The Variety in International Grocery Stores Within...

The Variety in International Grocery Stores Within Chicago

There are a variety of ways to explore and experience new cultures, arguably some of the best and most accessible being through food, language and music, primarily because all three elements often have so much history embedded within them. 

While Chicago is well-known for its own iconic food options, like Chicago-style hot dogs, deep dish pizzas, Italian Beef sandwiches and artisanal craft beers, the hidden gems however, could be found right in your own kitchen, as you can find virtually any ingredient you would find anywhere across the world, right inside one of the many international grocery stores throughout the city.

City Fresh Market

From the moment you step into City Fresh, you might experience déjà vu if you’ve also entered a Serbian grocery chain like “Maxi,” as the store is incredibly well stocked with Eastern European products, specifically those found in the Balkan region. It could very well be a shared experience among the store’s regular patrons since the owner, Milos, says “I would say about 50% of our customers are from Ex-Yu [former Yugoslavia] or Romania.” The Balkan region in Europe is known for its readily available fresh produce, a lot of which is grown and/or imported locally when in season, something directly mirrored in traditional century-old recipes from the area.

Affordable produce is located right at the entrance, while hard-to-find mineral waters and sodas like “Knaz Milos” and bitter lemon “Schweppes” line the spaces below. When you venture further into the store you will find dozens of ready-made soups alongside iconic seasonings like “Vegeta,” ensuring that whatever meal you are going to make will have the same flavor profile that your mom has mastered since learning from her own. Numerous fridges throughout the store are purely dedicated to the pinnacles of Balkan cuisine: smoked and dried sausages, meat blends dedicated to the use for “ćevapi,” several types of kajmak — a spreadable cheese made by boiling raw milk — and dozens of feta cheeses alongside endless yogurt options.

At a deli-style counter are warm homemade dishes ranging from peppers stuffed with meat and rice, stewed beans (Prebranac), cabbage leaves rolled with meat (Sarma) and fresh salads. In the intersecting fridge are raw fish and freshly cut meats, some of which are conveniently sold in pre-made skewers. When venturing towards the cash register, you can find different types of freshly made Burek, a flaky and thinly layered filo pastry that is baked with options ranging from traditional fillings like cheese, meat and spinach. In another refrigerated case are various homemade Balkan desserts made with recipes that have been passed down for generations, giving anyone the opportunity of a taste of “home,” even if it’s one they’ve never been to.

Eastern European grocery items stocked at City Fresh Market. Photo by Jana Simovic.

Middle East Bakery and Grocery 

This bakery and grocery store, found near the intersection of Ashland and Clark in Andersonville, has been in operation for over 40 years, specializing in various homemade and commercial European and Middle Eastern products. Like a few other markets around the city, Middle East is connected to a sister restaurant next door, where after eating you can step out and explore each individual ingredient within the quaint store itself.

Different types of flours and grains are sold under their own moniker in one-pound bags, while other products are made fresh, in-house daily, including pita, hummus, domestic cheeses, pastries (like an incredible selection of different baklava flavor profiles), and Turkish delights. There is an entire wall dedicated to dozens of spices, which are conveniently sold in one-ounce serving containers, making them some of the most popular products. When cooking, based on the ways you choose to use them, spices have the ability to provide complex flavor profiles that can directly point to where a dish originated from and how it has changed throughout centuries; giving a glimpse into the history found in culinary traditions. “So many spices that we have here are very hard to find. You’ve gotta come here to find it, to buy it — it’s our brand,” explains the store’s owner, Hisham, also mentioning that it isn’t rare for the store to completely sell out of products at the end of the workday. “I don’t see anything here that doesn’t sell well.”

Quality imported dolmas, beans, jams, honey, ajvar, syrups and snacks are also popular, making the store a familiar happy place for anyone with Indo-European heritage as well as an exciting exploratory cuisine opportunity for those with curious taste buds.

