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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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