One of the joys of travel is the cultural food experiences. The scents and flavors of places like Mexico, Vietnam or India are worth experiencing, though they don't have to clean out your bank account. Sometimes, all you have to do is wander through your own city.
Omaha's wide variety of ethnic markets are a gateway to foreign flavors, and shoppers can find ingredients from Africa, Asia, Central America, Europe and the Mediterranean. But knowing what to look for is key. It can be intimidating to go into a foreign market and run into strange ingredients and labels in different languages.
We shopped at two Omaha ethnic markets — Asian Market, near 76th and Cass Streets, and Jacobo's, in South Omaha — to learn how to navigate these less familiar grocery aisles.
Omahan Michelle Vu and her mother, Rosie Tran, who are Vietnamese, met me at the Asian Market to offer some shopping tips. We walked by pallets stacked with bagged brown rice; shelves of dried herbs, tea, coffee, salty snacks and sweet treats; and a refrigerator case packed with fresh seafood.
Michelle said one of the best things at Asian Market is the variety of vegetables not sold in a typical grocery store, including Asian staples like bok choy, Chinese broccoli and moqua, a vegetable similar to a zucchini or cucumber. She eats them steamed or in soup.
To be sure, you can find some international foods at your local grocery store, just as the Asian Market sells some familiar items like lettuce, cabbage, eggplant, cilantro and basil. Sometimes you can even find produce at the ethnic market for less than at the average store.
For instance, a bundle of cilantro at a big-box grocer can average around $1; at the Asian Market it's 50 cents. Sweet potatoes are often more than $1 a pound; Asian Market's are 88 cents a pound. Spinach is about $2 a pound at a regular grocery, and at Asian Market it's $1.59 a bunch.
Spices such as turmeric or garam masala, a traditional Indian spice mixture; rice noodles; oyster sauce; shrimp paste and other foreign ingredients are staples at the ethnic market.
Vu and Tran, who moved to Omaha in 1996, said those are flavors that remind them of home.
“I think food is the most attractive part of any culture,” Michelle said. “The ingredients really tell a story of where and how people live.”
At Jacobo's Market, a South Omaha staple, the homemade salsa and tortilla chips are what many customers are after.
Mary Killian, an Omaha mother of two, said she shops at Jacobo's and other ethnic markets, too.
“I love Jacobo's chips and salsa. It's also a good place to get cheap masa for homemade tamales.”
Jacobo's also has an impressive produce department: fresh citrus, tomatoes and hot peppers, prickly pear cactus, tomatillos and chayote — a fruit that when cooked, has the texture and flavor of summer squash.
The shelves are lined with Mexican pantry staples like beans, rice, dried chiles, herbs and spices, canned tuna and shrimp and tortillas, which are made fresh in-house every day. Behind the deli cases you'll find a large selection of prepared traditional Mexican favorites such as carnitas, tamales, roast chicken, burritos, enchiladas and their famous salsas.
Manager Carlos Jacobo said the process to make those tortillas is virtually unchanged since the store made its first batch more than 30 years ago. They use corn, a little lime and water to turn white corn into dough, and then into warm, fresh tortillas.
“The major staple in the Hispanic diet is the tortilla,” he said. “Anything you can put between two slices of bread, you can put in a tortilla.”
One way to explore an ethnic market with less pressure is to look for snacks and sweets. Michelle suggests wasabi peas or rice crackers wrapped in seaweed.
“There's usually a fridge stocked with cans of drinks in all sorts of wild flavors,” she said. “Try a different one every time you visit the store.”
And Jacobo's isn't short on sweet treats. Two full-time bakers fill the cases daily with a variety of empanadas, cookies, pastries and conchas, the traditional Mexican sweet yeast bread.
Mary said her kids love to try sweets at ethnic shops.
“It's fun for them to try something completely different than a box of Oreos,” said Mary.
Hong Zheng, owner of the Asian Market, said lots of new shoppers come to the store with a recipe in hand.
Hong employs a culturally — and ethnically — diverse staff who can be identified by their red T-shirts, and are always ready to answer questions or offer suggestions.
“If we don't carry what you're looking for, we can suggest a similar item or try to special order it,” he said.
Carlos said he thinks many customers find their way to ethnic markets through word-of-mouth. On Husker game days, he said, the line for chips, salsa and other prepared Mexican dishes gets longer.
“On the weekend I'll see such a mix of people in line waiting for the deli. It makes me happy,” he said.
He said he understands why some non-Spanish speakers might hesitate to shop at Jacobo's, but he wants them to know they're welcome to come in and look around. Butchers behind the counter will cut steaks for fajitas, dish up containers of rice and beans and let customers practice their Spanish while placing the order.
“Here in Omaha, in the Midwest, people are more open and tolerant,” he said. “The biggest way to overcome hesitation is through education.”
* * * *
Delicious and easy ethnic recipes
The day after I shopped at Asian Market with Michelle Vu and her mother, Rosie Tran, the family invited my husband and me over to their home to make spring rolls.
Rosie and her family proved to us just how easy and delicious homemade spring rolls can be. The table was set with pork, shrimp, boiled rice noodles and a huge platter brimming with crisp greens and herbs like basil, cilantro and mint.
I was nervous at first, but after watching Rosie, Michelle and Michelle's younger brother, Duc-Minh, assemble their spring rolls, it was my turn. I dipped the dry wrapper into the bowl of warm water and placed it on the mat. In no time it was soft and ready for my choice of fillings.
Rosie also shared a recipe for Vietnamese Green Beans, a family favorite. The oyster sauce and lightly sautéed garlic combine to create a rich, earthy flavor that is a little bit salty and a little bit sweet. It will definitely become a staple in my nightly dinner rotation.
Recipe: Vietnamese Green Beans
• 1-2 pounds green beans
• 2-3 garlic cloves, minced
• 2-3 tablespoons oyster sauce
• 1½ tablespoons olive oil
• Pinch of salt
Wash green beans and steam them for 10 minutes. Remove from steamer and set aside. Heat olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the minced garlic. After 40-60 seconds and before the garlic starts to brown, add the steamed green beans, 2-3 tablespoons of oyster sauce and a pinch of salt. Stir and mix everything in the pan for 2-3 minutes until oyster sauce covers all of the green beans. Remove from stove, plate and serve.
* * * *
Omaha has a diverse array of ethnic markets, such as:
• Asian Market
321 N 76th St.
Monday-Sunday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
• Mediterranean and European Grocery
8601 Blondo St.
Open daily from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
• Midwest Oriental Foods
2920 S. 84th St.
Open daily, 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
• Indian Grocery
3029 S. 83rd Plaza
Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
4621 S 24th St.
Tuesday-Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed Monday.
The store accepts cash only.
* * * *
Sara Blake of Omaha is an avid home cook and an adventurous eater. She blogs at stalkmykitchen.com.