Originally published in the November 2015 issue of Dispatch Magazine
If you mention the Greater Portland area to most members of the “foodie” cult, they’re going to prattle incessantly over how there are so many “world-class restaurants” while fawning all over “celebrated, award-winning chefs” who have turned the city into a mirror image of our exponentially larger west coast cousin.
Yet mention the immense assortment of international markets that are essentially any home cook’s wet dream, and you’ll find that an alarming amount of these people are more comfortable in the corresponding aisle at Whole Foods.
If this sounds familiar, it doesn’t necessarily make you an asshole, but it is important to know what you’re missing.
Granted, for many people the convenience of one-stop shopping makes it worth paying exponentially more. I can’t argue with the value of someone’s time. However, to myself and many other cooks, it’s far more enjoyable to drink way too much coffee and spend the morning bouncing from market to market, accumulating components for the evening feast.
Today, there are so many places to purchase quality ingredients that were previously available only by mail or a trip to Boston. Here’s an (abbreviated) guide to the highlights at what I consider to be the standout markets.
798 Main St. #1 | South Portland | 207-699-5555
Burrowed in a random strip mall in South Portland is a plentiful bazaar of Indian staples, useful whether you seek to prepare the rich moghul kormas of the north or the renowned crepe of the south, dosa.
I can’t imagine anything nobler than cobbling together a properly stocked spice rack, and the haunting, intoxicating aromas at Masala Mahal signify that you are in the right place to do so — at a much more reasonable price. Though it’s not that hard to make your own ghee or ginger/garlic paste, buying them pre-made keeps a steady supply in your fridge with minimal effort, and you’re always prepared. There is no substitute for high-quality aged Basmati rice, so splurge on a fat sack that will probably last you forever in the home kitchen.
Specialized items like mango leaves, karela (bitter gourd), lotus root, and curry leaves are always available alongside basic produce. Plus, this is unquestionably the best place to purchase paneer cheese.
Snacks & Sweets:
As a reward for making the journey all the way to South Portland, a bag of Lay’s Magic Masala potato chips is definitely in line for the ride home. Seriously, though, they rule.
Classic Indian teas, some flavored with spices.
Sun Oriental Market
626 Congress St. | Portland | 207-772-8675
Though all of the city’s Asian markets tend to offer a little bit of everything, most have an area of specialization, and at Sun it is definitely the foods of Japan and Korea. For me, this was the source of two important milestones: purchasing my first wok (no better cooking vessel in the world), and the pure joy that is kewpie mayo.
Not only do they have superlative pre-made kimchi, but they offer the requisite components to create your own at home. The amply-stocked shelves feature shoyu, tamari, dried mushrooms, kombu, sushi rice, and togarashi peppers, to name a few, while in the refrigerator you will find a thorough assortment of miso and jars of salty pickled umeboshi plums.
Produce covers the essentials — scallions, ginger, garlic, cabbage — not to mention a fine collection of pristine frozen fish.
Snacks & Sweets
Japanese rice crackers, especially with wasabi peas tossed into the mix, are like a drug, and Sun is my dealer of choice. In the freezer you will find very good pre-made dumplings, easy for late-night sustenance.
The shelves are dominated by Japanese tea, with emphasis on green, white, and genmaicha.
863 Congress St. | Portland | 207-761-6661
After changing hands from the original proprietors a couple years ago, the selection at Bodega Latina is better stocked and organized than ever. A full wall of Goya candles makes it a snap to transform your one-bedroom apartment into a fully functioning place of worship.
The whole line of Goya products is represented, as well as a full range of hot sauces from Tapatio, El Yucateca, and Valentina to name a few. Dried chilies, spices, large bags of masa harina, and even canned Jamaican staples like ackees are here as well.
Specialty produce includes yucca, chayote, and plantains. They are well-equipped with fresh and aged cheeses, high-quality corn tortillas and gorditas, and Mexican-syle chorizo, not to mention crema from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatamala, and Honduras (which, to be honest, all taste identical in that they are insanely delicious and made from a blend of heavy cream, sour cream, and cream cheese).
