With the cultural diversity of Los Angeles showcased through both its general population and its pop-up ethnic neighborhoods, it’s no surprise that Angelino chefs offer almost every style of cuisine, from local Californian, to distant international, using some of the most authentic recipes in the process. Although any culinary craving, no matter how specific—Russian borsch? Ethiopian injera? Brazilian cheese balls?—could be satisfied by traveling to one of the corresponding districts, genuine exotic food doesn’t have to require so much effort, even if you do typically find your pantry a long way from a well-stocked global market.
Don’t worry. With the right shopping and menu planning, creating authentic foreign cuisine on your own doesn’t have to be limited by heritage. Just follow the old Hollywood saying: “location, location, location!” Or perhaps, in the industry of the Silver Palate, instead of the silver screen: ingredients, ingredients, ingredients.
Average grocery stores including Ralph’s, Whole Foods, and Superior tend to have decent international sections or tailor some of their stock to the people of the neighborhoods in which they are located; however, at times these items are more like gimmicks or overpriced imports rather than the real deal. For better tasting dinner parties and more “street cred” with your friends, try gathering your ingredients from one of these more specialized sources.
Mexican: Pass by the smoothie and taco vendors in the Grand Central Market downtown and find little kiosks selling hand-packed bags of spices essential to genuine Mexican cooking. In my experience, the sellers might not speak much English, but they let you explore any scents or textures of the flavors before you decide. A must stop for moles (try mixing your own or using one of their prepared spice mixes) and enchilada seasonings (for sauces and sprinkling over the top). As these flavors are especially strong, the deals are incredible—a handful of spice that could last for over a month for roughly a dollar.
French/Italian: While The Grove’s restaurants may seem more touristy and tacky (high prices, mediocre authenticity) than accurate representations of international cuisine, if you know where to look—say, in the far back corner of the Farmer’s Market at Monsieur Marcel’s—your taste buds may be pleasantly surprised. Sure, you can find plenty of Orangina and Cote D’or chocolate in regular stores now, but this little hideaway boasts a fresh French cheese section, an African tagine spice rack, and rows of eclectic pastas and sauces (goat cheese truffle oil, anyone?) surrounded by little European goodies like filled chocolates and Italian sodas. Splurge on these savory ingredients and turn your kitchen into the perfect little café—just avoid buying regular groceries here, as the prices can be exorbitant.
Bonus at The Grove: The aisles at the back of the cost plus World Market (located on 3rd street across from The Grove’s entrance to the Farmer’s Market) stock different candies, cookies, wines, and sauces from different continents. Easily organized by country, the store allows you to collect a few different things for a quick, relatively authentic meal. I recommend the precooked pumpkin gnocchi for Tuscany night or some Galaxy button chocolates for a Britain-inspired dessert.
Indian: Attached to Mana’s Indian Cuisine near USC and operated by the restaurant, a specialty store provides access to many different kinds of lentils, coconut milks, spice packets, and flours essential to Indian cooking. It may only contain a few aisles, but the ingredients selection definitely beats that within the Ralph’s a couple of blocks away. The store also carries starter sauces for curries and some frozen or microwavable meals if you’re in a pinch, but keep in mind those probably wouldn’t be any better than options you could find at a regular grocer. (Note: The store doesn’t really have a street entrance; you must enter through the restaurant. Brilliant business in my opinion, as you’re often tempted to order takeout and fake an authentic home cooked meal once you smell the kitchen…).
Japanese: At a few different locations across southern California (the closest to LA being in Santa Monica), Mitsuwa claims itself to be the largest Japanese supermarket in the states, carrying both edible items and household necessities. Many of the items—especially the condiments and packaged options—are labeled in Japanese, so you may have to know what container you want if you don’t already know the language. Nevertheless, the authentic chili pastes, seasoned soy sauces, and miso soups are worth the potential translational issues.
Chinese: Catering mostly to Chinese clientele, 99 Ranch Market may technically be a chain by definition, but its products have a distinctly and genuinely Chinese emphasis. Scattered amongst the ingredient basics are items including shinko pears, oyster mushrooms, pork stomach, and belt fish, as well as numerous Asian-flavored chips and crackers for snacks or sides. Even its story of origin confirms its authenticity to the Chinese culture—in 1984, the first store of the chain opened as a way to bring hometown flavors to the growing population of Asian immigrants in LA.
Alcohol: As with many adult dinner parties, guests expect an alcohol accompaniment to their entrees and desserts. Instead of reaching for the traditional lager or chardonnay, try stopping at your local BevMo to find the perfect wine, beer, spirit, or pre-prepared cocktail from the country inspiring your gourmet endeavors (inventory is often organized by country, in case you need assistance determining that pairing). Pressed for time and need to keep simmering the well-crafted mole or batch of dumplings? Order online and have the order ready in an hour for pick up at the store.