As many people have scaled back their travel plans this summer and staycations become the norm, ethnic food markets provide an oasis of adventure and tastes without the need to travel to other countries. Middle Eastern markets in particular offer a kaleidoscope of foodstuffs from Qatar, Lebanon and Bahrain to Morocco, Palestine and Egypt and everything in between.
There are many benefits to shopping in Middle Eastern markets. For one, it’s a great way to support smart businesses that offer healthy and unconventional foods you won’t find in standard supermarkets. Secondly, many of the products offered in these markets have more authentic and robust flavors, due to richer soil and ancient farming practices that have survived millennia. For instance, freshly harvested za’atar in Lebanon or olive oil made from 1000 year old Palestinian trees are going to have a more peppery or fruity flavors than standard supermarket brands. Saffron from Iran is superior to due to Iran’s suitable climate for saffron cultivation. Likewise cumin from Morocco has a deeper and more earthy flavor due to its warm Mediterranean climate.
A third benefit of shopping in Middle Eastern markets is the high turnover of Arab food staples like spices, tahini, roasted nuts and grains like bulgur and freekeh. As a result these products, especially the middle eastern spices, have more fragrance and flavor. Tahini is a tricky paste to buy, as the flavor can become bitter and rancid before the expiration date. In these types of markets the local Arab populations purchase so much there is always a fresh stock to choose from.
For those that are timid about trying traditional Arab dishes, foreign condiments can offer a splash of exotic flavor. Pomegranate or Egyptian molasses, date syrup, and preserves made with quince or figs offer rich sweet flavors and antioxidants that surpass processed and refined sugar. Waters scented with orange, rose, or mint can brighten lemonades and cocktails with a refreshing twist.
The sheer amount of variety in such markets allows one to get lost for hours, perusing aisle after aisle of delicacies that used to require a plane ticket for access. For instance, in the new Mosaic market that opened up in Silicon Valley, I was stunned to find authentic kunafa from a popular bakery in Jordan called Habibah and Rukab’s Ice cream from Ramallah, Palestine called Booza. These are treats I remember from my travels that I thought I could never taste again unless I flew to those countries.
So next time you are looking for an exotic gift, a fun day trip or an ingredient to spice up your weekly menu planning, try out a Middle Eastern market near you. Some experiences and foods just can’t be replaced by a sterile Amazon order. To see my guided tour of of Mosaic Market in Silicon Valley where I share shopping tips and surprising discoveries, click on the video below: