My favorite cheap vacation? A trip to an international market. Surrounded by unfamiliar vegetables and packages whose labels I can't read, I'm transported to Athens or Krakow or Puebla or Tokyo.
Long Island is home to scores of global grocers carrying all the ingredients you need to make a full-blown foreign meal. But these stores are worth a visit even if you're not an adventurous cook. There's hardly a dinner that wouldn't be enhanced by a colorful hors d'oeuvre of Israeli pickles, or a bang-up finale of Turkish pastries. And you haven't lived until you've experienced the dizzying profusion of Indian snack food.
Most ethnic grocers start out serving their own communities, but the ones that flourish are happy to initiate a stranger into the delicious mysteries of their national cuisine. Here are 10 favorites.
407 Mill Rd., Hewlett, 516-791-5000
Owned by Israeli transplants Gitit and Uzi Malka, this bright market-takeout shop has become a Five Towns destination since it opened in January. The refrigerated case is packed with jewel-toned salads such as zhug, a vibrant green spread made from jalapeños, cilantro and garlic, and more than half a dozen eggplant-based preparations, from baba ghanoush to eggplant with bell peppers and soy sauce. The pickle bar starts with slim, elegant cucumbers and moves on to tiny pickled peppers, magenta-hued pickled turnips, neon-yellow cauliflower and garnet-colored eggplants no bigger than walnuts. On Fridays, Geffen bakes both traditional egg-enriched challah and kubaneh, an eggless Yemenite Sabbath bread made in a distinctive swirled shape. No matter the day or time, do not leave the store without a falafel sandwich.
115 Broadway, Hicksville, 516-932-8988
If a store could be said to burst with pride, it's New Bakaliko. This sliver of a grocery is brimming with Hellenic imports, and its owners, George and Chris Miglis, are as eager for you to appreciate the glories that are Greek as they are to sell them. Express the slightest interest in feta cheese and George Miglis will expound on the differences among the ones he sells, from Dodoni and Arahova on the mainland, and from the island of Kefalonia (as well as a few non-Greek varieties). Here is the place to go for fine olive oil from the culture that invented it, and also for the distinctive Greek "spoon sweets," preserves that are made with whole fruits, from sour cherries to mandarin oranges. Pastries, both savory and extremely sweet, are brought in every day from bakeries in Astoria. Homesick Greeks will find fixings for the frappé, shaken iced coffee, as well as Greek tea, Greek honey, Greek grains, beans and pastas, Greek yogurt and dips, Greek chocolate bars and even Greek icons.
63 Mineola Ave., Roslyn Heights, 516-625-1814
When Shoji Akio opened his first Japanese grocery store in Queens in 1977, he named it Nippon Do, which means, simply, Japanese Store. As his customers moved to the suburbs, Akio followed them and Shin Nippon Do, New Japanese Store, opened in its current Roslyn Heights location in 1991. The chock-a-block market sells produce, frozen specialties, Japanese DVDs and grocery items from rice to tea to Japanese candy. Sushi "kits" comprise Akio's own best-quality vinegared rice and freshly sliced fish that comes directly from Fulton Fish Market. I bought a tray containing almost a pound of pristine and expertly cut fish, plus rice and pieces of nori seaweed, and was free to make handrolls (cones of nori enclosing rice and fish) or enough chirashi (a dish of rice covered with raw fish) to feed two hungry people. Call in advance to order.
548 Central Ave., Bethpage, 516-935-3938
You never hear about artisanal kielbasa. The great Polish smoked sausage flies under the gourmet radar. At Sikorski in Bethpage, Pat and Jim Sikorski sell meats processed in their own Greenpoint, Brooklyn smokehouse. The kielbasa is smoky, porky and yet refined. Sikorski specializes in a variant called krajana that is made with larger chunks of pork. Then there's the kabanosy, thinner and dried -- sort of a cross between sopressata and Slim Jim -- that's great for snacking, grilling or playing the "pig" in a dough blanket. I fell hard for the smoked pork shoulder, a slender football of a ham, chunks of which would enhance any braise or soup. On the non-pork front are imported preserves, fresh babkas and dried borowik mushrooms strung on 2-foot lengths of cord, which Italophiles will recognize as porcini. Also on offer are the hearty rye breads baked by Silver Bell bakery in Queens.
415 S. Broadway, Hicksville, 516-681-0091
If you've been considering exploring Indian cooking, pick up a good cookbook (anything by Madhur Jaffrey or Julie Sahni) and get yourself to Patel Brothers. With ample parking and wide, cart-friendly aisles, it's a proper subcontinental supermarket with fresh produce (great source for mangoes), dairy, spices, snack food and a vast selection of frozen specialties. (Among excellent frozen flatbreads, the paratha is exceptional.) Patel Brothers is worth a trip just for the rice and beans. Two aisles are devoted to basmati rice, in packages ranging from small purses to 50-pound burlap sacks. As for the beans, India is the world's largest exporter of legumes and pulses (dals), and most of them seem to have ended up here: toor dal (yellow pigeon peas), chana dal (gram lentil), kala chana (black chickpeas), moong dal (mung beans), urad dal (black lentil), masoor dal (red lentils) and rajma dal (kidney beans).
