"We can always tell someone who is in here for the first time," says George Castorena, manager of La Plaza, a Latin American market in Northridge. "They walk around like they're lost, and finally they ask someone for the ingredients for menudo. "
At La Plaza, Castorena estimates that 25% of the customers are not Latino; they are cooks who are learning how to make tamales from Bon Appetit magazine rather than from their mothers.
Those who are willing to stray from the San Fernando Valley's mainstream grocery stores might be surprised to learn that it's a short step from eating at Mexican, Korean and Middle Eastern restaurants to cooking up ethnic meals at home, if you know where to find authentic ingredients.
What might seem like impossible cookbook instructions ("Wrap the chicken in banana leaves"; "Saute the eggplant in ghee") become a snap when you know where to shop. And for enthusiastic ethnic cooks, finding plantain flour or lemon grass is a real thrill.
Just reading colorful labels of fish pastes from Manila, mango pickles from India or chipotle chilies from Mexico is enough to get even a novice chef revved up for an ambitious cooking session.
Most Valley ethnic markets offer shortcuts for adventurous--but busy--cooks. For example, there are packaged spice mixes for menudo, Korean barbecue and tandoori chicken--all surprisingly tasty.
A full-blown, five-course ethnic meal may be the stuff that Saturday-night dinner parties are made of, but a packaged curry dinner is something that anyone can pull together after work on Wednesday.
The Valley has a large number of excellent ethnic markets--clean places where outsiders are welcome to browse and ask questions. Be forewarned that you may experience some language problems, but for the most part, store personnel are happy to explain their cuisine to outsiders.
Castorena thinks that the best way for first-time shoppers to approach these stores is to go with specific recipes in mind--and in hand. Otherwise, you'll spend $20 in impulse buys and still not have the makings of a meal.
There are too many ethnic markets in the Valley to list all of them, but here's a good sample of stores in each major ethnic group.
La Plaza Market, 19239 Roscoe Blvd., Northridge.
This is possibly the best, most approachable Latin market in all of Los Angeles. It is large, by ethnic-market standards, and clean.
Any novice Mexican cook could spend an hour browsing through the aisles and discovering timesaving ingredients such as canned black beans and canned refried beans (both excellent). The packages of ground pumpkin seeds are used for drinks but are also great thickeners in sauces and stews (if you've ever tried to toast, shell and grind pumpkin seeds, you'll appreciate this).
There are bottles of naranja agria , a sour orange juice used in meat marinades.
The produce section features good buys on ripe avocados, pomegranates, plantains and fresh chilies. There are pads of cactus (nopales) , a delicacy that can also be bought in jars.
Strings of chorizo hang behind the extensive meat counter, which sells cuts specific to Mexican dishes including adovada , pork slices marinated in a dark red achiote sauce (spicy, but not too hot). You'll also find huge banana leaves, essential to many authentic Yucatecan and Central American dishes.
Sweets include guava paste for pastries and caramel sauces (ones from Mexico are called cajets ; ones from Argentina, dulce de leche ) . Additional goodies include: Argentine wines, frozen yucca and bakery items.
Other Latin markets include:
Mercado Mexicano, 20463 Sherman Way, Canoga Park.
Los Compadres Market, 6427 Van Nuys Blvd., Van Nuys.
La Placita Market, 10402 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Pacoima.
Tres Sierras Market, 13158 Van Nuys Blvd., Pacoima, and 24316 San Fernando Valley Road, Newhall.
Dae Myung Market, 20475 Sherman Way, Canoga Park.
Like most Oriental markets in the Valley, Dae Myung is Korean-owned, and although that is where the focus is--a cold case is filled with jars of kim chee and meats cut for bul gogi --this is much more than a Korean store.
You'll find ingredients for most Asian cuisines: Thai, Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, even some Indian. Several aisles are devoted to sauces: special soys, Filipino fish pastes, tamarind sauce and chutneys. For quick meals, there are packaged soups and dry seasoning mixes for Korean barbecues.
From Japan, there are just-add-meat-and-water boxes of curries (not bad and a great change of pace from Kraft Macaroni dinners).
In the freezer are Mandarin pancakes and egg-roll wrappers. In the cold case are small containers of pickled ginger, garlic and cucumbers and tofu.
The produce is fresh, and the meat looks appealing, especially the thinly sliced rib-eye steak, ready for Korean and Japanese dishes. Don't overlook the cans of persimmon punch and pine-nut porridge.