Gifts From The Silk Road

One of my favorite stores in Brussels isn’t a chocolate shop. It’s not even a fabulous perfume treasure trove called Senteurs d’Ailleurs. It’s a supermarket at Rue de l’Escadron 35 called FreshMed. Technically, it’s not even in Brussels proper, but in Etterbeek, one of the 19 communes that make up the metropolis. It’s a store offering a vast selection of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean foods, with a smattering of Baltic and Polish products.

incense-cat-burner

FreshMed isn’t a fancy store; it’s a place where the aesthetics are provided by the towering pyramids of fresh vegetables and fruits, not an overly creative interior design. I like this simple and unpretentious approach. Here you can find fresh tarragon and pomegranates, stock up on Greek retsina and Lebanese arak, and then load up your cart with homemade foods: tiny Syrian pies, Turkish-style pizza, hummus, tzaziki, olives and 10 kinds of feta. Then there are shelves of Iranian floral waters, Cretan dark honeys and Moroccan amber scented soaps. It’s a journey down the Silk Road within the space of a few supermarket aisles.

Grocery stores catering to specific communities are fascinating cultural microcosms. You glimpse into the lives of others, often immigrants making their niche in society. You discover new foods, new beauty products, new customs. Whether I buy groceries for dinner or satisfy my wanderlust, I discover something novel every time.

For this reason, I’m eager to share with others the wonders of Indian, Chinese, Persian and Lebanese grocery stores. Sometimes people feel intimidated walking into a store where the labels are in another language and the staff know only a modicum of English, but think of it as a quest. You can find interesting items–food, beauty, and incense–that aren’t available elsewhere. You can do it all on a budget. The best part is that you can meet people you may not have encountered otherwise, and this is what makes such explorations rewarding.

Saffron Sugar Candy

Nabat Chuby, or Persian rock sugar candy on sticks, looks like jewels, especially the yellow-tinged saffron variety. It’s meant to be dipped into tea or coffee, and besides sweetness, it gives a hint of saffron flavor. If you haven’t yet tried coffee with saffron, be prepared for a sensory discovery. In Iran people say that saffron is a laughing spice–it’s impossible not to smile when eating it. I can’t agree more.

noqhlsaffron candy

Rose Jam

A spoonful of rose jam turns the most ordinary of breakfasts–yogurt, oatmeal, toast–into something special. Although gourmet stores stock this confection, the best choices can be found at Turkish, Persian, Lebanese or pan-Middle Eastern stores. Bulgarian brands also offer flavorful varieties. Be sure that the ingredient list includes only rose petals, sugar, water and citric acid.

Iranian Dragée Almonds

Another reason to explore stores catering to Iranian clientele is for these rosewater perfumed almonds. They look white and pebbly, and they might be called Noqhl (Nuqhl) or dragée almonds (in Persian: نقل ). Other nuts like walnuts or hazelnuts are also available in the same rose and cardamom flavored coating, but almonds are the most popular.

Mulberry Molasses

While you’re at the Middle Eastern store looking for rose jam, pay attention to the shelf holding various types of honeys and molasses. Here you will find pekmez, grape molasses, or carob, date and mulberry varieties. All of them are delicious, tasting of caramel, spice and jammy fruit, but my favorite is mulberry for its lusty blackberry flavor and hint of acidity. It can be swirled into yogurt or used instead of honey in marinades, dressings or sauces. Chicken rubbed with mulberry molasses, olive oil and smoked paprika and then roasted is an effortless gourmet dish. Grilled salmon is even more interesting with a drizzle of mulberry molasses, lemon juice, minced garlic and tarragon. Or you can simply mix it into sparkling water and add a sprig of mint.

scented gifts

Rose Olive Oil Soap

A good bar of soap makes many a winter morning more bearable. Especially if it’s scented with rose or jasmine. Traditional olive oil soap is hard to find, but small French and Italian brands still make it. At Middle Eastern and North African shops you can find two excellent varieties– Moroccan black soap and Aleppo olive oil soap. Most of the Syrian enterprises have moved abroad since the start of the war, and they continue to make this incredible product. It’s a perfect soap for sensitive skin, leaving it soothed and moisturized. I also like the texture of the lather Aleppo soap produces–soft like whipped cream.

Cedarwood Incense

Out of all incense varieties, Japanese cedarwood incense is one of my favorites. It has an elegant scent that doesn’t become stale after the incense has finished burning. It doesn’t produce smoke. It also doesn’t overwhelm the space. A small stick is enough to perfume the room but not to suffocate all the living creatures in it. Japanese grocery stores have a great selection of different brands, but you can also browse www.shoyeido.com for more ideas. Chinese incense brands also have great cedarwood and sandalwood varieties, but they tend to be sweeter and spicier than the Japanese types.

