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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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December 15, 2016

14 Weird Plant Bits and Where to Find Them: Foraging Ethnic Markets

By Mark Sisson
18 Comments

Inline_Weird_plant_bitsFive years ago, I wrote about all the odd animal bits one can find at ethnic markets. I procured and photographed the blood, the guts, the tendon, the tripe, the tails and heads and feet and all the other weird things you can and should eat—meaty bits you won’t find in the local Whole Foods.

Today, I’m going to talk about the weird plant bits available in ethnic markets—spices, greens, roots, noodles, and fermented things.

But first, a few reasons why everyone should probably hightail it to the nearest Asian, Middle Eastern, African, or Mexican market.

Asian supermarkets exist outside of the normal supply chain typical markets use. They get different produce, in many cases fresher produce, and lower prices. A recent article in Saveur explains why: “Chinatown’s 80-plus produce markets are cheap because they are connected to a web of small farms and wholesalers that operate independently of the network supplying most mainstream supermarkets.” I don’t know that this applies to Asian markets in other cities, or other types of ethnic markets, but it’s a good bet. 

Going to an ethnic market is a little like traveling: you enter an unfamiliar situation with different sights, smells, and languages. Travel purists will scoff, but I maintain that this is a decent way to “tour.” We can’t all drop everything to go backpack through Southeast Asia for half a year. This is better than nothing.

What should you look for?

Red palm oil—West African markets

We’ve all shelled out the $15 for a smallish jar of sustainably-grown red palm oil pressed from palm fruits hand-and-foot-picked by entrepreneurial orangutans, probably after reading about its incredible nutrient content on MDA or some other blog. But there’s another place to get really great orangutan-free red palm oil: your local West African market. West African countries like Ghana and Nigeria have a long history of using red palm oil as a staple fat, whereas the places most people get their palm oil—Malaysia and Indonesia—do not. I trust tradition.

The red palm oil I’ve bought from African shops is the real deal. It’s unfiltered. It’s deep red, rather than orange. It often comes unlabeled in mason jars.

Sichuan/Szechuan peppercorns—Asian markets

I don’t know if these things are “superfoods” or anything. One small study found that sichuan peppercorn compounds inhibit cancer growth while having no affect on growth of normal cells, but I wouldn’t hang my hat on that.

No, the real reason I love Sichuan peppercorns is their provision of a totally unique flavor sensation—tingling. I find it goes best with lamb alongside cumin and something slightly sweet.

Natto—Japanese markets

I won’t linger on natto, my favorite soy food. I’ve spoken up about it many times before. Natto is the single-best source of vitamin K2 in the diet, a nutrient solely lacking in most modern diets.

Eat it with sardines and a bit of soy sauce.

Prepared kimchi—Korean markets

Most Asian market refrigerated sections will have good kimchi in jars. It’s standard stuff—napa cabbage and whatnot. I’m talking about the many varieties of kimchi available in Korean market deli sections. You can find pickled cucumbers, mustard leaf, radish, and even a white kimchi that’s flavorful without being spicy.

Chinese broccoli/gai lan—Asian markets

Gai lan is a member of the brassica family, alongside broccoli, kale, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts. As such, it’s probably going to improve your resistance to and excretion of various carcinogens, toxins, and other things you don’t want.

My favorite way of cooking it is to separate the thick stalks from the florets, steam the stalks for 3 minutes, then add the flowers for another 2 minutes. Toss in the sauce/fat of your choice.

They’re also good quickly charred over flames or on a hot cast iron skillet. Toss with salt, pepper, and lemon juice.

Fava greens—Asian markets

Most people haven’t eaten fava greens. They’re seasonal, available in the spring and early summer. If you like fava beans but don’t do legumes, fava greens taste a bit like them. You can eat them raw in a salad or sautéd, though I prefer the heartier-than-spinach leaves cooked a bit. Personally, I’m a fan of wilting a bowl of fava greens by placing a hot steak directly on top.

Also excellent with Chianti and liver (not human).

Purple sweet potatoes—Asian markets

The fabled purple sweet potato has begun appearing in Whole Foods, but for the longest time the best and often only place to get one was the local Asian market. It’s still a good spot.

Don’t worry too much about organic vs. non-organic. Sweet potatoes are hardy plants that show very little pesticide residue and consistently place in the “clean 15.”

Sweet potato greens—Asian markets

After reading about the nutrient density of sweet potato greens back when I wrote the sweet potato post, I had to try them. They’re really high in magnesium, that elusive nutrient. And they actually taste good.

Treat them like spinach or chard.

Young coconuts—Asian markets

Forget canned coconut water. Every Asian market I’ve ever visited sells young Thai coconuts wrapped in plastic for about a buck fifty—the same exact coconuts (same label!) upscale markets sell for three times the price. You get about a pint of the best coconut water you’ve ever tasted, plus a cup of sweet coconut meat. I recommend a machete or really strong cleaver. I’ve ruined at least two cheapo kitchen knives hacking away at these things.

Look for pure white/cream-colored coconuts. Avoid any hint of pinkness, as that indicates spoilage.

Buy a case for your next party and wow guests.

Shirataki noodles—Asian markets

You want prebiotic fiber? You want a low-carb noodle alternative? Try shirataki noodles, also known as konjac noodles or yam noodles.

Konjac root is mostly glucomannan, a prebiotic fiber that encourages the growth of butyrate-producing gut bacteria in human subjects on a low fiber diet. As we know from past postsbutyrate appears to improve insulin sensitivity and blood lipids, and decrease intestinal permeability. 

Dosa batter—Indian markets

Being fermented rice and lentil pancakes, dosas aren’t quite Primal, but they’ve got a lot of things going for them. They’re fermented. They’re gluten-free (rice and lentils). And they often contain interesting spices, like fenugreek, turmeric, and ginger in the batter.

Next time the kids are clamoring for something pancake-adjacent and you don’t feel like whipping out the GF pancake mix, having a container of dosa batter will save the day.

Tulsi (holy basil)—Indian markets

I’ve never cooked with tulsi, and I’m not sure it’s really a thing, but it makes a fine tea. Animal studies indicate that tulsi provides a real boost to testosterone levels.

It comes in bags of dried whole or powdered leaves and is considerably cheaper than the tea bags you find online. Try simmering a tablespoon of dry leaves in a cup of water with a teaspoon of coconut oil.

Ashwagandha—Indian markets

Ashwagandha is an Ayurvedic herb that most Western consumers have only seen in pill form. If you go to an Indian market, you can get whole dried ashwagandha root. It may not be a standardized extract with consistent levels of active compounds, but you will be getting the “extraneous” compounds that the purified extracts omit.

Tastes a bit musty, honestly. Suffer through the tea or toss a root in with your next batch of bone broth.

Spices in general—any market

My Indian friends always tell me the spices you get in places like Whole Foods or Amazon simply don’t compare to the ones you get in the local Indian market. The turmeric is more pungent, the cumin is more intense, the cardamom pods are more fragrant, and so on. It appears to be true for other spices in other ethnic markets, too.

Next time you need to restock your spice cabinet, head down to the local ethnic market and see how they compare.

That’s just a small taste of the available edible plant bits you’ll find at ethnic markets. These are my favorites. How about yours? What did I miss? What should I try?

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care!

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18 Comments on "14 Weird Plant Bits and Where to Find Them: Foraging Ethnic Markets"

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Shary
Shary
5 months 7 days ago

Wow, I guess I’ve lead a sheltered life when it comes to plants. Kimchi is the only item listed that I eat (knowingly) on a semi-regular basis. I buy a decent version at Whole Foods or sometimes at a nearby Korean restaurant, which will sell their homemade kimchi by the pint when they have enough on hand. I’m open to trying new things, but I’ll pass on the natto.

Alessandra Abdala
Alessandra Abdala
5 months 7 days ago

As a Brazilian, I have to say: Red Palm Oil is really big in the Northeast of Brazil, so you will probably find good quality one in Brazilian shops.

