out

The bad news is that I spent a lot of money on food. The good news is that I'm going to be eating really well the next couple weeks. My advice? Go shopping with specific recipes in mind. The options can be overwhelming if you don't have a clear plan. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Everyone I encountered was incredibly helpful and excited to talk about food. And the ultimate words of advice? Don't shop when you are hungry.

Other markets to visit:

Asian Groceries, 5054 American Way (368-0068)

Bombay Bazaar, 4293 American Way (367-2585)

Saro International Food Market, 3816 S. Mendenhall (565-9444)

Winchester Farmers Market, 6616 Winchester (795-1525)

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