If you have an opportunity, I urge you to visit an ethnic grocery store — a little bodega-type shop that caters to, and is usually owned by an immigrant. Russian, Italian, Korean or Arab stores come to mind. They are fascinating to visit, and you might find something new to eat that you will love.
Being an immigrant from the former Soviet Block, I love visiting the nearby Russian grocery store. Denver has several, and my favorite is M&I Market on Leetsdale, a small store, but with a great selection of items you typically don’t find at a large chain grocery. They have fresh-baked Lithuanian-style rye bread (a hearty, heavy bread without the seeds, but with a bold flavor), German wheat bread, and breads from other countries where bread is thick and dark and substantial. There are European pastries, like cream horns and Napoleons, tortes, and cookies dusted with powdered sugar and other confectionary delights.
And then there are the meats. If you are a vegetarian, read no further — skip to the next paragraph as you will NOT be happy. However, if you are not, there is a cornucopia of dried, and aged, and cured and spiced salamis and bolognas, sausages — big sardelki and little sasiskis — of every variety, cured and smoked bacons, that would make any carnivore salivate. Some of them are behind glass in a case, others hang from hooks, like in the old butcher shops and delis. I forget myself something looking at them, lost in the variety of shapes and links and twists. One of my favorite things buy a pound of dry, aged salami, then make an open-faced sandwich on dark bread with a light smear of mayo (and, sometimes, also a smear of dark brown mustard). With a cup of sweet, hot tea, this is a breakfast that takes me back to the old country.
The store also has a large selection of cheeses, from sharp and tangy to soft and creamy.
And, ready-to-eat hand pies, either with meat, mushrooms or egg.
And then there is chocolate. Not that weak, super-sugary milk chocolate that is like wax, but really good chocolate that lingers and lasts on the tongue. There are several small walls made entirely of chocolate — o.k., I’m kidding. But there are several shelves of boxed chocolates, and there is a section with cubbies, and those cubbies are filled with different little chocolate bars and types of candies. There are chocolates with thin waffles within, chocolates with nuts, chocolates with jams; there are caramels, hard and soft. There are prepackaged boxes of candies, and zephir (it’s like dense marshmallow) in different flavors: cranberry and blackberry and raspberry and the original vanilla. One particular candy is a memory for me from my childhood — a lollipop in the shape of a rooster, on a stick.
There is also a small fruit and vegetable section, but I can honestly say I’ve never shopped from this section, because I can get fruits and vegetables at any other grocery store. This fresh produce section is not the draw, but I suppose it is convenient for those who live in the neighborhood to get some apples and cucumbers.
Another real draw is the canned goods — again not your typical variety, but exotic delights from Europe and beyond. I go for the back shelves, where there is a profusion of sardines, spicy, saucy and smoked herring. And other fish, some in tomato sauce, others in mustard, still others in infused olive oil. Kipper and dried fish as well as dried squid could also be found, as well as jars of pate of goose and duck and fish.
There is also a section of milk and butter products, butters (mostly unsalted) from eastern Europe, Germany, France, Russia. There are kefirs (yogurty drinks) and many flavors and milk ranging from low-fat to 4% fat — that last one is a lot like drinking table cream. There’s even ice cream, different flavors, different varieties, but all from the Old Country (or Brooklyn, made by people from the Old Country). And there is chocolate butter there, as well — absolutely one of the greatest and most evil inventions ever.
And there is a large selection of teas, from India, China, England and even the United States. There are multitude of crackers and a collection of small biscotti, with or without poppy seeds. There are pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds, some salty, some unsalted.
I would be remiss if I would not mention the profusion of pickled, marinated and canned items. Everything from eggplant to tomatoes, cucumbers and mushrooms, stuffed grape leaves and stuffed tomatoes.
Beyond the foods, there are also many varieties of beverages, but we’re just going to mention a selection of kvas, which is like a flat, non-alcoholic beer, made with grains and yeast, with an odd, very specific taste).
Like kvas, you may not like everything you try from one of these little grocery stores, but most of these foods are delicious and there is no way to know what you’ll like until you try it. Take a little trip to the story, and then take a food trip around the world.