Tips for Shopping at International Markets by Caron Golden

Do you enjoy trying foods from around the world? While trying new cuisine at a restaurant is a fun culinary adventure, have you thought about trying international recipes in your own kitchen? It can be like traveling without the jet lag. If you want to branch out from your usual ingredients and explore the tastes of a new culture, try these tips for what to look for when shopping at your local international market.

Tips for Shopping at International Markets

Getting Over Barriers to International Shopping

If the thought of shopping at a market with unfamiliar foods feels overwhelming, consider it a chance to meet new people and try new things. For example, if you see an interesting item in the produce section, see if any other shoppers are also purchasing the item and ask them about it. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but many shoppers will be more than happy to tell you about their favorite ways to cook certain foods.
If that puts you too far out of your comfort zone, you can always use your smart phone to look up items. Some translation apps use the camera on your phone to help you decipher signs and packaging labels so you can learn about the name and ingredients of pre-packaged foods.  

What to Look for in Different International Markets

Asian Markets

Asian market produce departments are filled with treats like shishito peppers, daikon radishes, maitake mushrooms, and shiso leaves. Dried seaweed, also called nori, comes in sheets that make an excellent snack or salad topper when crumbled up.
If you are looking for ways to spice up some of your standard recipes, try looking for these condiments:
  • Shichimi Togarashi, a seven-spice blend of red chili pepper, sancho pepper, sesame seeds, ginger, citrus peel, poppy seeds, and nori, can be sprinkled on chicken or fish.
  • Mirin, a Japanese sweet rice wine, can be used in stir-fry sauces.
  • Miso paste, a thick paste made of fermented soybeans, can be used for marinating oily fish like salmon and black cod. It can also be used to make miso soup.  
  • Sesame oil can be used like any other cooking oil and adds a nutty, earthy flavor to any dish.
  • Rice vinegar, a versatile vinegar used in many Asian recipes, can be used in sauces, dressing, and more.
  • Ponzu sauce has a citrusy flavor that can be used for dipping.
  • Soy sauce, a sauce that is salty with umami taste, can be used to flavor meats, tofu, sauces, and more. For people with diabetes, choose the low-sodium variety.


Depending on the market, you may find fresh ceviche (a Latin dish usually made from raw fish cured in citrus juice) of different types as well as fresh salsas. In the produce department, try the following items:
  • Nopales (cactus leaves) can be used in a salad with onions, cilantro, and chiles.
  • Chayote, a type of pear-shaped squash, is delicious when halved, boiled, then stuffed with tuna and baked.
  • Tiny key limes can add a citrus pop to any meal.  
  • A variety of fresh and dried peppers can be a healthy snack or a vegetable side to any dish.
  • Tomatillos, vegetables that look like green tomatoes, are perfect for making salsa verde.
  • Jicama, a crunchy root vegetable that tastes similar to an unsweet apple, makes a great snack.
You can also look for corn masa flour to make your own tortillas. Keep an eye out for fresh mole paste which is a rich sauce used to make chicken or pork dishes. If you need spices and flavoring, pick up the following:
  • Cinnamon
  • Cumin seeds
  • Oregano
  • Mexican vanilla extract
  • Achiote seeds
  • Packaged adobo paste

Middle Eastern

If you have a Middle Eastern market in your area, you can load up on magnificent spices, such as:
  • Za’atar, a spice mixture of dried oregano and/or thyme, sesame seeds, and sumac, and sometimes cumin, coriander, and anise that provides a savory, earthy flavor to bread, salad, vegetables, and meats
  • Aleppo pepper presents a subtle heat and earthy flavor.
  • Turkish bay leaves are great for slow cooking foods to add a depth of flavor.
  • Whole cardamom pods provide a warm lemony undertone and can be used in various dishes like stews, meats, and in rice. Or, grind them for fresh cardamom.
  • Ceylon, a more subtle but brighter cinnamon, or Cassia cinnamon sticks.
  • Fenugreek seeds, a potent seed that has sweet maple flavor with some bitterness.
  • Sumac, a deep red spice to add acidity to your dish.
Depending on the produce selection at your local market, you may find black radishes, a variety of eggplant types, sweet lemons, pomegranates, and young green almonds. There may be plenty of feta and olive varieties to choose from, but choose lower-fat cheese varieties when available.
If you like sauces and spreads for fresh veggies, meats, or added to a salad or sandwich, check out some of the following:
  • Tahini, made from ground sesame and flavored with lemon juice
  • Baba ghanoush, made from eggplant with spices and olive oil
  • Hummus, made from chickpeas and olive oil
  • Zhoug, a spicy herb sauce from Yemen made with chili peppers
  • Labneh, a thick strained yogurt used as an appetizer or dip for meats

International Recipe Inspiration

Ready to start your culinary adventure? Try out these recipes to get inspired! Be sure to check out all the recipes on Diabetes Food Hub and create an account so you can save recipes to try later. You can even create and print a grocery list to bring with you to the international market of your choosing!
Garlicky Ginger Eggplant
This vegetable dish features eggplant, mushrooms, and bean sprouts in a garlic-ginger hoisin sauce.

Beef Sancocho
A hearty Latin American soup made with chayote, plantains, yucca, and seasonings that is sure to please the tastebuds.

 Middle Eastern
Za'atar Beef & Freekeh Lettuce Cups 
Tucked inside soft butter lettuce leaves, a filling of hearty freekeh, crisp marinated vegetables, and spiced beef comes together for a hearty dish.

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