While we've written a lot about the Triangle's Latino tiendas and supermercados, there are many other ethnic markets, from Korean to Indian to Persian to Polish.
Spending a Saturday surfing the crowds at this sprawling pan-Asian grocery, the granddaddy of all Triangle ethnic markets, is a rite of passage for Triangle foodies. The cart-jammed produce section is a riot of greenery—bok choy, pea shoots, green onions, banana leaves—and ripe, perfumey fruits, such as lychee nuts, golden melons and pale Asian pears.
In the refrigerator cases are dozens of varieties, shapes and consistencies of tofu, from milky white slabs to spongy, wizened disks; 50 or 60 types of frozen dumplings, from delicate shumai to hearty pork potstickers; and a battalion of ice creams in startling flavors like cheese-corn, purple yam and black sesame.
Live tilapia and flounder dart in their tanks at the fish counter while Taiwanese women test the vigor of writhing blue crabs before stuffing them into bags. In the store's interior aisles, shelves tremble beneath the weight of thousands of cans of curry paste and fermented black bean sauce and jackfruit in heavy syrup. In the candy and snack aisle, kids stare boggle-eyed at the heaps of cartoon-adorned bags, trying to parse the yummies (White Rabbit milk caramels, kiwi gummies) from the Acquired Tastes (salted dried squid, medicinal licorice squares, durian chews). The really hard-to-find items, the ones you used to have to search for in big city Chinatowns, they're all here at Grand Asia, somewhere. Pandan leaves? Yes. Balut (fertilized duck egg)? Indeed. Goat penis? But of course.
After making their way through the checkout line, customers often decompress over sweet milky coffee and red bean paste buns at the attached café and bakery. Be sure to join them.
You can still see the ghostly outline of the words Circuit City behind the sign for Li Ming's, which opened earlier this year in the defunct electronics giant's old space a block west of Target. It rivals Grand Asia as the Triangle's largest Asian market, but shopping here is a much more tranquil (though slightly less fun) experience. The aisles are half Asian, half American —buckets of cut-rate Neapolitan ice cream abut boxes of jackfruit popsicles and red bean mochi; cans of Spaghetti-Os rub elbows with cans of lotus root; green tea meets Kool-Aid. There's a smallish seafood counter, and a meat section heavy on the you-don't-find-this-at-Harris-Teeter cuts: tongue, pork uterus, chicken feet. Produce ranges from the ordinary (apples, cabbage) to the "hold on, let me google this" (warty bitter gourd, forearm-sized king oyster mushrooms). If you're feeling really daring, snag a frozen durian, the spiky cannonball-size fruit that's considered a delicacy in Southeast Asia but routinely compared with such notable non-delicacies as "rotten onions" and "dead grandmother" by Westerners. You can always wash the taste out of your mouth with a trip to Li Ming's bakery and café. We like the spicy tofu and the spongy sesame cake.
You know you're in a Korean market when you see kimchi (fermented cabbage, a ubiquitous Korean condiment) sold not by the pint or quart, but by the bucket. S-Mart, recently opened off Walnut Street in Cary, is the Triangle's first Korean-centric supermarket, its aisles packed with staples like cellophane noodles, roasted soybean powder and dried seaweed of every stripe. Non-cooks can choose from dozens of varieties of Ramen-style noodle soup bowls in flavors both ordinary (chicken, shrimp) and exotic (bone marrow, mushroom and agar jelly) or ready-to-eat packs of fried tofu with chili sauce. Or hit up the mini food court for hefty bowls of bibimbap and steaming Korean tofu hot pots. There's a good produce selection, heavy on the white radish, and small meat and seafood areas.
The real fun is to be found in the kitchenware aisle, which stocks a half-dozen varieties of rice cookers and several types of shaved ice machines, perfect for making patbingsu, a Korean summertime treat of shaved ice with sweet red beans, condensed milk and all manner of chewy jelly balls.
Cary gets all the attention for Chatham Street's "Little India" shopping complex of Indian markets, restaurants, sweetshops and beauty salons. But rapidly growing Morrisville has also sprouted several notable Indian groceries. Of those, Kadhambam Spices is one of our faves. It stocks all the usual suspects—20-pound sacks of basmati rice, sticky golden cones of jaggery sugar, tiny Indian eggplants as delicate and glossy-purple as Fabergé eggs—as well as harder-to-find items like Indian beer, fresh young coconut and various ayurvedic remedies. True to its name, the store has a wonderful spice selection. If you're looking for amchur (sour mango powder) or asafoetida, this is your place. Foil trays of fresh samosas and homemade chapatis (Indian flatbread) are Kadhambam's version of the checkout line "impulse purchase." Snag some at the counter.
Though small, this strip mall market packs in a vast amount of Middle Eastern specialties, from bags of cracked wheat to pomegranate molasses to orange flower water to sheep's milk cheese. This is the place to stock up on your staples: olive oil, couscous and pistachios. The bulk bins of salt- and oil-cured olives and pickled veggie mix are a steal. If you're too hungry to wait until you get home with your groceries, order a falafel or kofta (spiced meatball) sandwich at the deli counter.
Half market, half Persian-style tea room, Jahan occupies an unexpected little corner behind The Pig barbecue restaurant on a rather lonely stretch of Weaver Dairy Road. Come here for the small but intriguing selection of Persian (Iranian) and other Middle Eastern treats: sour grape juice, rosewater, Bulgarian feta, pomegranate molasses, cans of khoresht (Persian stew), boxes of jewel-like Turkish delight.
You'll also find a selection of incense and alternative remedies worthy of a New Age bookstore. Don't let the slight head shop vibe give you the wrong idea about the hookahs for sale—they're for smoking traditional flavored tobaccos (though not in the store). A diminutive tea room, with a handful of tables covered in ornate tapestries, serves tea and Persian pastries and offers diversions both ancient (backgammon) and distinctly modern (free wi-fi).
This cozy little old world market is about the last thing you expect to see in the bland no-man's land of Research Triangle Park. Yet here it is, selling hearty Polish comfort food like pickled cabbage, chocolate-covered prunes and a halfdozen types of kielbasa. The main draw is the freezer case full of pirogies (Central European dumplings) stuffed with ingredients ranging from potato to beef to cherries to sauerkraut, and boxes of frozen blintzes and tubs of dill-flecked borscht. Don't miss the homemade chrusciki, a thin Polish cookie twisted like a bow tie.
Run by the charming Sachiko McShea, a native of Osaka who married an American GI during World War II, this modest-sized market specializes in everything from the Land of the Rising Sun. Shelves are densely stocked with soba noodles, miso powder, fish flakes, dried squid and bottles of Japan's beloved Kewpie mayonnaise (the secret is the MSG). The candy section is a delightful and classically Japanese frolic of seizure-inducing colors and Dali-esque flavors. ("Milk soda," anyone?)
Other highlights include the refrigerator case full of Japanese fish balls (essential for soup making), ready-to-eat pickled veggie salads and homemade tofu floating in brine.
Correction (Oct. 6, 2011): Spice & Curry (2105 N.C. Hwy. 54 East, Durham, 919-544-7555) has been removed from the "Markets galore" listings; it no longer has a grocery market section.