695 Forest Ave. | Portland | 207-874-8001
Of all markets mentioned here, Veranda is definitely closest to the archetypal supermarket. In addition to grocery staples they also have prepared foods to go, such as Chinese-style roast pork and duck, as well as a very good Banh Mi. Plus they’ve got booze.
The shelves are lined with indispensable pantry stalwarts like fish sauce (they have the Red Boat brand from Vietnam, which is absolutely wonderful), rice vinegar, sambal, coconut milk, MSG, and curry pastes. They also boast a very large array of noodles and rice, as well as pre-made mixes for bulgogi, tom yum, etc.
This is where Veranda Market truly shines — though not all of their produce is labeled in English, you can find almost anything if you know what you’re looking for. A generous selection of potato leaves, green and purple perilla, long beans, bitter melon, malanga root, rambutan fruit, and Chinese celery are just a fraction of the offerings. The meat department is the best place in town to find the freshest offal, and they have both fresh fish and frozen seafood such as abalone and octopus. There is even instant jellyfish in two different flavors!
Snacks & Sweets:
Festive, brightly colored bags of candy and fancifully labeled tins of cookies abound. The best approach is to fill a shopping cart with all of them and let me know what you discover (if you manage to avoid slipping into a diabetic coma).
Though the emphasis is certainly on tea, many people will be delighted to find out that they have Café du Monde coffee.
Hong Kong Market
945 Congress St. | Portland | 207-772-8688
The Chinese larder is very well represented at the deceptively sprawling Hong Kong Market. I remember personally finding out about it by watching the bartender at the old Dogfish Café scream at, and be completely ignored by, a group of Chinese customers who were illegally using the restaurant’s parking lot while shopping at the market. I swear I’ve been a hundred times and notice something new every single visit.
Definitely the best source for cooking staples like Shaoxing Wine, Chinkiang vinegar, oyster sauce, fermented bean paste, and soy sauce, as well as canned pickled vegetables. If you’re using a lot of peanut oil, definitely buy it here at a fraction of the supermarket cost. There are dried mushrooms, herbs, and spices galore, and a special section at the counter for those with medicinal qualities.
Decent produce, though not as well-stocked as Veranda Market. They do feature a very generous selection of Chinese sausage, and are the only source I’ve found north of Boston for black chickens (frozen).
Elaborately packaged Chinese teas like Pu-Her and Oolong are inexpensive and in abundance.
Makkah Halal Market
34 Vannah Ave. | Portland
Big tubs of ghee, freezers full of lamb, chicken, goat, and beef, and flatbread from the local Iraqi bakery make it worth revisiting a spot that has seen many incarnations over the past six years.
Classic spices like Za’atar, sumac, hibiscus, and Jordanian green thyme line the shelves, along with loosely bagged dried chickpeas, high-quality Beirut tahini paste, pitted pressed dates, preserved olives, and Iraqi date syrup.
In the refrigerator you can find an array of dairy products including Bulgarian sheep’s milk cheese and several styles of kefir.
Alghazaleen Ceylon and Cardamom teas should get you where you want to be. If not, grab a large can of KHAOS Monster Energy Juice.
Medeo European Food & Deli
529 Main St. | Westbrook | 207-854-4020
A substantial assortment of Eastern European essentials on Main Street in Westbrook will have you throwing down like a Russian tsar in no time at all. Now you finally have an excuse to break out that Faberge Egg for the tablescape at your next dinner party.
Dried cèpes, rose hip jam, and an impressive assortment of high-quality canned fish compliment a full range of jarred condiments. There are also several varieties of honey, including whole Turkish honeycomb.
In the dairy department, there are luscious European butters, high-fat sour creams, and an impressive selection of cheeses from Greece, Lebanon, and Bulgaria. The meat case reveals everything from smoked bacon and sausage to head cheese, and the seafood offerings are heavy on both caviar and herring.
Snacks & Sweets
A huge collection of chocolates and wafer cookies, like Napolitanke, compliment a massive assortment of bulk candy available by the pound. The freezer section reveals blintzes, pierogies, and Russian ravioli.
Emphasis is on both Russian tea and strong Turkish coffee.