Green Tea Bath Salts

If you have friends traveling to Japan and willing to bring you a souvenir, ask them for Japanese bath salts. They can be found at every corner store, and the selection is vast, designed to cure all physical and psychological ailments. The Japanese grocery stores abroad carry a smaller variety, but you can generally find yuzu and green tea scented salts. The perfumes are nature-like and sophisticated, and the presentation is refined. A perfect stocking stuffer. Korean stores also have a large selection of bath products.

buckwheat cookies

Japanese Buckwheat Cookies

I had never associated buckwheat with desserts until I tasted Japanese soba cookies. Just like soba noodles, they are made from buckwheat flour, and they can be thin and crunchy or light and crumbly. The nutty taste of buckwheat is pronounced without being overpowering. Look for a package of something that resembles cookies and has the word “そば” on it. I promise, your sleuthing will be rewarded.

Yuzu Condiment

Yuzukosho is a mix of chilli peppers, yuzu peel and salt, and it’s one of the staple condiments in my fridge. I haven’t yet figured out what foods it doesn’t improve. It can be used as a relish to eat with steak, as a marinade for fish and as a garnish for a bowl of soup. I also like to thin it with olive oil and use it on salad greens, tomatoes, grilled vegetables or roast turkey. It’s becoming trendy, so you might even find it at your local gourmet store, but at the Asian store you can find different varieties and better prices.

Mysore Sandalwood Soap and Jasmine Oil

I have already written about Indian sandalwood soap. It’s a fantastic product, and as I discovered, it ages really well, becoming warmer, mellower and sweeter with time. A couple of bars stashed in the linen closet have the potential of a prized vintage. You can find other soaps at the Indian grocery store, including the infamous Lifebuoy bars, but unless you’ve grown up in India and associate the sharp odor with cleanliness, they may not replace your usual shower product.

Also interesting are the jasmine scented oils. Indians, especially from the South of the continent use coconut oil to dress their hair, and besides the plain variety, you can find a range of blended oils enhanced with amla, neem or jasmine. The first two are considered to stimulate hair growth, although the medicinal scent takes some getting used to. Jasmine coconut oil, on the other hand, has a pleasing creamy aroma.

Osmanthus Flowers

I can write a whole separate article on what you can discover at Chinese grocery stores, but one of the most interesting scented finds would be osmanthus flowers. China is the main grower of Osmanthus fragrans and the leading producer of essence. The dried flowers are intensely scented, and they can be used for tisane (1/2 teaspoon for every cup of hot water) or mixed with oolong for your own take on osmanthus tea. Look for the words 桂花, guìhuā, osmanthus, on the label. Occasionally, the word is translated as “sweet olive” or “olive flower.” If saffron makes you laugh, osmanthus makes you sigh with contentment. It has a tender, enveloping aroma, and a taste of apricots and gardenia petals.

If you have your own recommendations for other interesting discoveries in food, skincare, cosmetics, beauty and home fragrance products, please share.

If you live in a small town, you might have to explore online grocery stores to find some of these items. Kalustyans.com (everything), Sadaf.com (Iranian), Ishopindian.com, Parthenonfoods.com (Greek and Mediterranean), Hmart.com (Korean), Templeofthai.com (Asian, with a large selection of Thai products), and Tulumba.com (Turkish) are the US-based sites I’ve used on many occasions. Spicesofindia.co.uk is the UK-based site offering a large variety of Indian products, including soaps and scented oils. Foratasteofpersia.co.uk is also UK-based.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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102 Comments

  • solanace: Today I went to the Japanese grocery store, got some kobo – a very nice, fragrant root vegetable, dried shitake mushrooms and a salmon temaki for my lunch. There are many Lebanese stores here too, and other than being addicted to their candied almonds and that ´diet´ treat Halawa, I´m also partial to their dark green – and yes, unexpensive – olive oil, the big thin flatbreads, the healthy spreads and sure, pomegranate molasses for my marinades and rose water to use as a facial toner. Can´t wait for the new immigrants to settle and start opening new spots with new delicious stuff. December 2, 2015 at 7:49am Reply

    • Victoria: I like it too, the one that looks like a long brown stick. Stir-fried with carrots and some soy sauce and mirin, it has such a rich flavor. You’d never guess that when you first start slicing it. Also, it’s a perfect illustration of an earthy aroma as a perfumery term. 🙂

      Lebanese olive oil is so very good, for the most part. I had a blind taste test with some foodie friends who claimed that it’s nothing special, and they ranked it higher than some popular Italian brands. December 2, 2015 at 11:28am Reply

      • Danaki: Ooh. My dad would be happy to hear this. By the way, have you tried carob molasses with tahini. That’s how we prepare it back home (in Lebanon). The idea is to swirl equal amounts in a nice round (but small) bowl so it resembles a swirl cake.

