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I do love to go to grocery stores. One of my favorite tourist stops when I am traveling is the local market. It could be a tiny little shop in the English countryside presided over by a gentleman who seems to know each and every item in the store. Or it might be the supermarket in the 17th arrondissement in Paris: it really doesn’t matter to me. I feel more connected to a culture by seeing what and how they purchase on a day to day basis.
One of my favorite of these experiences was a few years ago when my mother and I were on tour in England. We had completed the first leg of our tour and arrived in Bath in the early afternoon. We were both pretty tired ("knackered", as the English say) and my mother said she was going to take a nap. I went wandering in town and found my way to the local Waitrose. After about 45 minutes of wandering the aisles, looking over the produce, and chatting with the woman at the fish counter, I returned to hotel.
At dinner that evening, the other people on the tour thought me funny because of my excursion. I didn’t really mind because I felt instantly connected to the people of Bath through their grocery store. I had a sense for what they ate and drank every day.
It doesn’t have to be an exotic locale for me to drop into a local grocery. A Pick ‘n Save in Milwaukee, the Port Deli a couple of blocks off of Times Square, or an hour wandering through the Whole Foods in Atlanta with my niece; they are all windows on our psyche.
I always learn something new. One of my favorite finds recently is Al Nakheel, a lovely little Middle Eastern market and café in Vienna, Virginia. They sell the most interesting collection of foods, including produce, feta cheese in large tubs of water, nuts, oils, spices, fresh lamb, and a host of canned products as well as small take home items from the café. I am sure that I make the staff a bit worried as I wander the aisles of the relatively small store inspecting each and every item. I feel like I am transported to another world for my time there. The fragrance of the shop is so distinctive: it just smells like a Middle Eastern shop should, all full of warm, spicy aromas.
The fellow behind the counter, Rabah, looked a bit surprised when I asked to look at a Lebanese cookbook on display behind the counter. Simply titled The Lebanese Cookbook it is a sweet, albeit somewhat dated and incomplete, collection of recipes and supporting text. It was originally published in 1978 by the Anthony sisters in Australia. (Here's a link to a new edition of The Lebanese Cookbook, coming out in May, 2006.) I thought at the $14.00 price it was a bargain and added it to my order (again to the bewilderment of Rabah). I take a lot of inspiration from such cookbook purchases and find it pretty easy to modify recipes to be healthier.
My best purchase there was seven spice seasoning. There’s a number of variations of this Lebanese spice some with more and others with fewer spices in the mix. This seasoning is finding its way into many of my dishes lately. The Halibut with Seven Spice Seasoning is a good example, and the Rice and Lentil Pilaf is a lower calorie variation of a recipe in the Anthony sisters' cookbook.
So take a little extra time to notice the groceries around you. Shop at the small ethnic markets, take home exotic ingredients, purchase their cookbooks and get to know them. You’ll feel as if you have spent the day in a foreign land.
Eat well, eat healthy, enjoy life!
March 16, 2006