Ethnic Food, Aisle 10

September 2007

Exotic produce is pretty but expensive; legumes and grains are plain, cheap, and, I guess, mundane. But for a cook, discovering a new ingredient, no matter how humble, is like a painter discovering a new color or a musician discovering a new note. And that's the source of my longtime fascination with what is often labeled the "ethnic aisle" at the grocery store.

All kinds of unfamiliar foods that don't cost a fortune but would, I suspect, add plenty of excitement to my family's meals if I could unlock their secrets can be found lurking there. I'm curious about their ethnicity, and I want to know what they taste like. Since I have a daughter from Guatemala and have always been interested in Latino foods, it seemed like a good place to start.

Absent a culinary tour guide in the bean aisle, I started working my way through "back of the box" recipes, asking Latino friends for advice, and paging through Latin American cookbooks looking for clues. As I got to meet new people and ask them about beans, my search started to feel like a treasure hunt. Weird but fun.

Before my investigations were done, I had found not only the most gorgeous dried beans but a versatile flour, a kind of dried corn with a particularly hearty flavor, and the primary ingredient in tabbouleh.

It took me a while to find anyone who knew anything about the cargamanto beans, which I fell in love with even before I tried cooking with them. They are so beautiful that they could easily be sold in bead stores. The beans are labeled either "red" or "white," but, in truth, both are variations on a mottled red; the "white" ones are just a little paler. Big to start with, they expand to the size of olives when cooked and, sadly, lose most of their distinctive markings.

I eventually discovered that in Colombia these beans are an important component of la bandeja paisa, a type of banquet-on-a-platter made up of rice, fried pork rind, pulverized fried beef, plantains, arepas, avocado, and the beans, all topped off with a fried egg. Phew. I opted instead for a simple salad that features these magnificent, tender-skinned beans more prominently.

I was somewhat surprised to notice bags of rice flour in this aisle, since I'd only used this flour in Scottish shortbread. Wondering how it was used in Latin America, I soon learned that, as one might expect of people who eat a lot of rice, they use the flour in a variety of ways. My favorite turned out to be the little Guatemalan cupcake (or sorts) called quesadillas de arroz, or rice quesadillas.

The sunny yellow color of dried hominy was so alluring that I thought I'd try it cooked plain, then tossed with butter and chives. It proved to be a little too starchy as a side dish but, based on the package recommendation, I loved it in my own version of a chowder.

The Lebanese population in Mexico is nearly half a million strong, so finding one of their typical ingredients, bulgur, in a Goya package is not completely out of left field. Giving tabbouleh, the refreshing bulgur salad, a Mexican flavor was as easy as adding diced jicama and substituting cilantro for flat-leaf parsley.

Of course, thinking of bulgur as a Latino ingredient might have been a bigger stretch had I not had my first exposure to Lebanese cooking while living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, some 40 years ago. What I learned then continues to apply: There are no ethnic barriers to great food.

Subscribe to Gourmet