        Then just dip bread, brioche or anything you fancy. Avoid anything too sweet as the mix is quite sweet of course. December 3, 2015 at 9:48am Reply

        • Victoria: I do that too, although usually with either mulberry or grape molasses. I need to restock my carob molasses, come to think of it. This combination is so delicious. December 3, 2015 at 5:00pm Reply

    • Karen (A): Ohhh, good call on halawa – yummmm!! It’s rather addicting, isn’t it? December 2, 2015 at 5:16pm Reply

  • Lizbee: What a wonderful post! I haven’t traveled out of the country in so long, and I’ve missed the adventure and reward of discovery. Thank you so much for the reminder that I can satisfy my adventure bug with a trip to a grocery store where I can’t read the labeling. I’m inspired to go a hunt for Rose jam, dragée almonds, and saffron sugar candy! December 2, 2015 at 8:05am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s the easiest kind of travel! Sometimes I go in and buy whatever looks interesting and then look up later how to use it. The best way to add new recipes to one’s repertoire.

      Lynley reminded of another treat, Persian cotton candy, pashmak. It does come in a variety of flavors, and the orange blossom one just begs to be made into a perfume. December 2, 2015 at 11:30am Reply

      • Karen (A): There is a Turkish one as well, I wonder if they are the same? I’ve had ones flavored with nuts – so delicious. December 2, 2015 at 11:46am Reply

        • Victoria: They’re similar, and the name is similar too. I also saw Lebanese brands flavored with pistachio. December 2, 2015 at 12:11pm Reply

          • Karen (A): Couldn’t remember the name and had to look it up – pismaniye – another totally addicting dessert. December 2, 2015 at 5:17pm Reply

            • Victoria: My Turkish friend just commented that a little bit different in flavor from pashmak in that pashmak is made with sesame, and pismaniye with roasted and buttered flour. I can’t find it right now, but there is a great video online showing how pismaniye is made. The process, the way the sweet becomes finer and finer with each twist, is really mesmerizing. December 3, 2015 at 11:07am Reply

  • Princess Tonk: Victoria, where did you get the kitty holding incense stick! I’ve needed that my whole life. Please don’t tell me it’s a stock photo. December 2, 2015 at 8:46am Reply

  • Katy: The Japanese incense! I love the cedar wood as well or sometimes it is called Hinoki for the tree it actually comes from. There is a wonderful synchronicity for me in burning Hinoki incense and having Hinoki junipers growing on my Bonsai benches. I like the very modestly priced Nippon Kodo Hinoki sticks….. December 2, 2015 at 8:58am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m burning Nippon Kodo’s hinoki incense right now, and yes, it’s wonderful–moderately priced and well-perfumed.

      Hinoki wood, Chamaecyparis obtusa as Wiki tells me, has such a languid, suave scent. In Japan, they often make bathtubs in traditional houses out of it. Imagine such a bath, especially if there are a few yuzu fruits floating in hot water. December 2, 2015 at 11:37am Reply

  • Briony hey: What a lovely article. You’ve reminded me to check out the Turkish stores in Lewisham again. I spent hours wandering round them a few months ago and came back with rose petal jam, dried rose petals, dried limes, some lovely bread and bunches of fresh herbs for a quarter of the price they sell them for in the supermarkets. December 2, 2015 at 9:30am Reply

    • Victoria: When I first moved to Brussels, I loved exploring Turkish stores in Schaerbeek, an area totally off the tourist path but that has some of the most interesting buildings in the city (albeit some need upkeep). It made me feel more at home in a new place for some reason, and people were invariably kind and warm. I still go whenever I can, although FreshMed is large enough to cover all of my needs.

      If you like jams, Turkish stores also carry excellent fig jams, either made from ground fruit or from whole tiny figs suspended in thick syrup. It’s such a treat. December 2, 2015 at 11:46am Reply

      • Briony hey: Yes I saw the fig jams and made a mental note to give them a try next time. I also noticed they stocked barberries which I’d come across in various recipes but had never seen in the shops. Such a treasure trove of exciting things. And you’re right – the staff were lovely and didn’t mind my asking stupid questions. December 3, 2015 at 7:17am Reply

        • Victoria: Whenever I see barberries, I buy a couple of packages, because I seem to use them a lot. Tonight I made barberry rice, which was very simple–cook rice. Saute an onion, add saffron, barberries and cumin. Once the rice is ready, layer everything together and serve. It’s a simplified version of barberry pilafs I loved in Iran. December 3, 2015 at 4:54pm Reply

  • Scented Salon: You are lucky to have access to a store like this. So am I. I would hate to live in a small town where such stores did not exist. However, I believe even in small towns diverse stores like this are popping up. At least there was one in a tiny town in Holland that I visited this summer. They had those lovely soaps as well as the usual foodstuffs.