380 E. Jericho Tpke., Huntington Station 631-423-2574
It was in Ridgewood, Queens, that Forest Pork Store got its start. As German immigrants started moving to Long Island, Forest Pork followed them, opening this Huntington Station location in 1971. The store has a huge selection of imported German groceries, a full-service butcher shop and a fantastic array of house-made sausages. There are frankfurters in regular, foot-long, skinless and cocktail varieties, as well as their big, garlicky cousin, knockwurst. But why stop at hot dogs? The fat bratwursts are best parboiled before grilling or roasting, but the delicate veal-based weisswursts and bockwursts (weisswurst with parsley) are fully cooked and grill up like a dream. One of the pleasures of shopping at Forest Pork Store is the guys who work there -- mature career butchers who can trim a roast without looking at it, break down a steer's hind quarters with surgical precision and, most impressively, pronounce correctly the names of all the sausages.
1474 Deer Park Ave., North Babylon, 631-586-2246, nazarrestaurant.com
When it opened in 1999, Nazar was a little Turkish deli where homesick Turks could grab a kebab or a candy bar or soft drink from the old country. Fourteen years later, it has expanded into a 4,500-square-foot market with a huge selection of imported Turkish groceries, a halal butcher and a bakery that produces delicious homemade breads and pastries. (The original deli area is now a dining area where customers can eat breakfast, lunch or dinner. It also offers takeout.) Try the distinctive U-shaped Turkish "sujuk" sausages (think sopressata but made with beef); ayran, the tangy-salty yogurt drink (warning: not for everyone); olives in every shape and size; Turkish candies and crackers and cookies. Turkish products predominate, but plenty of items come from all over the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and the Balkans.
2460 Nesconset Hwy., Stony Brook, 631-689-8787
When Hsiao-cheng Yeh opened Oriental Grocery and Product Center in 1993, Long Island had yet to experience the mini-explosion of Asian supermarkets that started in December 2001 with the opening of V&T in Hempstead (followed by H Marts in Williston Park and Great Neck, and H&Y in Hicksville). The modest strip-mall storefront is hardly a supermarket. But it's a super market whose six narrow aisles carry a huge assortment of wares. Of course, you can find every variety of canned and jarred Chinese condiment, plus Korean snacks and the sought-after "European formula" of Ovaltine, whose first three ingredients are malt extract, milk and cocoa powder. (The American formula leads off with -- surprise! -- sugar.) Along the eastern wall is a refrigerated case where you'll find sweet, narrow Chinese sausages, fresh noodles, dumplings and buns. There's also a good selection of Asian vegetables, including the rare "asparagus lettuce," which looks like a little romaine lettuce at the end of a long, green stalk.
1021 Portion Rd., Ronkonkoma 631-732-7336, asianonebest.com
It's been three years since Ysa and Bob Weller moved their small Filipino grocery to a location roomy enough to install a full kitchen and a few tables. Now breakfast, lunch and dinner are served every day except Tuesday. The store's merchandise bears witness to the strong flavors of the island nation's distinctive cuisine -- the sourness of vinegar, the fermented pungency of fish sauce and shrimp paste. The legacy of the U.S. naval base at Subic Bay can be seen (and tasted) in cans of corned beef and Spam. Asian One Best also sells groceries from Vietnam (here's where to find rice-paper noodles), Thailand (curry paste), China (wonton wrappers) and Japan (sushi fixings). The store is a magnet for the local Philippine community, but it attracts a lot of non-Asian customers, as well. "They come in for one of two reasons," said the Wellers' daughter, Kia. "They are passing by, they see the sign and they're curious. Or, they saw something Asian on Dr. Oz."
713 E. Main St., Riverhead, 631-591-2380
Adjacent to Riverhead's authentic Taqueria Mexico, this lively grocery is a great source for ingredients and ready-to-eat snacks. There are fresh chilies and nopales (cactus leaves), house-made mole sauce and tamales (fresh or frozen), queso fresco and cotija cheeses, jars of dulce de leche (caramel spread), piles of different brands and sizes of fresh corn tortillas. (Or make your own: Mexico Lindo sells masa harina flour and tortilla presses.) Don't feel like cooking? Buy a big bag of chicharrones de puerco (fried pork skins) and wash them down with a Mexican fruit soda.
What looks like a lethally armed cucumber goes by many names -- karela in India, ampalaya in the Philippines. A smoother-skinned variety is common in China, where it's called ku gua. In English, it is usually called bitter gourd or bitter melon. This is extremely bitter to the American palate.
At House of Dosas in Hicksville, bitter gourd is the star of its "healthy salad." Here's an adaptation of that recipe. Look for small, firm karelas that are glossy and dark.
1 karela, or bitter gourd, about 7 to 9 inches long
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
1 medium Roma tomato, seeded and diced
1/4 to 1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
1 fresh lime
1. Cut the gourd in half lengthwise. Scoop out and discard pith and seeds. Slice into thin half moons and toss in a bowl with a few spoonfuls of salt. Set aside for 45 minutes.
2. Soak gourd in a bowl of fresh water, changing the water a few times. Squeeze pieces dry with a dish towel. Combine gourd with onion tomato and cilantro. Add lime juice to taste. Makes 4 to 6 servings.