Unfamiliar, surprising to the uninitiated shopper, sometimes unusual enough to evoke laughter, foreign products and produce can make for some happy accidents in the area’s ethnic markets. Not only do the exotic wares dazzle newcomers, these markets serve clienteles that demand low prices and a high degree of quality, giving all shoppers a good value for the money.
Chances are good that you’ll find things you’ve never seen before at the mostly Asian markets that line John R and Dequindre roads north of I-696, along Warren Avenue in Dearborn, on Conant Avenue in Hamtramck, and along Vernor Highway and Bagley Street in Detroit.
For a meat-and-potatoes metropolis whose gifts to the culinary world have been the coney dog and the Boston cooler, we’ve sure gotten taste back in spades.
10224 Conant, Hamtramck; 313-871-2345
Great deal: Rajah brand ground ginger, 3.5 ounces for $1.49.
Outstanding oddity: A package of powder featuring two portraits of glum-looking men looks more like a firecracker than anything else. The proprietor says customers buy it for tooth pain. For a mere 75 cents this questionable analgesic can adorn your medicine cabinet.
Amanah Poultry & Grocery
10026 Conant, Hamtramck; 313-874-2117
Great deal: You can have your chicken freshly slaughtered on site for $1.75/lb.
Outstanding oddity: According to the proprietor, the “bitter melon” is so bitter it can help reverse diabetic shock. Something as ugly as this warty, cucumber-like vegetable must certainly be medicinal.
Honey Bee La Colmena Market
2443 Bagley St., Detroit; 313-237-0295
Great deal: Mexican avocados, 79 cents each.
Hominy-hominy-hominy: Best place to buy hominy, hands down. For those buying large quantities, Honey Bee offers a 6-pound can of hominy for a paltry $2.49.
Spice World: Dried spices are the main event here, with dozens of bags of just dried chiles, such as chile arbol, chipotle, cascabel and ancho. And spice mixes are available in appealing small bags, including chile powder, chorizo powder, paprika, cumin and even cinnamon sticks. There is a floor-to-ceiling wall of Mi Costeñito brand spices, most less than a dollar, tempting those waiting for the cashier.
Rice and beans: Behold the impressive wall of canned and dried beans. The prices on the dry beans and rice look good, with long-grain rice running 50 cents a pound.
Getting fresh: Fresh produce also looks good, with fresh serrano chiles and poblanos. A pear-like chayote, actually a squash, goes for 69 cents a pound, worth it just for the unusual bottom of the fruit, which looks like a puckered mouth without teeth. A friend dubs it “the butt fruit.”
Ben Thanh Asian Market
27651 John R, in Farnum Plaza, Madison Heights; 248-546-6844
Outstanding deal: Chef’s Choice brand coconut milk, 13.5 ounces for 69 cents.
Getting fresh: Move over bok choy, it’s time to meet your tender, younger cousin pak choy, for $1.99 a pound. Bamboo tip, the choice part of the plant, retails for $1.49 a pound.
Tea time: How about 20 bags of Chinese green tea for 99 cents?
Big mama: Once you buy the bag of more than 50 spring roll wrappers (12 ounces) for only 99 cents, you can pick up Mama Sita’s fried spring roll seasoning mix, 69 cents for enough to season probably 100 spring rolls. The choice to market a line of food with the visage of Mama Sita is something that wouldn’t happen in this country, where it’s been some time since food was marketed with images of jolly, overweight people.
Fry me up, fry me down: Caravelle brand tempura batter mix, $1.19 for 8 ounces, probably enough to make a big ol’ basket of tempura-fried meat or veggies.
You haven’t eaten jack: Atip brand green jackfruit in brine? It’s yours for $1.99 for 20 ounces.
Impulse buy: Near the counter — many bags of Marco Polo brand shrimp snacks, on sale for 89 cents.
Branding disaster: In an example of what goes wrong when snack-marketers have no grasp of American idiom, we present Crack Sandwich. Crunchy egg milk wafer wrapped around a luscious sesame butter filling, but the name will have you laughing off the calories. In any event, it’s the first time crack has cost $1.49 in years.
Sterling Heights; 586-979-3665
Good deal: A 1-pound box of Ziyad brand falafel mix is $1.99.
The olive garden: An excellent selection of olives, with Greek olives so soft the flesh peels away to reveal a wonderfully soft, salty tissue that falls apart.
Dry goods great: The store stocks a great variety of dried beans, seeds, nuts and cracked wheat or bulghur.
Ghee whiz: Good deals on ghee, with more than a pound of Al Haloub brand cow ghee selling for $4.99, and 24 ounces of Tazam brand pure butter ghee retailing for $5.95.
30573 John R, Madison Heights; 248-589-0831
Getting fresh: The fresh greens look deliciously tender and utterly unfamiliar. The tubs of live blue crabs and live crawfish, restocked weekly, give the store a slightly fishy odor.
Dial A for Agar: Telephone brand Agar-Agar powder? It’s a vegetarian source for gelatin, a thickening agent perfect for those who want to avoid animal products. Is it worth it? Your call.
Outstanding oddity: One of the most unusual fruits ever, the durian — spiny, with a sweet taste at odds with its foul smell.
Branding disaster: The name of Pocky brand chocolate-covered biscuit snacks could have been better researched. Though you’ll find them in most better Asian markets, “Pocky” in English literally means covered in pustules.
China Merchandise Corporation
31722 John R, Madison Heights; 248-588-0450
Getting fresh: Such unusual vegetables as arrowhead and arrowroot.
Eggs to go: One of the more unusual Chinese delicacies — preserved, cooked, salted duck eggs.
How 1 billion people can be wrong: Vegetarian Turnip Cake. In this case, the turnip is a radish, and the cake is a rice cake. For $2.99, you can buy eight cakes flavored with this humble salad vegetable.
Turtle time: Live turtles are $3.99 per pound. One patron suggests that a 2-pound turtle could run as much as $30 at a better pet store, adding, “You can eat it or keep it as a pet.” The little critter, who offers a peaceful look, goes back into his tub for now, next to the tubs of crabs and other aquatic life, all awaiting the cook pot.
Bad English: Sliced, dried sweet potato is 99 cents. The 6-ounce package is surprisingly satisfying, concentrating the sweetness of the vegetable and having a pleasing, licorice-type toughness that offers just enough resistance to the teeth. But the best part is the nonsensical “Engrish” warning on the packaging. It warns, “Do not will this product powder suck in lung department, in order to avoid that influence health.” Hey, thanks for the warning.
Snack least likely to succeed: Roasted watermelon seeds, 12.7 ounces for $1.99.
Impulse buy: Goldensmell wasabi powder, 1.2 ounces for $1.49.
Snacks for snickering: Dried anchovy, King Chief brand, a 4-ounce package for $1.99. A definite rule-breaker for Westerners, your snack food should never look back at you; these minnow-sized dried fish all gaze at the guilty snacker unremittingly.
A 99-cent gamble: Jellyfish preserved in oil.
Outstanding oddity: The illustration on an 11-ounce can of “Grass Jelly Drink” will probably do little to allay one’s worry. Polite excuse: “I’m trying to cut down on carbs.”Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org