It looks just like an international produce market in Marrakech, Shanghai or Caracas. Displayed in glorious jumbles of color are tropical fruits, bottle-shaped gourds, scaly cucumbers, small, round, green eggplants, dark hairy roots, and even prickly cactus leaves.
As grocery stores owners discover that a great variety of exotic produce will attract a loyal clientele, greater numbers are entering the previously ignored domain of specialty Asian and Hispanic produce. Not only does this produce draw customers who use it in their traditional cooking, but also those adventurous souls always looking for new culinary thrills.
To the uninitiated, some of this unusual-looking produce is intimidating. But it doesn't have to be. "It's the everyday produce of Thailand," says Tussnee Singparu, owner of the Thai Restaurant, on Greenmount Avenue and Maithai Restaurant on Light Street in Federal Hill.
Fresh water chestnuts, for instance, were a favorite childhood snack of Ms. Singparu, and are available now in several Baltimore supermarkets. They are peeled and eaten like an apple, or added to stir-fried dishes. "You have never really tasted a water chestnut, until you have tasted a fresh one," says Don Matelson, president of New Day Produce, which supplies specialty produce to Super Fresh stores. The fresh ones are much sweeter than the canned ones, with a taste and texture half-way between coconut and jicama. They are shipped from China and should be refrigerated and used within a few days.
Shanghai bok choy or baby bok choy (also called pak choi) is among the new selection of greens. It is smaller and sweeter than bok choi, with light, textured leaves, and a soft, delicate taste good for stir-fries.
Bitter melon, or bitter gourd is considered by many to be too bitter for Western tastes. "The first taste is bitter, the second is less bitter, and the third taste is delicious," says Ms. Singparu. Ann Kotmai, a Baltimore resident originally from Vietnam, stuffs the bitter melons with a spicy meat mixture.
Between five and eight varieties of squashes, long popular in Asia, Latin America and Mexico, including chayote, opo and moqua are now available in most grocery stores. These can be prepared just as any other squash -- steamed, sauted, or stuffed -- or sliced thinly and added to stir-fried dishes.
Lemon grass is the most important flavoring in Thai and other Southeast Asian foods says Ms. Singparu. It is used in cooking to impart a lemon-like flavor. It will last at home in a refrigerator crisper for a few weeks.
Fresh and dried chilies are available in a dizzying number of varieties. One of the most popular is mulato, or dried poblano, which has a smoky licorice flavor and is essential in mole sauce. Also available is habanero (these are hot!), ancho (the sweetest of dried chilies with woodsy pepper), guajillo (its berry tones flavor sauces and soups), and dried Japanese chilie (a small red pepper that's very hot). Thai chilies which are used in curries.
"Before you couldn't find ancho chilies for love nor money, now they have them right here," says Carol Hubbert, of Charles Village, who experiments often with Mexican and Asian cuisine.
Taro is a root vegetable common to tropical Asian cuisines. It is similar in taste and use to a potato, but it has a dark brown furry exterior, and the flesh is speckled with light purple dots. It can be used in soups, stews, or other ways a potato would be. A related, but larger root vegetable is the yautia, which is native to South America and the Caribbean.
Tamarind is used in many cuisines, including Vietnamese, Thai, Mexican, and Indian. It's taste is familiar because it's one of the principal ingredients in Worcestershire sauce. It looks similar to a thick bean with a dry light brown pod.
The yuca, also called cassava, is used to make tapioca pudding. Or peel it, then steam and sweeten with sugar and coconut milk to make a typical Asian dessert. It can also be eaten like a sweet potato -- sauted, baked or fried.
Up to three different Asian varieties -- Thai, Japanese and Chinese -- of eggplants are in many stores. They are all sweeter than the eggplant we typically see.
To help those of us who didn't grow up on tamarind, lemon grass or Asian gourds, Ms. Singparu has given us several recipes to get us started. Each takes about 15 minutes to prepare and could be served with a bowl of rice for an easy dinner.
Spring Rolls with Tamarind Sauce
Makes 8 to 10
8 ounces shredded cabbage
4 ounces julienne carrots
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper (plus additional for sauce)
8 ounces steamed shrimp
8 to 10 spring roll wrappers
vegetable oil for deep frying
1/2 cup lukewarm water
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 green Thai chilies, seeded and chopped
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Place the cabbage, carrots, soy sauce and pepper in a covered heavy skillet over high heat for about two minutes. Remove and set aside.