Intersections: The joys of ethnic grocery shopping

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.

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.

Luckily, given the area's rich abundance of diversity, I don't have to travel very far when I get the urge to be thrown in a beautiful, chaotic space with so much flavor and personality brimming through it — whether it's lunch at India Sweets and Spices, finding banana sauce at a Filipino grocer, celebrating a friend's birthday with the most delicious cake I've ever had the pleasure of eating from Vallarta Supermarket or buying a fresh-baked bundle of Sangak, a flat Persian bread that is irresistible in the morning (or any time of day for that matter) from Central Grand Market.

It's not just the markets I am intrigued by, but their owners, too. I often think about what stories lie behind these stores — what circumstance, what challenges, what delightful eccentric history their lives must have. I have yet to muster up the courage to speak to any of them, though.

This week, I found myself at a Korean market for no particular reason other than the fact that I drove past it one night and its signage, glowing beautifully in Korean script, beckoned me to stop.

Inside, among carts of plump purple figs, dried shitake mushrooms, bags of cooked anchovy and lychee candy, I felt a sense of excitement. The floor didn't glow like a 'regular' supermarket, the disorganized bags of every kind of barley were close to falling off the shelves.

There were plungers next to boxes of green and chrysanthemum tea, and a distinct smell wafting throughout the store.

No complaints this time, just a silent regret about chasing my mother out of the market before she had a chance to grab a strange-looking jar of smelly pickles that accompany most of my meals.

LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at

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