Monday, February 7, 2011

Local Market for Global Cuisines

I have a weekly ritual. Every Friday, I head for the nearest mall, where a farmer’s market sprawls across one side of the Sears parking lot. Now, this may not seem like much of a cultural experience (our topic this week). After all, doesn’t everyone shop for vegetables? But I live in an ethnically diverse area here in Northern California, and my local farmer’s market supplies the ingredients for a range of global cuisines.

Not only do many of the vendors reflect a rainbow of nations—China, Japan, the Philippines, Mexico, Germany, India, and Greece—but so do the customers. As I wander through the stands, spilling over with their bounty of leafy greens, multicolored fruits, and mounds of root vegetables, my ears are filled with the sounds of Chinese, Spanish, Farsi, German, French, and a few languages I can’t identify.

Produce isn’t the only item sold at my neighborhood market. Flowers, freshly baked breads, and finger foods from around the world also put in an appearance and scent the air with exotic aromas. There is the Indian man who sells a range of flat breads. He stands behind a row of green, yellow, and orange sauces, holding out tasty morsels to passers-by. A Russian woman offers homemade pirozhki with a variety of fillings, from meat and onions to spinach and cheese. And a Vietnamese couple sells spring rolls: shredded vegetables and slices of chicken or whole shrimp, enveloped in a translucent rice wrapper.

A kind of cultural food exchange is happening, as items move back and forth from the open-air produce stalls to more mainstream venues. Chinese bok choy and white Thai eggplants used to require a trip to the farmer’s market but now show up in almost any grocery store. Pomelos, with their thick skins and grapefruit-like flavor, can be found at Costco these days. And until very recently, I had to stop at the Middle Eastern market for slender, seedless Persian cucumbers, but now a few local growers have added them to the outdoor market’s bounty. At our house, we add these favorites to the fruit bowl and eat them out of hand with a sprinkling of salt.

Although none of the vendors at my local market is Iranian, the produce stalls do offer up many of the specialty ingredients I need to put together a good Persian meal. Pomegranates are in abundance at the moment, and recently my mother-in-law added the seeds to the pomegranate-flavored jello she made. Next month, when green garlic appears (it looks just like scallions, but with flatter stalks), I will combine them with parsley, cilantro, and dill to make the traditional Persian New Year meal of sabzi polo ba mahi, or herbed rice with fish.

One of the great pleasures of shopping at the farmer’s market is the chance to meet the growers and chat with them about their wares. It was a Japanese vendor who first told me that you can eat the skin of a Kabocha squash. And the heirloom apple grower, whose table boasts an impressive 25 varieties, is happy to point out which ones taste best in pies, as applesauce, or for eating out of hand. Indeed, the vendors are not the only ones happy to share their knowledge and advice. Other shoppers freely exchange their favorite recipes as well. For some reason, this never happens at the supermarket.

Fava beans will be back in season soon, and someone is bound to ask me if I know what to do with them (it happens every year). My answer: steam them until the pods disintegrate, then separate the beans and serve them piping hot with a splash of vinegar and a sprinkle of angelica powder for a delicious Iranian snack.


  1. You are SO lucky to live in a climate where people can grow produce year round. When I visit my mother in Ventura in the winter, I always hit up the farmer's market just to feast on the sights and smells (she doesn't have a kitchen, so all I buy is fruit, nuts, and flowers). Here in the snowbelt, we just dream of the day the market opens again, which is months away still.


  2. Wow, my local farmers market isn't nearly as exciting as yours, Heidi! Maybe I'll have to drive down to your neck of the woods sometime ;)

  3. Edith, I feel your pain. :) I grew up in New England, so I know how spoiled we are in this mild climate.

    Gigi, drive down here anytime! I'll give you a tour of my market. :)

  4. I gotta tell you, shopping at vegetable markets is one of my favorite activities. Truly. I can spend an hour in a just a vegetable stand. My husband says that I commune with my food and there’s some truth to that – maybe I don’t really talk to my veggies, but I listen to what they have to say. Like, a good, sweet and juicy cantaloupe must be yellow, feel a bit hard and sound hollow. If it doesn’t - it had been picked too early. It’s a trick I had learned from an old Georgian farmer (meaning back in the Russian Georgia when it was still a Soviet republic) For an American, I must look really weird holding a cantaloupe to my ear and knocking on it gently because every now and then someone asks me what on earth am I doing? I explain. And watch their reaction. Some believe me, others think I’m a fruit myself…

  5. Lina, that's how I tell which watermelons to buy. I can't remember who taught me that. With cantaloupes and similar melons, I sniff them. If they smell melony they're ripe. I get funny looks, too.

  6. What a fabulous farmers market you must have Heidi. I'm in Australia and we have a small one each Saturday near me and I go each week for my fruit and vegies. Although small, the same things happen - people share their recipes, we all talk about the weather, which veges or fruits are in season and which ones tasted great last week. It's friendly and a fabulous way to start the weekend. (And I also learned from my mother to listen to my rockmelon, or cantaloupe as you call them!).

  7. Markets are my favorite pastime! I have such a range of choices here in Rome. While most are naturally Italian, there is one that has more diversity. I see vegetables I don't recognize, and there's were I go when I want okra, which Italians don't eat.

    At my regular market, there are about thirty fruit and/or vegetable stands, several butchers, fish stalls, and cheese-cold cut stands. We're in the middle of blood orange season at the moment, and there are heaps of them at every turn.

  8. Cath, I am always fascinated by farmer's market's in different countries. I love exploring them learning about the local cuisine that way. It's nice to see that some of the shopping habits are similar even in a place as far away as Australia!

    Patricia, we're in the middle of blood orange season, too. Our climates are very similar. The kind I love best though are the Cara Cara oranges. Intensely sweet with pink flesh.