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Jun 12, 2010 03:39 PM

How to cook with foods found in ethnic grocery stores

With all the wonderful ethnic grocery stores in the Chicago area, I become completely overwhelmed with all the different kinds of foods available. Ten different peppers, tons of different kinds of beans, wonderful-looking spices. Banana flowers? Gigantic papaya. Having been raised on Jewel and Dominics, I feel like I'm missing out on some amazing food. Does anyone know of a good basic cookbook or maybe even a class that can help expand my horizons?

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  1. I don't know of a single answer for you, but you're asking the right questions. They could only come from someone who is lit up about "chow" and all the magnificent possiblities.

    My recommendations to you are that you begin to taste those foods where they're served. Thai, Mexican, Vietnamese, Chinese, Greek, etc. restaurants. So eat out. A lot. Find out what you like. And what ;you don't like. Ask questions. Browse cookbook sections in bookstores. Browse the internet. Ask friends.

    I take cooking classes whenever I travel outside the country and if I see a class here that interests me, I'll do that.

    And have a blast.

    1. I agree with chicgail's advice. I kind of follow it, actually. I go to many ethnic restaurants on a regular basis. When I try something that I really like, it becomes my new experiment in the kitchen. There are plenty of cooking websites with detailed instructions, and videos to get started. Also, even better resources are the cooks in the kitchen of the restaurant you go to that makes something you enjoy.

      My current kitchen experiments are revolving around jerk chicken, and finding my ideal butter chicken or chicken makhani.

      1. Yes, great advice (as usual) from chicgail, as a way to decide what kinds of food interest you the most.

        For cookbooks, there are many great cookbooks out there. I've found that, for ethnic cooking, your best bet is to start with a cookbook that is specific to whatever ethnicity you're interested in. Many ethnicities have one or more authors who are considered the experts in that type of cooking, such as Diana Kennedy or Rick Bayless for Mexican cooking, Madhur Jaffrey for Indian cooking, etc. So a good place to start is with one of their cookbooks, ideally one geared towards novices in that cuisine.

        Don't forget, there are recipes right here on the Chow site (including some for jerk chicken and for butter chicken). Just click on RECIPES on the bar above, where it says CHOW - CHOWHOUND - RECIPES - etc. And the Home Cooking forum here on Chowhound is another resource for advice on getting started.

        As for cooking classes in Chicago, there are a lot of places that offer them, including the stores that sell cooking equipment:

        Wooden Spoon -
        Chopping Block -
        Sur La Table -

        as well as some restaurants (check their websites). The professional cooking schools in the Chicago area may also have specific events or classes that you can sign up for without necessarily registering for their entire program to become a professional chef:

        Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago (formerly The Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago) -
        School of Culinary Arts, Kendall College -
        Washburne Culinary Institute -

        The Sun-Times does an annual guide to cooking schools in the Chicago area. You can find the most recent one on their website at

        1. My favorite books are the Culinaria series. They have them based on certain regions of Europe and go deep into the regions and recipes with beautiful photography.

          You can get many of them now at $10 each in the clearance sections of Borders and Barnes & Noble.

          Cooking classes...I'd keep my eyes on Whole Foods and The Wooden Spoon for when they offer classes.

          In actuality, when I blog about different dishes, I'll usually find something online that interests me, then get the ingredients from the local spots. Just explore. :)

          1. Allow me to speak of "giant papaya". Put it in a big brown paper grocery bag and clip the top shut. Leave it there, checking it every day or so, until you think it is about to rot. It will then be mellow and perfect. Put it in the sink and give it a good scrub with brush under running water. Dry it. Then peel the rind off (by now it will look disgusting) and cut the flesh into chunks or slices and store in refrigerator. Serve with lime juice. My candidate for earth's most sensual fruit.

            4 Replies
            1. re: Querencia

              Thanks for all the advice. Guess I'll have to start going out to eat more!

              1. re: blackmons

                What kind of cuisines do you like? I have hundreds of cookbooks. I can recommend some for you.

                1. re: cajundave

                  Thanks for the offer. I guess what I'm most interested in learning about are vegetables and spices -- not a huge meat eater. I guess I like the usual Italian and Mexican. I probably need to venture out to more ethnic restaurants and be more adventurous. I'm sure I could find some suggestions on these boards.

                  1. re: blackmons

                    Pretty much what everyone says, there's no single quick-fix answer. There are favor profiles unique to most cuisines that defy an easy "how do I cook with" classification. Hit up an Indian lunch buffet on Devon- they're very inexpensive and you get to try a dozen or more dishes in a sitting. Thai food is also inexpensive (as are most Asian restaurants). Ditto Lebanese/Syrian/Israeli Middle Eastern.

                    You'll start to appreciate differences over time and how something like a "curry" (a generally misunderstood concept) is very different depending on the context.

                    There may be some spices that are consistent across cuisines, but they take on a completely different quality based on how they're used and what they're blended with. Take cumin, for example. it's used on nearly every continent but in some cuisines it's at the front of the flavor profile while in others it takes a back seat or becomes a bit player.