    By the way, that is one cute and refined kitty! December 2, 2015 at 9:39am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, I know what you mean. I have lived for many years in small towns with no access to good stores, which is why I have a huge folder with different website names. It’s great to see places like the ones I mentioned still thriving. December 2, 2015 at 11:49am Reply

  • Andy: Some of these pleasures I’ve tried, and some I have not, and some I now have to try. I’ve been indulging in osmanthus flowers in my tea a lot lately, and I especially love the mix of osmanthus with a golden tips Yunnan black tea, as it brings me an almost criminal amount of joy to have my own drinkable ‘Osmanthe Yunnan.’ Not just for the name though, as it’s also a really harmonious combination.

    I too love the Japanese cedarwood incense–I’ve tried other varieties, but the cedary ones have become my favorite. I’m currently using up bars of the sandalwood soap that were stuffed in with my sweaters, and you’re right, they do smell even better with time! Now if only I could find some mulberry molasses to try… December 2, 2015 at 10:30am Reply

    • Victoria: And now I’m rummaging in my tea drawer to see if I can find any Yunnan tea. I’m sure if I discover that I don’t, I will be going to the tea store tomorrow. Thanks to a very generous reader, I now have osmanthus blossoms, and they would be perfect with Yunnan tea.

      I can just imagine you devising new dishes with mulberry molasses! December 2, 2015 at 11:51am Reply

      • Austenfan: Nong Cha’s Yunnan Dian Hong is very good!
        And I can see that Yunnan’s tobacco and honey will do well with osmanthus. December 2, 2015 at 12:16pm Reply

        • Victoria: I will have to try it. The last Yunnan tea I had was from Le Palais des Thes, and I liked its chestnut honey flavor. December 2, 2015 at 12:20pm Reply

          • Austenfan: My top favourite is Betjeman and Barton’s Yunnan Jin Meo ( not to be confuses with Jin Jun Mei), which almost tastes /smells like liquid Tobacco and hay to me. December 2, 2015 at 1:19pm Reply

            • Andy: Austenfan, you do know how much my mouth is watering at that description right now, no? 🙂 December 3, 2015 at 5:21am Reply

              • Austenfan: It is that good believe me! I haven’t any on hand at the moment but when I do I often just open the tin to get a whiff of it. December 3, 2015 at 5:28am Reply

            • Victoria: I tasted several Betjeman and Barton’s teas in NYC not long ago, and I agree that they are superb. December 3, 2015 at 10:32am Reply

          • Andy: Was it the one, I think it’s called Yunnan d’Or? I like that one a lot, but I haven’t found a singular “favorite” Yunnan tea yet–I love them all! December 3, 2015 at 5:19am Reply

            • Victoria: Yes, that’s the one. It has such a wonderful tobacco note. December 3, 2015 at 4:51pm Reply

      • Andy: Somewhat paradoxically, I’ve even found that if I mix the osmanthus with a more staid black tea (say, a darjeeling/ceylon blend I have on hand now), it makes the result taste like an impression of something that could be a Yunnan black tea, bringing out those facets of polished woods and honey. Quite magical! December 3, 2015 at 5:25am Reply

        • Austenfan: I can see that happening. I find that Ceylons in particular can be used as a blank canvas almost. My favourite at the moment is Vithanakande, which is quite delicate and a great morning tea. December 3, 2015 at 5:32am Reply

        • Victoria: Osmanthus acts the same way in perfume, but it also depends what you put with it. It amplifies peach and apricot notes, but if you use it alongside something dark and smoky, it gives an accord an added depth. December 3, 2015 at 4:52pm Reply

  • Lynley: These are my favourite shops too, although there are a few delightful things on your list that I havent seen here. (We finally- like, a month ago- got some Speculoos spread in this corner of the world. OMG. I can see I’ll regret ever reading about it here 😉 )
    On the weekend I bought some more rose petal jam, and found some orange blossom jam too that I had to get, as Ive not seen it before. I also get the saffron candy, date and pomegranate molasses (havent seen mulberry), pashmak (persian fairy floss) in orange blossom, rose, saffron..
    I also bought some Greek olive oil soap recently and discovered that it kind of melts if it gets too wet.. oops.. At my local Greek/Continental store I also get the frankincense resin incense and charcoal tabs. Ive never seen the Japanese one here, nor unfortunately green tea bath salts but thanks for bringing them to my attention! December 2, 2015 at 10:35am Reply

    • Victoria: Greek stores are fantastic for dried herbs too, because there are few things as heady as Greek oregano.

      Your shopping basket sounds like mine, and I’m already thinking that I need to get another package of orange blossom-flavored pashmak.