A selection of fresh Middle Eastern pies at Middle East Bakery and Grocery. Photo by Jana Simovic.

Tai Nam Food Market

When traveling on the Howard-bound Red Line, right before exiting the Argyle stop, you’ve probably caught a glimpse of Tai Nam’s grand overhead parking entrance that’s located on Broadway. A Paifang arch decorates the entrance to the store’s parking lot, and upon entering the store you can easily be overwhelmed by the number of options that are available in front of you. 

The store has specialized in the sale of Asian food items since 1993, with products ranging from countries including Vietnam, China, Thailand, Cambodia, Japan and the Philippines.

In the center of the store are large freezers that contain different types of frozen seafood, meats and premade dishes. The wall opposite the entrance is lined with an open fish market where you have the option to choose from fresh seafood like clams, mackerel and shrimp while different types of sauces are sold on a shelf above, giving shoppers easy access to a tasty pairing for their freshly chosen seafood.

Other aisles house spices, noodles and rice, all ranging in variety signaling that care towards the catering to a plethora of cuisine options. Snacks, candies and dried ramen are far from scarce in the store and could be another great starting point for new shoppers to experience unfamiliar flavors.

Makola African Supermarket

When walking about 10 minutes southbound on Broadway from Tai Nam, you will find yourself at the Wilson CTA station, which is a minute’s walk from Makola African Supermarket. Upon entering, the space may seem small for a full grocery store, but you will without a doubt be able to find anything you may need to cook a traditional African dish.  The seasoning aisle is incredibly well stocked, with various dried, blended and raw spices, giving customers the option to explore new flavors or make their own with ones they are familiar with.

Owners Nana and Rosebud were incredibly helpful in showing me what kinds of ingredients would be used for particular dishes. In an aisle filled with an array of flour, Rosebud points me to their cassava flour options, mentioning that it is what is traditionally used to make Fufu, a traditional side-dish from Ghana, her home country. Any accompanying meats can be marinated in any of their spice options, but Rosebud mentions that their house-made spice blend tends to be the most popular for shoppers when looking for a simple yet flavorful food profile for barbecue meats. To complete such a dish, shoppers also have many options of canned spiced vegetables to choose from, ensuring that all taste buds will be satisfied.

Many varieties of African skincare like shea butter and black soap are also available for purchase, in addition to beautiful varieties of Kente cloths, which Rosebud says can be a wonderful addition to anyone’s special occasion wardrobe.

An assortment of African fabrics available at the Makola Market. Photo by Jana Simovic.

Patel Brothers

Located on the bustling Devon Avenue in between Rockwell and Tallman Avenues is Patel Brothers, a chain grocery store that can also be found in other cities. The modern and brightly lit building is home to ingredients and dishes imported from India. At the store’s entrance is hot and fresh chapati (which you can constantly see being made right behind the counter) and fresh pastries made in-house containing various fillings like vegetable Keema, Mutter Paneer and Paneer Bhurji.

Although the store itself is pretty spacious and could seem somewhat overwhelming to new shoppers, all products are placed under large green labels that decorate each aisle, immediately making even the most unfamiliar ingredients approachable.

When passing various fruits and vegetables, shoppers meet a fridge that houses fresh Indian sweets and dairy products, and if you have never tried the lassi — a traditional Indian yogurt drink — I would highly recommend the rosewater flavor of the Gopi brand; it is absolutely delicious.

Other aisles in the store house hundreds of dried products, including split lentils, peas and beans, which are some of the options available to make delicious curry dishes. An adjacent aisle is home to a plethora of dried and fresh herbs and spices, like ground turmeric, cardamom and coriander seeds, chili powders and whole cloves. A variety of traditional Indian snacks and candies are of course also available, while almost a full aisle is dedicated to different types of rice and grains.

An aisle at Patel Brothers. Photo by Jana Simovic.

