Immigrants enrich every square inch of Chicago's food culture—including my grimy little kitchen. Though I'm a garden-variety mixed honky from Texas, my favorite recipes are all Indian and Thai. I live in Edgewater, a short hop from two of the city's densest concentrations of international groceries: the Indo-Pak strip along Devon and the cluster of Southeast Asian shops around Argyle. I learned to feed myself in college from the Hare Krishnas who catered for the student vegetarian club, and a couple years ago I started working my way through the lovingly researched cookbooks of part-time Chicagoan Leela Punyaratabandhu.
To do justice to any but the simplest recipes, I've had to seek out specialized markets. And in the 21 years I've lived here, they've become my most reliable food-related happy places. I love the powerful perfume of fresh-cut jackfruit, and even better are the brain-tickling sulfidic smells of durian and asafetida. When I want makrut lime leaves, galangal, black cardamom, or dried shrimp, I know where to go. I get a kick out of buying vegetables I have no clue how to prepare—the tiny cucumber-shaped squash called tindora turn out to retain their snap even when simmered for half an hour in sambar.
Of course, people who aren't already familiar with southern and Southeast Asian foods may not care to explore them. But even those folks have good reasons to shop on Argyle and Devon: many things you can buy at mainstream supermarkets are vastly cheaper at smaller specialty stores. I spent a June afternoon biking around my end of town to compare prices, starting at Whole Foods (6009 N. Broadway) and Jewel-Osco (5343 N. Broadway) to establish a baseline. Maybe you want fresh mint to make a shitload of mojitos, not for lap kai or bun mam; either way, at Whole Foods it's $3.99 per ounce, and at Jewel it's $3.47 per ounce. But at Hoa Nam (1101 W. Argyle) mint costs 41 cents per ounce, and at Tai Nam (4925 N. Broadway) it's 44 cents. Fresh ginger is $2.99 per pound at Whole Foods, $1.29 at Jewel (for relatively wizened rhizomes), and 69 cents at Patel Brothers (2610 W. Devon), which has the healthiest-looking stock of the three.
Basmati rice is $2.99 per pound at Whole Foods and 90 cents to $1.50 per pound at Fresh Farms (2626 W. Devon). Pork belly is $7.99 per pound at Whole Foods, largely because the store promises the animals were humanely raised—and while Viet Hoa (1051 W. Argyle) offers no such reassurances, for $2.39 per pound you can have your belly with ribs and skin still attached, perfect for the sour Filipino soup sinigang na baboy. The shops on Argyle sell whole shrimp with their heads on for six to eight bucks a pound—meanwhile, you'll pay two or three times that for the more thoroughly processed creatures at Whole Foods or Jewel.
You may not think you have time to visit more than one store per grocery run, but Argyle and Devon both have several markets within walking distance—and if you'll permit yourself a detour, you can grab a coconut bun at Chiu Quon Bakery (1127 W. Argyle) or a motichoor ladoo at Sukhadia's Sweets and Snacks (2559 W. Devon). You already pay a premium to live in a city as large and diverse as Chicago. You might as well get your money's worth. v
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