      Another item that goes with Japanese bath salts is a special rubbing towel. They are also sold at Korean stores very inexpensively. It looks like a piece of fine woven plastic, but nothing leaves skin softer. December 2, 2015 at 11:54am Reply

  • Portia: Hi Victoria,
    Next time you pass a Korean Grocery go in and ask for some Temple Incense. The Korean stuff is the nicest I’ve ever smelled, quite distinctive. Not sure what they add to make it so smooth, balmy and comforting but I think you’ll like it. We go through quite a lot of it around here, incense in general.
    Portia xx December 2, 2015 at 10:42am Reply

    • Victoria: I will definitely look for it! I’m usually glued to the banchan counter with different side dishes at my local store, but I need to explore more of its incense offerings. December 2, 2015 at 11:55am Reply

  • Lady Dedlock: If I ever move to Belgium, I’ll use your blog as a travel guide of sorts, since you like my kind of places: museums, markets, fields of flowers. 🙂
    Know of any hot spots in Amsterdam? December 2, 2015 at 10:49am Reply

    • Lady Dedlock: Sniffing Byredo rose of no man’s land on my wrist right now. Something is wrong with a) my wrist b) my nose c) my sample – I don’t smell anything. How is that possible? December 2, 2015 at 11:30am Reply

      • Lady Dedlock: Dear Victoria,
        Have you ever worn a melancholic fragrance? Not Gothic, melancholic, tragic? Now i ‘get’ Byredo. It is that.
        You described Majestic Rose perfectly: lush, flippant, just happy. It is a good frag, I guess. December 2, 2015 at 11:38am Reply

        • Victoria: Now can one resist trying a perfume described this way? I need to make it to the aforementioned Senteurs d’Ailleurs soon. 🙂 December 2, 2015 at 12:12pm Reply

      • Victoria: This rose has been on my to-try list. December 2, 2015 at 11:59am Reply

    • Victoria: This would make me very happy. 🙂

      As for Amsterdam, they have a couple of good Japanese stores, and also Manu and Khera stores stocking a selection of East Asian and South Asian products. Dun Yong is supposed to be good for the Vietnamese specialties. December 2, 2015 at 11:57am Reply

  • Elisa: The Japanese incense you sent me is the best incense ever! Far and away my favorite. December 2, 2015 at 11:05am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m so glad to hear it! I keep wanting to crush it and use it as perfume. But I do stuff a couple of sticks in between sweaters (in small muslin bags) to fragrance them this way. December 2, 2015 at 11:58am Reply

      • Katherine: Another great idea for scenting sweaters! Do you think it keeps away the moths? I keep fragrant soap and empty perfume/sample bottles in my drawers and closet in the hope it keeps the moths away. December 2, 2015 at 1:41pm Reply

        • katherine: OK (sheepishly) that’s not the only reason. I also keep the soaps and bottles there because the fragrance is nice. December 2, 2015 at 10:30pm Reply

          • Victoria: (sheepishly) I keep incense in my closet, because I ran out of space in my designated incense drawer. December 3, 2015 at 11:14am Reply

        • Victoria: I keep my sweaters in large ziplock bags, so this helps to keep moths away. What really works is cedarwood oil, although the usual cedarwood balls sold by the container stores aren’t enough. You need the actual oil to saturate the corners in the closet. Your clothes will smell of cedarwood, which may or may not be a good thing.

          My MIL swears by cloves. December 3, 2015 at 10:34am Reply

          • Katherine x: Moths at my house had a sweater feast this year! Will protect them (the sweaters that is) more vigorously this year and give Cloves/Cedar Oil a whirl. Thanks for the suggestions. February 9, 2016 at 10:36pm Reply

  • Annikky: This is such a perfect post, thank you. I need to get to FreshMed as soon as possible. For those ordering from UK, I also recommend http://www.souschef.co.uk – the selection is impressive and they deliver super fast to everywhere in Europe.

    And while it’s not as beautiful as your picks above, I’m addicted to the Korean seaweed snacks that I buy at the Asian supermarket here. December 2, 2015 at 11:32am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Annikky. I was trying to remember what this UK place was called, and I’m glad that you’ve commented. I haven’t ordered from them yet, but the selections looks very good.

      Totally agree about these Korean seaweed snacks! December 2, 2015 at 12:02pm Reply

    • Jillie: Thank you, Annikky, for the link – I have just placed an order with them for mulberry molasses and more!

