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Intersections: The joys of ethnic grocery shopping

June 13, 2013

There is perhaps no activity I love more than spending time in an ethnic grocery store.

I would take going to one of these spectacular spaces filled to the brim with products and characters you won't find anywhere else on a Friday night over doing something perhaps a bit more normal like seeing a movie or having dinner.

This wasn't always the case. I used to hate them with a vengeance when I was younger, cringing every time my mother would insist on going to them during her weekly grocery shopping and bringing me along.

For her, it was not a luxury. It was a necessity, where saffron, bags of fresh herbs and other flavors she cooked with unforgivingly attacked and invaded my nostrils on a Saturday morning.

I hated those smells back then and still do today. When I do catch a whiff, I am reminded of those markets with open, jumbled boxes of more varieties of nuts than you can dream of, food labeled in languages I didn't understand and a deli that to my horror, carried parts of animals I never thought one could actually eat.

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With a cart in her hand, my mother would navigate the confusing aisles filled with jars of rose water and pomegranate molasses like she was in the Tour de France of grocery shopping. Following her was a futile effort and so I often found myself among boxes of exotic nougats and crystalized sugar used for stomach aches, dreading my life until we could finally retreat.

“Do we really, really have to go here?” I would complain.

As the car inched toward the store, my protests would get increasingly louder and more annoying. On rare occasions, I was successful in being such an overwhelming distraction that she would drop me off at home before heading there.

Much has changed since then. I find myself craving trips to these markets, looking forward to the chaotic aisles, the often misinterpreted stares, the wall full of cheap calling cards to some faraway place or another, the grandmothers I see poking ground meat through plastic just to make sure it's tender enough, the “evil-eye pendant” vibrating to the sounds of a Cher concert you want to resist bopping your head to, but can't.

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