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

Five years ago, I wrote about all the odd animal bits [1] 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 [2] 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 [3] 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 [4] 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 [5] 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 [6] many times before [7]. Natto [8] 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 [9], 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 [10] 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 [11], 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 [12] fiber that encourages the growth of butyrate-producing gut bacteria [13] in human subjects on a low fiber diet. As we know from past posts [14]butyrate 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 [15]. 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 [16] that tulsi provides a real boost to testosterone [17] 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 [18] 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!