      I also can not stop eating anything with seaweed in it …. have a theory that because I have an underactive thyroid my body craves this and the iodine in it – but maybe I just enjoy the taste. December 3, 2015 at 3:53am Reply

  • Karen (A): Turkish pepperoni, suçuk, is delicious – especially with eggs or on a thin crust pizza. And opening a jar of rose jam in the winter is a wonderful reminder of summer. Powdered sumac is a great seasoning on raw onion – plus it makes a good addition to marinades. And Turkish tea has a really unique flavor – worth buying a Turkish style tea pot, hot water on the bottom and concentrated tea in top part. December 2, 2015 at 11:59am Reply

    • Victoria: And the little pear shaped glasses to go with it. My husband’s favorite way to enjoy tea. 🙂

      I also loved the way tea was served in Iran, complete with the small samovar, pots for tea liquor decorated in the 19th style (ie, lots of roses and usually with a picture of a heavily mustachioed Qajari shah). As I discovered during my summer in Ukraine, samovar is a perfect implement for the insatiable tea drinkers like myself. 🙂 December 2, 2015 at 12:07pm Reply

      • Karen (A): The glasses are so perfect, aren’t they! And a samovar would be worth getting, if only for the romantic aspect of preparing tea in a gorgeous old samovar (preferably steeped in history as well as tea)!

        And ayran, suçuk, tomatoes and herbs sounds like a perfect lunch to me! (followed by some halawa and Turkush tea of course) December 2, 2015 at 5:23pm Reply

        • Victoria: In Iran halwa is eaten for breakfast with thin bread. Same as in India. The idea of sweets for breakfast is really appealing to me. 🙂 Not every day, perhaps. December 3, 2015 at 11:09am Reply

      • Marilyn in Kentucky: V. And Karen, too — I love samovars! And I love tea. We don’t have so many samovars in Kentucky, ha-ha, but I have enjoyed them in tea shops (alas, not for sale!) and in lovely pictures in museums. Once I Ordered a samovar catalogue, quite forgetting that it would be in Russian; I enjoyed it anyway! December 2, 2015 at 8:35pm Reply

        • Karen (A): How fun! Looking through a samovar catalog – even if in Russia sounds like a great way to spend a rainy afternoon. December 3, 2015 at 8:25am Reply

        • Victoria: 🙂 I did something even sillier–I bought a small samovar on Ebay without realizing that it’s made with lead and hence unsafe to use. Of course, the fact that it would require live coals also didn’t occur to me. December 3, 2015 at 11:13am Reply

    • Victoria: P.S. I love suçuk too. Sometimes I fry it lightly with tomatoes for a quick lunch. A plate of herbs and a glass of ayran, and it’s a perfect, filling meal. December 2, 2015 at 12:15pm Reply

  • Genevieve L Fawcett: What perfect timing for this post!! I live on the West Coast of British Columbia in Canada, and this time of the year is cold, wet and miserable. But one needen’t feel so blue when there are foods, soaps, incense and all kinds of treasures to discover!! I especially love chatting up shop owners and getting a sense of their lifestyles and customs. Instantly transported to a faraway place where no rain drops are falling and the sun bakes the earth. December 2, 2015 at 12:11pm Reply

    • Victoria: Same here. I like talking to the owners or other shoppers, because people’s stories, the stories of those who move from their native towns, are invariably interesting, and having done so myself, I can relate. Sometimes you do get a glimpse into something sad or tragic, of course. December 2, 2015 at 12:24pm Reply

  • spe: That Estonian black bread – how I love it so!

    And I definitely need that olive oil soap for sensitive skin. I’ll be looking for that soon.

    This was fun to read. Your descriptions are exquisite.

    What a diverse and fabulous world we have! December 2, 2015 at 12:25pm Reply

    • Victoria: I can’t agree more!

      Estonian black bread is my version of ambrosia. It tastes sweet without having any extra sugar added.

      The Aleppo soap is a unique product, it definitely is. Since discovering it, I don’t complain about dry, flaky skin after the shower (water here is very hard.) December 2, 2015 at 12:39pm Reply

  • Aurora: Thank you for taking us down the silk road with you, Victoria! When I visit the Turkish Store (I couldn’t live without it) if it’s lunchtime, I buy a flat bread slice with cooked spinash and roasted halloumi cheese: simple but delicious, I also particularly like the quince jam I find there. Your photos are beautiful and the kitten incense holder adorable, I remain faithful to the Autumn Leaves by Shoyeido I discovered thanks to you. And I’m making a note of the UK link, thank you very much Annikky. December 2, 2015 at 12:35pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for reminding me about quince jam. It’s the only type of jam my mom, who is not much into preserving, makes on regular basis. The perfume and flavor make the entire process worth it. But if one has a Turkish store nearby, then it’s even easier. Turkish brands are very good.