Farm Supermarket

Traveling just a few blocks down Devon, I stumbled upon Farm Supermarket and decided to pop my head in since with each customer exiting the store at least two new patrons would enter, inevitably piquing my interest. 

The store itself is another space that may seem somewhat small but is filled to the brim with various Middle Eastern products, Halal ingredients and some Balkan and Eastern European essentials. With a line of patrons waiting in aisles, the unmistakable star of the store, however, are its meat options. More than twenty-five fresh cuts are available with options ranging from a variety of meat options and cuts like rib-eye, shanks and tails. A small adjoining room is an extension of the store where traditional dried spices and grains are available for purchase along with pre-made and boxed Middle Eastern dishes; perfect for those nights where cooking is the last thing you feel like doing but still want to eat a filling meal.

Interior of the Farm Supermarket. Photo courtesy of Jana Simovic.

La Casa del Pueblo

Across the street from the Lozano Branch of the Chicago Public Library system and a short walk from the 18th Street Pink Line station is La Casa del Pueblo, another full-service grocery store that specializes in Hispanic products. Beautiful produce is located right past the entrance, while the store’s aisles are filled with products you would encounter in a Jewel Osco mixed with others that you could only find at La Casa del Pueblo.

Attracting the attention of any meat lover are fresh cuts and marinated meats, located in glass cases where right below you will find numerous varieties of Chicharrón, including pinwheels and spirals. Different types of locally produced tortillas appear to be incredibly popular, since many were scarce on the shelves towards the end of the workday. For those that fancy the distinct spice and flavor of poblano peppers, you are in incredible luck since the store has a plethora of both fresh and dried options.

Entryway of La Casa del Pueblo mart. Photo by Jana Simovic.

Joong Boo Market

Located in Avondale and a short walk from the Blue Line Belmont stop is Joong Boo Market, another store specializing in diverse Asian goods. Upon entering the store, you are met with a variety of tasty refrigerated drink options that share a shelf space with pre-made items like traditional Korean Tteokbokki (rice cakes that can be used in a variety of ways but are traditionally simmered in a spicy sauce). Produce items that you would typically encounter in any grocery store are paired with some harder-to-find items like large Jackfruits, various melons and numerous pickled veggies like radishes.

Aisles are marked with labels showcasing what products can be found on shelves. Some house dozens of options of dried nori, noodles and spices while others are home to an incredible array of sauces, rice mixes, snacks and sweets. Perhaps the most awe-inducing factor of the store is a full fridge dedicated to different types and package sizes of Kimchi. Near this fridge are other pre-made pickled dishes including options like seasoned burdock, pollack, balloon flowers, squid, seasoned spinach and acorn jelly.

Joong Boo’s seafood options are a must-see as well since Trout, Branzino, Albacore, Corvina and White Perch are only some of the fresh fish options available next to many frozen seafood varieties. The store also has an entirely separate room that contains various household items, placing a convenient emphasis on the fact that the store’s vast product range is there to satisfy a variety of tastes and needs.

Exterior of the Joong Boo Market in Avondale. Photo by Jana Simovic.

Dukan International Food Market

Located near the Kedzie Brown Line station, just off Lawrence, Dukan is a market similar to many found in Albany Park. The store has a full aisle dedicated to a plethora of canned, pickled, and jarred goods, many of which that when venturing anywhere below Irving Park Road become harder to find in stores.

To the right of the store entrance is a conjoint room that houses an incredible bar that is filled with numerous options of dried fruits, nuts and seeds. Just point out what you want and in minutes you will have an affordable “trail mix” that you won’t be able to find on a Trader Joes or Jewel-Osco shelf. Traditional middle eastern desserts such as Baklava and Kadaif are also available at an affordable price and can be the perfect sweet treat after finishing shopping and before exploring the various culture-rich storefronts located on Lawrence.

A corner of assorted foods at the Dukan International Food Market. Photo by Jana Simovic.

Header image by Ally Ohr.