Zach rusk
5 months 7 days ago

I’m always wondering what the levels of pesticide residues are at these stores. Any info on that?
I miss getting 5 lb bags of half-foot long sardines at the Mediterranean market!

TomB-D
TomB-D
5 months 7 days ago

Good question–I love the Chicago Chinatown markets for variety, but wonder the same thing. Not much organic produce there that I’ve found.

Suji
5 months 7 days ago

“Going to an ethnic market is a little like traveling: you enter an unfamiliar situation with different sights, smells, and languages.” Mark, this is why I love reading your posts! You have a way of provoking a primal, authentic-like inspiration with your words. I have always appreciated the positive outlook you always provide with such ease. Thank you for another great post!

David
David
5 months 7 days ago

There is no easy way to open up a coconut. It becomes a ‘project’ that takes way too long, creates a huge mess, and frustrates me greatly. Not worth the headache.

TomB-D
TomB-D
5 months 7 days ago

What, you don’t have a bandsaw in your kitchen?! But seriously, I had the same thought–visualizing whacking with a cleaver, missing slightly, the coconut ricocheting across the kitchen, hitting the hot cast iron skillet, the charred gai lan flying everywhere…

Mike C
Mike C
5 months 7 days ago

Like shucking oysters, it’s really not that hard if you know where and how to strike it, but you need someone to show you how it’s done.

Suzan R
Suzan R
5 months 7 days ago

I have concerns about pesticides and heavy metal contamination in some of these foods. It’s difficult enough finding truly organic and clean foods at local Farmer’s Markets and places like Whole Foods.

Harry Mossman
Harry Mossman
5 months 7 days ago

Be very careful when buying turmeric. My sister works of the state lead monitoring dept. She says that turmeric takes up lead from the soil and air. I guess that third world countries still use leaded gas. Anyway, if you use lots of turmeric, be careful where you get it. My sister says organic vs. non-organic doesn’t matter in terms of lead.

zach
zach
5 months 6 days ago

Turmeric often gets adulterated with lead chromate INTENTIONALLY as a coloring agent. You can buy root to be safe, but I buy ground from Patel Bros – the SWAD brand hasn’t been implicated in lead adulteration.

K D
K D
5 months 6 days ago

Natto is easily one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever tried.

Starmice
Starmice
5 months 6 days ago

Love this post. I go to Fubonn, an asian market in portland regularly and try to buy at least one bunch of greens that I have no idea what they are for, and then go try to cook it. They also have the young coconut, which is so awesome!!! And seriously it’s hard to spend more than $20 there as everything is so amazingly cheap. Plus great for stuff like siracha, sesame oil, etc. At the local store it’s literally 4x the price.

Jack Lea Mason
5 months 6 days ago
Kimchi is super easy to make. I use Napa cabbage, diakon radish, and leeks. Chop the cabbage, use a peeler for the radish, and strip cut the leeks. Chop off the green and save for stock. With the base intact, run a knife up front the base to where the greens were in 1/4 inch strips. Put the whole lot in a large bowl and rinse several times. When drained mix it all together with a table spoon of fine sea salt. Pack it as tightly as possible in a mason jar with an air lock. I use dried alleppo… Read more »
Linda
Linda
5 months 2 days ago

I live in Amsterdam’s Chinatown and I love going to the asian markets. I often make a point of buying something I’ve never tried before to broaden my palate. And stuff like seaweed is so much more affordable there than at the whole food store!

Christine
Christine
4 months 20 days ago

Dried mushrooms like shitakes are crazy cheap at Asian groceries!

Cyndi
4 months 12 days ago
99 Ranch and other Asian supermarkets often have a lot of wonderful finds, especially in the produce dept. Big bags of pea sprouts (these give you DAO, an important enzyme that breaks down histamine), different kinds of basil, many kinds of fresh mushrooms, dozens of variations of bok choy and greens that aren’t like bok choy (with different flavors and uses), giant bunches of chives (makes great vegan pesto), and so much more. Then there are the fruits. Jackfruit is my favorite treat. It takes a bit of cleaning but it’s so very good (you won’t find jackfruit green enough… Read more »
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