      Glad to hear that you enjoy the Autumn Leaves! I also think that it’s one of the most sophisticated and interesting incenses they carry. December 3, 2015 at 10:31am Reply

  • Sandra: Great article! Any places you recommend in NYC? December 2, 2015 at 1:59pm Reply

    • Victoria: Lucky you, Sandra, you have Kalustyan’s (28th and Lexington), where you can find pretty much every spice and much more. December 3, 2015 at 10:58am Reply

  • Maya: I live in NYC. A couple of years ago I took an Indian cooking class at the Natural Gourmet Institute. The chef teaching the class advised us to go to Kalustyan’s for herbs and spices. I purchased fresh curry leaves there and ever since then I fantasize about growing my own curry tree one day. The scent of the leaves would make a lovely perfume. This post inspires me to go there again. December 2, 2015 at 2:01pm Reply

    • Victoria: Whenever I stop by Kalustyan’s, I often see either chefs or perfumers there. The place is a gem. By the way, right now they have delicious Uzbek apricots which taste like candy.

      A curry tree is my dream too. My MIL tried to grow it, but it didn’t take in their cold climate, so I doubt that I will have much luck with it in Belgium, even indoors. December 3, 2015 at 10:59am Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: I live in BXL since 2010 and haven’t yet stumbled across this store. Tomorrow, after work, it the very first stop I’ll take! I am very excited!!
    Thank you so much for sharing this information, and thanks for an exceptional website. December 2, 2015 at 2:47pm Reply

    • Victoria: My pleasure! FreshMed opened last year, and if you go there on Saturday, you’re likely to run into me. 🙂 I sometimes go there even just to look around, because their selection changes all the time. Right now they have excellent saffron distillates from Iran. December 3, 2015 at 11:01am Reply

  • Hamamelis: Since your post on Persian and other cookery books I looked for dried Aleppo flaked red pepper. I don’t think it is available anymore, sadly for reasons we all know. I did find Pul Biber, the Turkish variety and I use it all the time. It adds a little kick and warmth to any dish, at the moment I can’t tolerate chilies but Pul Biber is almost a tonic (in teaspoon amounts). I bought it online, no exotic shops close by. December 2, 2015 at 3:36pm Reply

    • Karen (A): I think they are the same, just called different names. It’s called Aleppo pepper at one shop and Turkish at another, but are the same. December 2, 2015 at 5:26pm Reply

      • Victoria: I got “Aleppo pepper” at Kalustyan’s in NYC, but I really couldn’t tell it apart from their Turkish pepper flakes. December 3, 2015 at 11:10am Reply

    • Victoria: I agree with Karen that even in the best of times for Syria, the Aleppo pepper flakes were often just Turkish pepper with a more exotic name. The true Aleppo pepper is excellent, especially the dark, rich paste. We have a Syrian store, and while no pepper, I still find products from Aleppo there. Aleppo has traditionally been the center of Syrian artisans, and they continue working. Usually they transport their products to Lebanon and from there on to the rest of the world. But unfortunately, the situation in Aleppo right now is getting worse. December 3, 2015 at 11:05am Reply

  • Marilyn in Kentucky: FreshMed sounds fascinating! Your descriptions are so tantalizing, Victoria!
    In Houston, Texas there is a marvelous store called Phoenicia, which must be much as you describe. Fascinating, anyway, and absolutely huge! I’m sure there are many others here and there, but that is the one I have seen and enjoyed.
    On my imaginary trip to Brussels, after I go to the glove store you described, I am going to Fresh Med. Also, Victoria, I will hope you are in town so I can spend time with you, at least in my imagination! Thanks for another wonderful post! December 2, 2015 at 5:45pm Reply

    • Victoria: It would be a lot of fun! We could have a perfume tour of Brussels, followed by a chocolate tour and finish with a gourmet tour. 🙂 December 3, 2015 at 11:12am Reply

    • Jennifer C: I love Phoenicia! (I live in Houston). I don’t go super often because it’s not that close to where I live, but they have good stuff. Posts like these always make me want to make a trip to see if I can find the things I read about. I got some rose jam there after a different post (from Cyprus, and delicious). I’ve also seen a bunch of different hydrosols there that I’d never heard of, alongside the usual rose and orange blossom. I haven’t bought any, but I am curious what they’re used for.

      And for some reason it has never occurred to me to look for osmanthus at the Asian (primarily Chinese/Vietnamese) market I go to sometimes. I need to look next time I’m there. December 3, 2015 at 6:27pm Reply

      • Victoria: It’s usually sold in the same section as tea, but occasionally it will be stocked next to the Chinese medicinal herbs and dried fruit, because it’s also used in cooking. You can add flowers to pear compotes, for instance, and they taste very good. December 4, 2015 at 10:29am Reply

  • Jillie: Such a wonderful, glowing post – just right for bringing cheer to the grey, miserable weather we have in the UK right now. I want everything you mention, particularly mulberry molasses!

