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Chicago's Ethnic Grocery Stores

by Evelyn Thompson

 All photo credits and copyright:  Dan S. Tong

What is the next best thing to visiting markets in foreign countries? A tour of Chicago's ethnic grocery stores. We have grocery stores for African, Caribbean, Vietnamese, Thai, Greek, Mexican, Latin American, Indian, Italian, Middle Eastern, Korean, Russian, European (and more) products. Chicago is a city of ethnic neighborhoods and the people place great emphasis on maintaining the food patterns of their culture of origin.

Because of demand, global manufacturers of foods stuffs are responding with a resounding "YES." In the past five years, the number of old and new products has proliferated at a dizzying rate. For example, you only used to see Jamaican jerk sauces offered in culinary magazines as "send away for" items, now the shelves in the Jamaican markets are stocked end to end with varieties that keep you reading the ingredients for hours. Even the new labeling of ethnic food products is in itself a worth a tour. This burgeoning is seen across the board with every culture.

When you visit Chicago, how can you access these markets? I lead tours to these grocery stores. Most people like to take a tour that exposes them to a mix of ethnicities -- from Jamaican to Cuban to S. E. Asian to Russian to Middle Eastern. In Chicago, this is easy to do because the market places tend to be fairly close to each other. On my tours we also do a lot of munching of snack foods that overflow the counters. We try to sample something from each country, be it a pastry, a savory, a sweet or an interesting drink. My tours are great for stocking up on hard to find ingredients or for buying unusual food gifts.

Tours are scheduled at your convenience and I provide transportation and plenty of napkins. A maximum of four guests is preferred because as we go through the stores we are discussing the ingredients and produce, cooking procedures and the history of the food cultures. I charge 1-2 person $75, 3 for $95, 4 people for $120, optional hotel pickup & delivery is $35 additional. I am delighted to work with larger groups please contact me to discuss arrangements and pricing.

A tour will usually run 3 1/2 to 4 hours. Contact: Ethnic Grocery Food Tours (Grocery and street Food), (773) 465-8064 or evelyn@ethnic-grocery-tours.com

Chicago is often referred to as the city of neighborhoods, and along with our neighborhoods come the grocery stores, bakeries, delis and markets that nurture and nourish the many ethnic food cultures we have. How fortunate for us that food preferences are one of the ways families keep their home ties alive. In recent years, the availability of basics for almost every ethnic group have become accessible in bounteous array. Labels and packaging are becoming bright and modern. Exotic produce is being grown for export to the states and the number of companies supplying grocery products has expanded rapidly. The market for ethnic ingredients is exploding and offering to all of us an invitation into many food stores of the world.

Practically next door to each other are two of my favorite ethnic emporiums at the eastern end of one of the most international streets in Chicago -- Devon Ave.

La Unica is a Cuban grocery and cafeteria. About 25 years ago, Antonio and his brothers started this homey combination of grocery and restaurant that has served as a mother's dining room in a cold climate. This small, neatly packed store offers back home ingredients for the Cuban palate and great numbers of ingredients from other Latin American countries. Antonio then sold the business and the new owners have introduced more Central and South American products and offer more of a Mexican touch too.

For the Cuban cook, the shelves hold the key to keeping their culinary history alive. One entire shelf offers many varieties of canned seafoods in different sauces -- brine, tomato, olive, garlic. The varieties range from common tuna to sardines to octopus to clams to sprats. Look above the seafood shelf and your eyes wander over rectangular slabs of fruit pastes (guava, mango, papaya, combinations of cajete and fruit paste), and bottled jams. I particularly enjoy the smooth, soft and subtle mango jam, however you can choose from peach, plum, guava, mango, Seville orange marmalade, vanilla, pineapple, pear and quince, which are labeled very invitingly. Our senses are teased with ingredients for making hot or cold drinks from tamarind to the tropical fruits to the Mexican cocoa. Tropical fruits are found fresh, canned or frozen and the restaurant also offers batidos made of these luscious fruits.

The basic ingredients for Cuban cooking are beans, rice, plantains, and tubers (yucca, boniato and yautia). Shelves groan with dry and canned beans. Even though the vegetable and meat section are modest, the essentials are fresh and well represented. Try their homemade Colombian sausage with colorful flecks of cilantro showing through the casing for a wonderful treat. Hard white cheese, used by Brazilians, is available also. Corn and corn products account for a large portion of display room. White, yellow, black and purple corn is packaged in MANY forms and Peruvian products are readily available along with other grains (quinoa, barley, wheat) from a number of Latin American countries. Holding their own are the numerous sauces, condiments, oils, dry seasonings, spices and herbs. Many of the herbs now available are also old home remedies that are brewed into teas. Beer, wines, liquors, coffees, soda pops, and dried drink mixes from Argentina, Peru, Colombia, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Spain and Mexico compete for space and consumption.

La Unica carries a good choice of sweets -- candy, cookies, flan mixes and many specialized cookies from Latin America and Spain. If you have been looking for specific cooking equipment, you will find it tucked away with the coffees, rices, and colorful votive candles. By this time you should be very hungry, so sit down in the cafeteria section along with the families and friends who are combining shopping and eating. Prices are very reasonable and the flavors of this satisfying food are truly heavenly. Coming from the kitchen staffed only by men, are black beans, yucca with garlic, garbanzo soup, fried sweet plantains with crystallized edges, tostones, and mounds of yellow or white rice surrounded with pork, beef, chicken, turkey or fish. Cuban coffee with your choice of flan or bread and rice pudding is the perfect ending. The new owners have added a Mexican cooking staff to the kitchen. Now one side of the menu is Cuban (in yellow) and the other side is Mexican (in white).

You can take home frozen specialties made for the restaurant -- arepas, tostones, breaded and stuffed potatoes. Also, you'll find frozen tropical fruit pulps (guanabana, mango, mamey, tamarind) and even cashew nut flowers. In this food haven, every one is a friend and if you need to catch up on any news, there are Latin American newspapers and magazines by the cashier.

La Unica
1515 W. Devon Ave.
Chicago, IL
Mon-Sat 9-9, Sun 9-4

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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