But boy, how times have changed. We were reminded recently of the culinary distance we've traveled when we decided to cook up some puerco pibil, a spicy Yucatan-style dish of barbecued pork: With former exotica such as habañeros and sea salt available in virtually every suburban grocery store, and the more out-of-the-ordinary stuff -- banana leaves and annatto seeds, in this instance -- easy to score with a quick trip to Mi Pueblo's well-stocked Super Mercado (12207 Lorain Avenue, 216-671-6661) -- we were ready to rumble in no time.
Like us, Cleveland's adventurous cooks and diners are discovering a whole world of useful ingredients in the hundreds of ethnic markets that bring the world's pantries right to our stovetops, offering a full range of foodstuffs that were previously found only in our hungry daydreams.
We spent several days exploring a handful of these shops; here are some of the highlights. (Please note: Because many of these markets are small, family-run operations, hours can vary considerably; calling ahead is strongly recommended.)
Got a notion to whip up some goat curry or grill a batch of shish kebabs? Then shopkeeper Ali Lotfi is your go-to guy. Since 1984, he's operated a spacious, friendly Middle Eastern grocery store and meat market on Cleveland's West Side; today, he is one of the leading suppliers of halal meats (from animals raised and slaughtered in accordance with Islamic teachings) to the region's Indian and Middle Eastern restaurants.
Besides whole goats and lambs, Lotfi also stocks an impressive assortment of dry ingredients, including couscous, basmati rice, and falafel mix. The vast selection of spices includes sumac, za'atar, and kibbeh seasonings; and among the abundance of nuts and seeds, shoppers will find raw cashews, toasted hazelnuts, and almonds just about any way imaginable. The store also has a well-stocked cooler, with yogurt cheeses, fruit drinks, and bottled ayran, a refreshing yogurt drink with a taste that falls somewhere between salty Indian lassi and midwestern buttermilk.
9418 Detroit Avenue, 216-281-1900. Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday.
Calling this little two-aisle grocery store a "plaza" may be stretching it, but we have to admit that the place offers a broad enough variety of products -- snacks, frozen foods, and fresh produce among them -- to stock a store twice its size.
Packaged munchies are a specialty here, and we couldn't resist stocking up on crunchy plantain chips; sweet, peanut-brittle-like "groundnut" balls; delicate cardamom-scented cookies; and toasted chana nuts (chickpeas and peanuts, tossed in an addictive blend of hot and salty spices).
The selection of fresh produce is small but colorful, and includes such commonplace items as eggplant, mangos, and okra, as well as less usual ingredients, such as prickly bitter-lemon and gnarly cassava tubers.
On the shelves, instant kheer and gulab jamun mixes fight for space with 10-pound sacks of split yellow lentils, red kidney beans, and black-eyed peas; and jars of European-formula Ovaltine and Horlick's Malted Food Drink cozy up to bottles of lemon oil and rosewater. Our favorite stop, though, is the frozen foods section, with its heat-and-eat curries and ready-to-use dough for making fresh, hot breads. In particular, the frozen paratha (a delicate, multilayered flatbread) is well on its way to becoming our carb of choice: Slapped on a griddle with a bit of butter, the dough puffs up to an airy, golden brown and tastes almost as good as the bread at our favorite Indian restaurant.
5850 Mayfield Road, Mayfield Heights, 440-460-4601. Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
Tink Hall Food Market
Surely one of the largest Asian grocery stores in the state, Tink Hall offers an almost bewildering array of Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese foods and ingredients, ranging from frozen sliced pork stomach in soy sauce to fresh durian, mangos, and persimmons.
An entire aisle is devoted to dried noodles of every description -- ivory-colored somen, for instance, as well curly rice sticks and golden nests of shrimp-flavored vermicelli. Fresh lemongrass and bok choy sprout from coolers, and the freezers are stocked with azuki ice cream, mochi, and taro buns.
Fearsome live eels leer at passersby from inside their tanks. Spring-roll wrappers are stacked up to the ceiling. And labels on bags of heart-shaped "muscat gummy" candy, imported from Japan, are cryptic, yet strangely poetic, with the promise that the candy's "translucent color so alluring and taste and aroma so gentle and mellow offer admiring feelings of a graceful lady."
The store also sells chopsticks, rice steamers, stir-fry tools, and an assortment of lovely blue-and-white porcelain bowls. As for the wondrous ambiance, that comes free with every purchase.
2999 Payne Avenue (in Asian Plaza), 216-696-1717. Hours: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
Calabash African Market
Owner Sabina Smith and her niece, Stella Blankson, operate this tidy little market in Cleveland Heights, and the two Ghana natives have stocked the store like a West African pantry. Palm oil, farina, pounded yam flour, and rice flour fill the shelves; a home-style chest freezer holds goat meat, oxtails, cows' feet, and herring; and stone mortars and pestles line a rear cabinet.