    Recently watched on BBC tv Rick Stein’s journey from Venice to Istanbul which, like your article, was full of sunshine, literal and metaphorical, and featured so many delicious dishes that I hope to cook.

    Ever since you recommended yuzukosho I find a way of incorporating it in our food each week – again, full of sunlight and zest (and I am addicted to it!).

    It’s so exciting to explore the tastes and fragrances of the rest of the world. December 3, 2015 at 2:29am Reply

    • Victoria: Jillie, I loved that show too, and I think that it was one of Rick Stein’s best. I even bought a book, because I wanted to cook everything he talked about. By the way, his recipe for rozata, Croatian rose scented flan is wonderful.

      Glad to hear that you enjoy yuzukosho as much as I do! Yes, it’s a miracle condiment. December 3, 2015 at 4:50pm Reply

  • Glen: Thank you for re-igniting my delight in all these sorts of things, I’ve gotten lazy of late. I have reread this post several times just for the enjoyment and inspiration of it. I am fortunate to live in Vancouver, Canada which is RICH in all stores Eastern and Mid-Eastern; they’ll all be seeing me soon 🙂 December 3, 2015 at 8:53am Reply

    • Victoria: Glad that you liked it! In Vancouver you definitely have lots of options, and when it comes to Chinese food, you probably get the best offerings outside of China. December 3, 2015 at 4:58pm Reply

  • Teresa: This supermarket sounds right up my aisle! ;p
    I miss the small organic supermarket which was near where I used to stay in the Netherlands. In Singapore small independent shops like this are dying out from the competition of the big chain shops.

    And that’s such a cute cat incense holder! December 3, 2015 at 11:03am Reply

    • Victoria: Here in Brussels some neighborhoods work hard to keep small businesses from being swallowed by large stores, and it’s a good initiative.

      I couldn’t resist this cat incense holder! December 3, 2015 at 5:05pm Reply

  • Austenfan: I loved this post, as I love browsing around foodshops in any shape or form. What it reminded me of most is the fact that in a way it’s still hunting-gathering behaviour, only in a different context.

    And I want that olive rose soap! December 3, 2015 at 11:31am Reply

    • SilverMoon: Austenfan, your hunting-gathering behaviour comment is spot on and made me smile. And I want that olive rose soap too.

      Enjoyed the post and people’s comments too. December 3, 2015 at 2:17pm Reply

      • Victoria: Thank you! The comments were so much fun to read. December 3, 2015 at 5:08pm Reply

    • Victoria: Makes sense, although since I’m looking around these shops more to satisfy my curiosity, rather than my hunger. Not sure how looking for the right kind of olive soap or incense fits into the hunting-gathering paradigm. 🙂 December 3, 2015 at 5:08pm Reply

  • katherine: We have a lot of Korean stores in Northern Virginia and the one I frequent is huge, not very charming, but likely authentic. There’s an amazing selection of what seems like everything! I counted ~35 varieties of miso paste. And the variety of seafood – fresh, frozen and dried – I’ve never seen anything like it! The store is crowded, but weekends are the best for tastings and demos, when they boil, grill and fry all kinds of foods. A new favorite discovery was a delicately sweet purple-skinned white potato that I’ve since used in soups and stews. Can’t recall the name. So much left to discover in the grocery section but after this discussion I’ll definitely check out the “dry goods” section next. December 3, 2015 at 10:55pm Reply

    • Victoria: FreshMed isn’t charming either, so I can just imagine what kind of a store you’re talking about. 🙂
      I’ll have to check if we have these kind of sweet potatoes here. I found another variety, white flesh and beige skin, that tastes so much like chestnuts. December 4, 2015 at 10:32am Reply

  • Neyon: Thank you for sharing this – it was such a delight to read! I am fascinated by those exquisite, golden saffron candies, and the green tea bath salts sound like a dream!
    Because of our culture we’ve always had a lot of molasses – normally date molasses (divine!) – but I’ve yet to try mulberry!
    As I love anything rose-flavoured, I now must hunt for rose jam… December 4, 2015 at 3:32am Reply

    • Victoria: What do you use date molasses for?

      It was fun to share my favorites and to learn what everyone else buys at such markets. December 4, 2015 at 10:34am Reply

      • Neyon: Date molasses is I think supremely sweet and precious-tasting, we call it ghur and eat it with two types of bread known as roti and paratha in Bengali.
        I’m actually going to Bangladesh this Sunday and quite excited about the various foods! December 4, 2015 at 11:48am Reply

        • Victoria: Date molasses with bread sounds so good. I need to try this combination with freshly made chapati.

          Enjoy your trip to Bangladesh! I’d love to hear what delicious and perfumed things you’ll discover there. December 4, 2015 at 3:31pm Reply

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