In the Market for Cultural Adventure?

Ethnic Groceries Dish Up a World of Culinary Possibilities


     Outside the crimson and yellow arched entrance, dozens of split-chickens grill to a golden brown, emanating tantalizing scents. Inside, popsicle-hued piñatas dangle overhead, as the infectious beat of mariachi music welcomes families arriving en masse. While the children scamper toward cakes festooned with neon pink and blue frosted flowers, “holas” are cheerfully exchanged among the crowd members. No, this is not a fiesta; it’s a trip to the market. Not that Mi Pueblo resembles your everyday market, but it may exemplify a constellation of ethnic stars in Oakland’s food-shopping firmament.
     One front wall of this East Oakland marketplace is brightened by a huge case of pastries, cookies, rolls and sweet breakfast breads, in a dizzying array of pastel shapes. Lining the back of the market is an ocean of fresh fish, laid out on ice in eye-pleasing symmetry, while every platter of salad, ceviche or dairy cream in the deli case displays a decorative flourish: a flower carved from cucumber or a bird cut from kiwi.
     Nowhere is the artistic touch more obvious than in the produce bins, where potatoes are aligned in perfect pyramids and squashes artfully arranged into a rainbow of greens and yellows.
    Oakland resident Lupita Peimbert is carefully choosing peppers for the chiles rellenos she will prepare for her guests tonight. “Sure, I shop Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, but if I’m cooking Mexican,” says the 42-year old Sinaloa native and public affairs consultant, “I always come here for the food — and the experience.”
    “See these Mexican mangos,” says Peimbert, picking one from a giant pile of speckled green, yellow and red globes. “They’re not perfect, and that means they’re not genetically modified.” Peimbert, who worked as a journalist in Spanish language radio, TV and print for many years, is the 11th in a family of 12 children. She makes chiles rellenos for special occasions just the way her mother did. Today, she chooses onions, tomatoes, cans of Mexican-style tomato sauce, queso fresco (cheese) for the filling and crema Mexicana (sour cream) to dollop on top.
    “I find things at Mi Pueblo I can’t find other places,” says Peimbert. “Even though I’ve lived here 20 years, these foods are part of my
cultural identity.”
    Peimbert is just the kind of customer that Juvenal Chávez, founder and CEO of the Mi Pueblo chain, probably envisaged when he planned his markets as nostalgia-filled trips
back to places and memories from his customers’ pasts. Mi Pueblo draws design inspiration from open-air Mexican markets and provides a wide selection of products to satisfy clientele from diverse Latin American backgrounds — plus convivial (bilingual) customer service.

     Ethnic food yearnings are not confined to immigrants. Linette Park was born in California to a Korean mother who worked as a professional chef — but in a Japanese restaurant, since Korean restaurants were not widespread in the ’90s. While mom prepared traditional Korean dishes at home, Park and twin sister Eleanor (now a chef at San Francisco’s Zuni Cafe) also requested spaghetti and hamburgers.

      Living on her own, Park organized a cooking group with her sister and two second-generation Korean friends who meet monthly and prepare a range of Korean dishes to “reclaim our culinary cultural heritage.”
     On a recent Sunday evening, in Park’s West Oakland flat, the four young women gather to chop, stir-fry and eat, sharing memories, recipes and the belief that “cooking nourishing food together is a bonding force.”
     Linette Park slices burdock roots and carrots into matchsticks and sautés them in a wok, while Jin-Sun Kim swirls dates, pine nuts, chestnuts, cinnamon, molasses and sugar into the sweet rice dessert that she will steam and then cool. Eleanor Park, arriving after a Sunday spent making French toast at Zuni, changes gears and prepares the cold noodle dish, somen. April Kim breezes in a little later, with homemade radish kimchi. f
     The low living room table, where dinner is served, is soon covered with a dozen small side dishes, called banchan, that accompany most Korean meals, including fried zucchini, stuffed cucumbers and seasoned mung bean sprouts.
    To honor the principles of seasonality and sustainability, Linette Park incorporates vegetables and herbs from her backyard garden and she buys special Korean ingredients like tubs of gochujang (ubiquitous fermented red pepper sauce), oxtail for soup, roasted chestnuts, golden melons and young radish at Koreana Plaza.
    In this emporium of Korean, Chinese and Japanese foodstuffs, the refrigerated kimchi section features jars of Napa cabbage and other fermented vegetables in sizes reminiscent of Starbucks’ options — large (30 ounces), extra large (64 ounces) or gigantic (128 ounces).
    Store president Byong Joo Yu admits to a level of kimchi devotion — bordering on addiction — that is not uncommon. “I have to eat kimchi three times a day, with every meal,” he says.
    He points out tanks with live fish, pre-marinated bulgogi and a profusion of food with health-giving properties, including teas, seaweed and frozen black goat.

    Ethnic markets provide an easy, exotic getaway for food adventurers like Serene Vannoy, an Oakland editor and food blogger who explores comfort foods at “I had a Korean roommate in the ’90s who introduced me to kimchi,” explains Vannoy, who lives near Koreana Plaza where she comes to buy roasted corn tea, frozen mandu (dumplings) and Asian produce like lotus root, galangal, mangosteen and rambutan. And of course, kimchi. Her favorite is made from daikon radishes. “We buy big tubs of that, and when it loses its zing, we make soup out of it.”
    Today, Vannoy is buying plain white cylinders of tteok, (fresh Korean rice cakes), which she will stir fry with vegetables and hot pepper sauce. Her advice for timid shoppers: “Buy small and be brave. Or take someone brave with you! My mom and I cheer each other on when we try new things like fish candy or pickled plums and sometimes the excitement extends to the kids, who are a bit less adventurous.”