African melodies play softly in the background, but that's not the only music to be found here. The names of ingredients like fufu (plantain flour), egusi (dried melon seeds), and ukazi (dried greens) roll off Blankson's tongue like honey off a hot spoon, and she requires only the slightest encouragement to launch into mellifluous, folkloric descriptions of both their culinary and medicinal values.
1918 S. Taylor Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-371-6641. Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 2 to 6 p.m. Sunday.
Old Country Smokehouse
The slam of the screen door announces you, and the worn wooden floor creaks a greeting as you step into this sweet-smelling, old-timey country store, improbably located on the edge of Cleveland's Chinatown. Owner Gloria Carruthers is the second generation of her family to operate the business, which specializes in smoked meats -- including sausages, three types of bacon, and country hams (including Virginia's famous Smithfield version) -- all shipped up from the South, as well as Southern-cooking staples like pecans, pork neckbones, White Lily Flour, and stone-ground cornmeal.
4401 Payne Avenue, 216-361-0276. Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
The Sausage Shoppe
Okay, so wieners, bratwurst, and kielbasa aren't as exotic as, say, concentrated palm-nut cream; still, really good, really fresh ones aren't found on every street corner. That's where award-winning sausage-meister Norm Heinle's little shop comes into play, with homemade products that are low in salt, fat, and cholesterol, and made without nitrates, MSG, fillers, additives, or preservatives.
During grilling season especially, we find ourselves craving Heinle's thin German franks, a blend of pork and beef, available in plain or garlic flavors. Unlike mass-produced doggies, these wieners have an understated, old-fashioned "snap," from natural casings, and a taste that is mild, pure, and far more like meat than chemicals. Other grill faves include fresh pork sausage, knockwurst, and more than 20 varieties of bratwurst, available from April to September.
An interminable construction project along Memphis Avenue has made access to the shop a little tricky; the website, www.sausageshoppe.com, gives up-to-date construction info and directions.
4501 Memphis Avenue, 216-351-5213. Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.
Athens Pastries and Imported Foods
Neat, airy, and well-lit, this Greek market is full of good things to eat, ranging from imported olives, feta cheese, and grape leaves to cooked, sliced, and frozen gyro meat, plump loaves of pita, and whole baby octopuses.
Pastry options (some from the in-house bakery) include semolina cakes, honey-dipped fenekia, and buttery kourabiedes crescents. Oversized baklava rolls, dripping with syrup and spiked with whole cloves, are irresistibly crisp yet chewy, while the deep-fried diples are a nutty, crunchy treat.
The store also carries a notable selection of imported beer, including Boom and Pilsner Urquell (Czech), Curim Gold (Irish), and Red Stripe (Jamaican). Wines, too, are out of the ordinary; among them, there's Hungarian Tokaji, Greek retsina, and our Halloween-party wine of choice (for the bottle's way-cool label, at least, if not necessarily for the contents), Vampire Cabernet Sauvignon, imported from Transylvania.
2545 Lorain Avenue, 216-861-8149. Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Gallucci's Italian Food
Italian cuisine has gone upscale, and Gallucci's landmark Italian market has gone right along with it. As a result, this large, modern, and seductively aromatic store is a gourmet chef's paradise, with virtually any ingredient you can imagine for Mediterranean dishes both rustic and refined.
Imported French and Italian cheeses and vacuum-packaged duck confit, for instance, rub figurative elbows with frozen smelt and 169-ounce cans of extra virgin olive oil. Avuncular deli-counter staffers slice high-quality Italian cold cuts -- capicola, sopressata, mortadella, and prosciutto -- to order. At the bakery, shoppers can pick up a loaf of warm Italian bread and a pound of biscotti, while cube farmers on lunch break rush to snare a slab of pizza or a thick panini from the "hot-foods to go" counter at the rear of the store.
The selection of DeCecco Imported Pasta (the choice of many Italian-restaurant chefs) is particularly noteworthy, with a vast variety of rarely seen shapes and sizes, in regular, spinach, and whole-wheat varieties. To top 'em, you'll find jar after jar of imported Italian sauces on the shelves; in the freezer, don't miss the legendary hometown favorite -- "brown sauce," from downtown's former New York Spaghetti House.
6610 Euclid Avenue, 216-881-0045. Hours: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.
As for our puerco pibil, it came out great: tender, succulent, and with dark, dusky flavors that spoke of its Mayan roots. "It's like a little taste of the Yucatan," said my kitchen helper enthusiastically. "Next week, let's make menudo!"