Fun with international foods
Some of my favorite childhood memories are of visits to a tiny Asian grocery store close to the Capitol building, which has long since closed. I remember walking up the steps into the old-fashioned storefront and hearing the chimes tinkle as I pushed open the heavy door. The little shop was bursting at the seams, with boxes of fresh produce and seafood lined up on the floor along the aisles and walls. Occasionally, a crab would free itself from its cardboard trappings and skitter across the floor.
The variety of goods was mesmerizing: walls of noodles and huge bags of rice were stacked up as high as my head. Icy boxes of whole fish and fresh shrimp with the heads still attached laid on the floor next to freezer cases filled with buns and dumplings and frozen seafood. Entire aisles were packed with myriad sauces and cans of mysterious – yet apparently edible – flora and fauna. And then there was the dizzying array of candy: from technicolor gummies and chocolate-dipped cookies to chewy squares of sesame. Thirty years later, I can still taste the green apple chewing gum I would get as a special treat with each visit.
Equally memorable were afternoons spent up on Devon Avenue in Chicago. Family trips to the Windy City would usually include an afternoon spent perusing the specialty grocery and spice shops located among shop windows displaying gorgeous saris and glittering jewelry. How wonderful it was to be able to travel the world without ever getting on a plane! We’d load up the car with bags of fresh green garbanzo beans, tiny baby eggplants, and, of course, a bounty of spices and herbs, their scents wafting through the car as we sped south down I-55 toward home.
Fortunately, these days Springfield is blessed with several international grocery shops, so why not embark on your own culinary exploration?
Mini Devon Groceries carries a wide variety of Indian spices, flours, rice, curries, and chutneys. It’s a great place to stock up on bulk spices, and there is beautiful fresh produce every Friday. I love to keep a selection of curry pastes, ready to use spice mixes, and frozen naan in my pantry to help bump up boring mid-week chicken dinners.
Asian Market on Wabash Avenue is much newer and brighter than the little shop I remember from childhood, but the selection of candy is just as impressive. We shop here often to stock up on specialty ingredients that are key to making great weeknight stir-fries such as sesame oil, fish sauce, coconut milk, garlic chili paste and hoisin sauce. I always buy frozen dumplings to keep on hand for a quick bowl of wonton soup, in addition to little mochi ice cream balls, which have become a favorite family treat.
MA YI SHANG SHU
(ANTS CLIMBING ON TREES)
In this classic dish from China’s Sichuan province, ground pork are the ‘ants’ climbing up glass noodle ‘trees’ with scallion ‘leaves.’ I’ve added some green veggies to the recipe, which is not traditional, but quite tasty.
4 ounces dry bean thread noodles
1 tablespoon sesame oil
¼ cup neutral oil, such as avocado or canola
1/3 pound ground pork
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 3” piece of ginger, finely grated
2 tablespoons douban jiang (Chinese red chile-bean paste) or Sriracha, to taste
¼ cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice wine or dry sherry
1 1/4 cups chicken stock
1/2 tablespoon corn starch
2 cups prepared green vegetable, like bok choy, cabbage or broccoli
4 scallions, thinly sliced
Place noodles in a heat-proof bowl and pour four cups boiling water over them. Let them sit until soft, about 4-5 minutes. Drain, then toss with sesame oil and set aside.
In a small bowl, whisk together the chile bean paste or Sriracha, soy sauce, sherry, chicken stock and cornstarch. Set aside.
In a large skillet or wok, heat the neutral oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the meat and cook, breaking it up with a wooden spoon until browned, about 5-6 minutes. Add the ginger and garlic and cook for another minute, then add the broccoli. Cook for 1-2 minutes, then add the chile-soy mixture and bring to a boil while stirring. Add the noodles and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce is thickened and broccoli is crisp and tender. Top with the sliced scallions and serve.