    Ethnic food shopping is not limited to pushing a cart up and down the aisles of a vast market. Oakland Chinatown is home to scores of little specialized shops that might seem intimidating to the uninitiated, but contain a wealth of unusual ingredients with deep cultural roots.
    Before she had children, Oakland urban planner Jane Lin, 34, designed transit villages, never dreaming a new career path would lead her to simmer huge pots of healing soups steeped in Chinese tradition.
     When Lin’s son was born four years ago, her mother made her soups “for the period of confinement” as Chinese culture calls the first 30 days in the new mother’s life. Lin noticed these soups were not something her mother ever served the family while she was growing up. They contained rich concentrations of special ingredients intended to help her regain her strength and ensure a good supply of milk for the infant.
    The second time around, after her daughter was born last year, Lin realized that not only were these confinement soups brimming with nutrition, they also held cultural secrets that she suddenly needed to unlock and understand.
Since Lin’s mother re-created the soups her own mother had lovingly prepared, she had no written recipes to share. After peppering her mom and aunt with questions, Lin started making soups for other new mothers under the name Mama Tong (tong means soup in Cantonese). She offers a classic chicken soup with ginger and dried ingredients, plus a slightly sweet pork and black rice vinegar soup. Vegetarian soups are also available.
    Even though she only speaks a few words of Chinese, Lin shops in Chinatown for lower prices, fresher produce and the opportunity to wander around and see what looks best.
    Her ingredients come in several categories, each from a different kind of shop. For the dried foods that concentrate flavor and nutrients (like dried mushrooms, goji berries and red dates), she frequents Pacific Seafood Trading Co. (whose name refers to its selection of dried seafood).
    For ginger, central to the healing properties of the soups, Lin looks in a produce store such as Yuen Hop Co. for large knobs of ginger root that resemble hands with smooth knuckles.
    Lin cautions that Chinese butcher shops such as Yet Sun Market, sell something American butchers don’t: whole animals with the heads and feet attached, “out of respect for the animal.” She selects smaller, “yellow” chickens or exotic “black” chickens” (which have darker meat
and black bones).  
    Also strolling around Chinatown is Montclair resident Faith Kramer, who has taken cooking classes in exotic spots like Hanoi, Shanghai, Buenos Aires and Istanbul. Kramer chronicles her creative recipes at and in a cooking column for a Jewish weekly magazine. She is devoted to ethnic markets for good prices, inspiration, adventure and to re-create dishes she’s eaten on trips.
    Standing outside Lucky Seafood Market No. 2, Kramer notes, “Hmmm, no fishy smell at all — that’s a good sign of freshness, the floor is clean and there are a lot of people in the store. Seems like a good place. I come with an open mind and see what looks fresh. Then I get inspired. It doesn’t even have to be a whole Chinese meal. I just bought some fresh cilantro and lemon grass and think I’ll make those into
a pesto to pair with salmon steaks.”
    Whether you’re an adventurous cook like Kramer, a homesick transplant or a culinary heritage detective, ethnic markets offer a ticket to edible exploration. You don’t even need to tie on an apron to reap the rewards of a quick spin or leisurely stroll among the exotic foods on sale in these and other ethnic markets, since their copious choice of prepared foods provide an easy passport to international feasting.

Shop Like a Pro in Chinatown
Tips for Fruitful Market Forays

  • Understand the culture: Shopkeepers may not greet you, but they still want to be of help. Ask directly if you are unfamiliar with something you see.
  • Tell shopkeepers what you are planning to make. They probably will be excited that a non-Chinese person is interested in making a traditional dish and may offer advice.
  • The people who work at the markets really want to help you, even if they don’t speak much English. The more you show you know about their cuisine, the more impressed they usually are that you cared enough to do some research.
  • Borrow a couple of cookbooks from the library and pick some recipes or copy some recipes with color photos from an ethnic cooking website and bring these with you.
  • If you see a store mobbed with customers, that’s a sign it is good.
  • Don’t just scan the wares outside on the street — go inside and have a closer look. A lot may be hidden. Even though the shops look the same, each one has something special, so explore and find it.
  • It’s fine to just visually scan the merchandise. That’s what the Chinese shoppers do: Go in and out of stores looking for the best quality at the lowest prices.
  • Understand that in Chinese culture, you want to buy your protein as close to alive as possible (e.g., fish plucked from a tank where it was swimming seconds ago, crabs still clawing, ideally a live chicken).
  • If you are unsure about a fresh fish market or butcher, use your nose and eyes. Is there a fishy smell? Can you watch the butchers freshly cutting the meat?
  • Investigate a new cuisine by buying a couple of jars of sauces. You can always try them out with chicken or vegetables and see if you like them.
  • Let your kids pick out some unusual cookies or candy; it will make them more adventurous and willing to try new foods.

Anna Mindess compiled these tips with assistance from Faith Kramer and Jane Lin.


Mi Pueblo Food Center, 1630 High St., Oakland, (510) 532-2654
Koreana Plaza, 2370 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, (510) 986-1234
Pacific Seafood Trading Co., 392 Eighth St./800 Franklin St. Oakland, (510) 834-8898
Yuen Hop Co., 824 Webster St., Oakland, (510) 451-2698
Yet Sun Market, 397 Eighth St., Oakland, (510) 451-3625
Lucky Seafood Market No. 2, 376 Eighth St., Oakland, (510) 663-8638
Good Time Market, 718 Webster St., Oakland, (510) 268-8922

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