If you need fresh lemon grass to make a Thai soup or ghee (clarified butter) for an Indian recipe, you can find it on the Westside.
Thanks to a generous assortment of ethnic markets here, shoppers have access to an array of exotic ingredients including Brazilian sausage, sun-dried Italian tomatoes and Iranian pomegranate paste.
International foods have become so popular that UCLA Extension recently offered a tour of Los Angeles' ethnic markets as part of its culinary arts program. "It was fun to introduce people to their own town," said Saigon-born Monique Truong Miller, who led the tour and periodically teaches cooking classes for the extension.
She said she discovered the ethnic markets, many of which are storefront operations, by wandering around the city. "I never use a map, so I always get lost," she said. "I decided I would just get to know the area instead of getting upset."
Miller said she developed the ethnic market tour to help students find the proper ingredients for the many cooking classes that are available at schools and gourmet stores in the Westside.
This summer at UCLA Extension alone, classes will be offered in the cuisines of India, Italy, France, Japan, China, Persia and the Mediterranean countries.
The Westside is a hotbed of culinary activity because exotic ingredients are readily available here and residents can afford to buy them, said Pauline Adam of UCLA Extension's culinary arts program.
Los Angeles residents have access to an astonishing array of international foods that are not available in other parts of the country, she said.
The Westside's ethnic grocery stores offer foods from all around the world. Often, they serve as meeting places for members of ethnic groups who relish the opportunity to talk in their native language and read newspapers and magazines from their homelands.
A sampling of local ethnic markets includes:
Attari Bakery, 1396 Westwood Blvd., Westwood, which stocks an array of Iranian foods including Arabic flat breads, homemade pastries, watermelon seeds and pistachio nuts, dried plums and pomegranate paste, several varieties of yogurt and four kinds of rose water. Next door are a Persian grocery and restaurant.
Bangkok Market, a storefront source of Thai foods, which will reopen next month in much-enlarged quarters at 4757 Melrose Ave., Hollywood. It offers a full range of Thai groceries, sauces and spices, sweet rice and mango desserts packaged to go, and fresh Southeast Asian herbs such as lemon grass.
Bay Cities Importing, 1517 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica, which offers Italian, Greek, Middle Eastern and Argentine specialties. Especially popular at noon is its delicatessen counter where customers wait in line for sandwiches made with imported meats and cheeses.
Owner Ronald Cina said the heart of the family business is imported Italian foods, with the top sellers being virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegars, fresh pastas, sun-dried tomatoes (for salads and other dishes) and fresh buffalo-milk mozzarella.
The Santa Monica market's Middle Eastern food business has grown dramatically, as evidenced by the fact that feta cheese is the biggest-selling cheese in the store, Cina said.
Bharat Bizaar, 11510 Washington Blvd., Culver City, which sells such Indian staples as gram flour, ghee and Basmati rice, which is sought after because it has a special fragrance and the grains do not stick together, according to owner Ramesh Chander. The store is fragrant with 47 spices such as cumin and black cardamom and it has 28 varieties of chutneys and pickles.
Cameron's British Food & Imports, 12523 Venice Blvd., Mar Vista, which is open only Thursday through Sunday, but Scottish-born owners Margaret and John McGlynn report they do a nice business in steak and kidney pie (or steak only), kippers, sausage rolls, English teas, crumpets and scones.
El Camaguey Market, 10925 Venice Blvd., Culver City, which caters to Latinos from such countries as Cuba, Argentina, Puerto Rico, Guatemala and Central America, according to the butcher, Carlos Figueroa. It stocks such specialties as Brazilian sausage, pigs' feet and pigs' ears, as well as more common sausages and meats.
Filipinas Trading Center, 4576 Centinela Ave., Mar Vista, which is a small market offering such Philippine specialties as mango and purple yam ice cream, frozen coconut milk, fresh taro leaves, fertile duck eggs (69 cents each) and live crab on weekends.
Gallegos Bros. Tortilleria and Deli, 1424 Broadway, which has been in Santa Monica for 39 years. It offers five kinds of tortillas made fresh every day. Also available are salsas, tamales and enchiladas made fresh daily. The deli case is stocked with chorizo and Mexican cheeses.
Granada Market, 1820 Sawtelle Blvd., West Los Angeles, which offers a big selection of Japanese delicacies including quail eggs ($1.55 each). Signs in Japanese guide shoppers to the fish, meats and produce.