An international scavenger hunt

Daikon radishes at Rising Produce in SeattleShopping for international grocery items is sometimes like a scavenger hunt. Last week, I triumphed with two 14-oz bottles of rosewater for $2.59 each at a Persian market in Bellevue, Washington. It had been a 2-1/2 year search, and until now, I’d been unable to find anything bigger than 6 ounces at about $5.

Today, I took a bus to downtown Seattle for spent the entire day today shopping. Not at Macy’s or one of those chi-chi clothing shops in Westlake Center. I was continuing my scavenger hunt for pantry items that are absent or dear at my local grocery stores.

The challenge with this type of shopping is that there are two excellent places to get food ingredients in downtown Seattle. But unlike the QFC and Albertson’s near my home, neither one offers cheap and convenient parking.

So I armed myself with a large backpack and a canvas tote bag and took the bus.

My first stop was the Pike Place Market, well-known to tourists as “the place where they throw the fish.” Many retailers in the market target the tourists, selling them dried fruit, nuts, or jam — items that are easy to tuck into a suitcase. They’re priced like souvenirs, not like food, so I avoid them.

Instead, I head to The Souk, a middle eastern grocery with a wide array of spices, curries, and Indian foods. I picked up items you can only find in a tiny, custom grocery, like a can of stuffed grape leaves (a perfect appetizer for emergencies) and some pappadums. Earlier this year, I’d hunted through six grocery stores for pappadums and, in desperation, ended up buying them from a Pakistani restaurant. Now I’m stocked up again.

At The Souk, I also got a bag of Chickpree, roasted spicy chickpeas. Back in the early 1990’s, in Arlington, Virginia, I lived two blocks from an Indian grocery called “Indian Spices and Appliances.” The name sounded like a bad translation, but when I went inside, I fell in love with the exotic and inexpensive grocery items. I’ve been hooked on Chickpree ever since.

Oranges at Rising Produce in SeattleOther things, like pumpkin seeds and turmeric, were simply cheaper at The Souk than anyplace else. At the prices regular grocery stores charge for spices, it’s amazing that people can afford to use more than a tiny pinch.

About a block down, I made my second stop at El Mercado Latino, one of several Latin stores in the Pike Place Market. I was specifically looking for Bijol, a simple Cuban spice blend of cornflour, cumin, annato, and food coloring. It brings back childhood memories of my mother’s famous Arroz Con Pollo, and my jar is getting low. The same crisis had happened to my mother in the 1970’s, when we left the New York metropolitan area for the hinterlands of West Virginia. In those days, decades before the internet, it was a crisis when the family Bijol jar got down to the last teaspoon. Luckily, my father did find a mail-order source.

At the Mercado, I also bought Cafe Bustelo, vaccuum-packed Cuban coffee. It makes a great cup of coffee, although I have to cut it with cheap grocery store decaf in order to avoid hitting the ceiling. During a recent trip to South Florida, I was amazed to see entire aisles of this stuff in the regular grocery store — guava paste, Mexican and Cuban fruit juices, convenience foods from Goya. Down there, it costs half as much, but I don’t mind paying extra. I’m just happy to find the stuff way up here in Seattle.

A few blocks up the street, I picked up a free bus down to the south end of town. My next stops are in the International District, known to Seattle residents as “The I.D.” It’s the place to go for Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese restaurants and grocery stores, and the prices are the cheapest in town.

Cheap bins of colored peppers in front of Rising Produce in SeattleGreat deals on produce in Seattle's International District

I stopped in at Chinatown Market, on Jackson Street, for black and white sesame seeds, cheap cans of coconut milk, and tiny dried shrimp. By now, the backpack was starting to get awfully heavy, and I almost skipped the uphill walk to Rising Produce, located on the east side of the freeway on King Street.

But I wasn’t done yet, and Rising Produce has the cheapest vegetables in town. You have to pick over their produce carefully, but it’s worth the effort to save 50 to 75% over regular grocery stores. I also worked my way carefully to the back of the store (my backpack and canvas bag were bulging by now, and maneuvering was getting difficult), and bought five pounds of raw, shelled peanuts for a mere $1.25 a pound.

After using up my carrying capacity, I caught a bus back home. Now it’s time to figure out what to do with all this stuff, some kind of Cuban-Indian-Chinese fusion? Thank goodness for the Web, so I can search for recipes for all this stuff. In the meantime, I think I’ll just eat some pizza.