Over the years, my overflowing pantry and refrigerator have become a running joke among friends — the shelves haphazardly jammed with condiments, spices and random ingredients. I blame my love of cooking, cookbooks and, of course, a themed dinner party.
In Los Angeles, home for 21 years before moving to Baltimore last year, there was no ingredient I couldn’t find. Once, my husband and I went in search of a Turkish market to host an elaborate brunch, a nod to meals we enjoyed in Istanbul, where we were married. For the past decade, we’ve also thrown a multicourse New Year’s Eve dinner around a specific cuisine. The dayslong prep process usually sent us to tiny ethnic delis and markets around Southern California. French, Italian, Russian, Portuguese, Cajun and Spanish are among the fare we’ve served up.
When we moved, I was forced to toss dozens of half-empty bottles and jars of Chinese vinegars, Thai curry pastes and other ingredients I had amassed and wouldn’t travel well. Since then, I’ve been exploring the region and slowly replenishing my pantry.
Here are my finds so far, with bonus links to cookbooks that have inspired me.
345 E. 33rd Street
This may be my favorite discovery. The Abell neighborhood gem is walking distance from where we live — which is dangerous for their $1 samosas, cooked fresh daily and sitting enticingly close to the cash register. The flaky dough is crisp, the potatoes well-seasoned with a hint of heat. They may be the best samosas I’ve ever had, and they’re perfect with some tamarind chutney you can buy at the store. The shop itself is tiny, but well-stocked with spices, prepared foods, and a decent selection of frozen roti, naan and other Indian breads.
Note: If you need a full-blown Indian supermarket, check out Patel Brothers in Ellicott City, which is total sensory overload. As a West Coaster, experiencing the chain for the first time was revelatory. You’ll find aisle after aisle of spices, snacks, nuts and premade sauces perfect for whipping up a quick weeknight dinner.
Cookbook: My regular stops at Punjab Groceries for samosas actually encouraged me to try Indian cooking. I’ve been exploring the cookbook from Dishoom, a popular London restaurant. My favorite recipe so far is for dal makhani.
3700 Toone St.
If you go in search of specialty Italian ingredients, you may end up deciding you don’t need to cook at all. The first time I discovered this store, we had friends visiting from out of town. I had suggested it as a place to grab a sandwich. They returned with enough food for lunch and dinner — a mouth-watering selection of cheeses, fresh pasta and sauces. I resolved to check it out for myself. Longtime Baltimoreans tell me the newish location in Canton doesn’t have the charm of the old Di Pasquale’s in Highlandtown, but who cares? The food is all the same and it’s absolutely delicious.
Cookbook: “The Mozza Cookbook” by Nancy Silverton is full of beautiful pictures and recipes that range from simple to more advanced. Saveur magazine calls her butterscotch budino with caramel sauce “one of Los Angeles’ most iconic desserts.”
321 Park Ave.
The name is a cringey throwback, but if you venture to this hole-in-the-wall Asian market, you’ll be exploring the remnants of Baltimore’s post-World War I Chinatown. Heading inside, I was skeptical, but I found everything on my shopping list. The store is remarkably well-stocked with a range of Chinese, Japanese and Thai ingredients.
Of course, there is no substitute for HMart for Asian groceries. This superstore in Ellicott City and Catonsville has an extensive selection of fresh produce, an intriguing meat and seafood section (including live blue crabs) and a massive number of pickled kimchi options. But if you’re looking for pantry staples, save yourself the drive because you’ll probably find what you need at Po Tung.
Cookbook: My copy of the “Night + Market” cookbook by Kris Yenbamroong is dog-eared and stained from heavy use. The Thai boxing chicken is in our regular dinner rotation and if you want a weekend project, try making the khao soi curry noodle soup. I own several Thai cookbooks; this is the best.
1312 Eastern Ave.
As a native Californian, I’m accustomed to Mexican grocery stores the size of Safeways, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when walking into Cinco de Mayo Dos. For hot sauce aficionados, the store offers at least a couple dozen different kinds as well as dried chiles in bulk. There’s also a carniceria and a decent supply of fresh produce, including tomatillos, giant avocados and nopales. I’m also a sucker for those spicy Mexican gummy candies coated in chamoy and Tajin seasoning, and the gummies they sell here are fantastic.
Instead of cooking, grab a few tacos at the restaurant tucked in the back of the store. It’s like a taco speakeasy!
51 Kane St.
I visited Prima Foods on the recommendation of a colleague, who said it’s a great place to go before hosting a dinner party. This Greek food wholesale distributor is a bit of a trek — it’s out in the Pulaski industrial area. Like many of the other stores on this list, it’s not large, but it is full of culinary delights. You’ll find an assortment of cheeses, like feta, halloumi and mizithra and barrels (literal barrels!) of self-serve olives. The freezer section boasts premarinated souvlaki skewers, whole octopus if you’re feeling adventurous, and several different kinds of frozen appetizers and desserts. I was intrigued by the baklava cheesecake. They also sell Greek wine and ouzo, though the anise-flavored aperitif is a bit of an acquired taste.
Cookbook: If you’re interested in Mediterranean cooking, you must buy “The New Book of Middle Eastern Food” by Claudia Roden. I’ve made dozens of recipes from this book and my Iraqi husband tells me the dishes are authentic. The cookbook offers up variations on many recipes by country, including Lebanon, Egypt, and Greece. Her newer cookbook, “Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean” is also a keeper.
What are your favorite ethnic grocery stores and cookbooks? Email me your suggestions.