I think I have mentioned elsewhere that I live in the Moreland region, an area which has always had a pretty big immigrant population – mostly Italian, Greek and Turkish, but with a fair scattering of people from India, North Africa and the Middle East. But before this post goes off on a tangent about how much I love my little corner of Melbourne and the fact that it’s so friendly and vibrant and you can hear half a dozen languages spoken on any street corner and how this makes me happy in so many ways, I’ll attempt to get back to my point, which is that this is a fantastic area in which to shop for any ingredients used in the Mediterranean, Middle-East or North Africa. It is not, however, a particularly good place to shop for ingredients for Latin-American cuisine, which is why, after reading yet another American cookbook which calls for ingredients I’ve yet to see in Australia (their supermarkets are clearly very different from ours), I asked my lovely Mexican friend at work if she had any idea where I could find chipotle peppers in adobo.
My friend immediately directed me to Casa Iberica, a family-run business in the Latin Quarter of Fitzroy, which specialises in foods from all over Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula. It really has everything – sausages and cheeses and tapas, breads and portuguese tarts and tortillas, biscuits, cakes and fruit pastes (imported from around the world or made in Australia to traditional recipes), pickles, sauces, dried and tinned beans and fish, olive oils, vinegars, jams, sauces, spice mixes, and countless varieties of dried chillis, as well as the powdered kind. And cookbooks. And paella pans and other essential bits of kitchenware.
Oh yes, and they also have chipotle in adobo. Seriously, if you live in Melbourne and haven’t been to this shop, you should go and have a look at their website right now – I’ll wait.
Amazing, isn’t it?
Visiting this shop was an extraordinary experience for me. The first thing that struck me as I walked in was how familiar it all smelled – like every Mediterranean grocery store or deli I’ve ever been in, and like my Italian grandparent’s shed when the sausages were hanging up to cure. Sure enough, when I looked up there were cured sausages hanging over the counters that looked quite a lot like the sort my Nonna used to make (the flavour, however, is quite different).
But one look at the shelves showed me that I was somewhere very unfamiliar indeed. Most of the items in the shop were labelled in Spanish or Portuguese, and I don’t speak either of these languages, so it was a good thing for me that they were also mostly translated into Italian or French. However, that wasn’t actually so much of a help, because the truly stunning thing about this shop for me was that even when the labels happened to be in English, I had no idea what half of the ingredients were.
This made me very happy. Well, to be more precise, it made me giggle like an idiot, because there is nothing quite like standing in front of an entire row of bottled somethings and having no idea whether one is looking at a fruit or a vegetable. Or a mushroom, or some kind of seafood, for that matter – I’m still not sure what those white thready things were (and I wasn’t quite willing to buy 750ml of them in order to find out). Being so surrounded by foods I couldn’t recognise was a novel experience for me. It wasn’t even just a matter of the language barrier or unfamiliar names – a lot of them were tropical ingredients that I couldn’t recognise by sight, either. I felt like I had suddenly stepped into a foreign country in the middle of Melbourne. One full of dozens of new ingredients that I haven’t tried yet!
I decided the only thing to do was work my way around the shop and try to read as many labels as I could, to see where that got me. This led me to the following conclusions:
- There are a lot of different kinds of chilli in the world, and you can buy them all at Casa Iberica.
- I still had no idea what most of the non-chilli stuff was.
- I wanted to try everything in the shop, except possibly those chillis.
Do you have any idea how difficult it is to decide what to buy when most of what is in front of you is a complete unknown?
Well, I definitely wanted chipotle in adobe, so I started by getting some of that. And black beans are a pain to get in my corner of Melbourne, so I got some in tins and some dried. Chestnut puree may not be very Iberian, but my new rule is that I always buy it when I see it, because I can never find it when I want it. And anyone who knows anything about the way I cook will understand that purple cornflour, once discovered, was absolutely necessary. Who wouldn’t want to make purple polenta? Paella seasoning seemed like a bit of a cheat, but still a good thing to have on hand, and they also had what looked like a lovely mole sauce made by the restaurant my Mexican friend had particularly recommended to me. This was of especial interest to me, because I’ve made a few mole sauces in the past, and love the idea of a sauce containing chilli, chocolate and sweet spices, but have no idea how authentic the recipes I have made actually are (actually, that’s not true – I am 90% sure that they are highly inauthentic). Anyway, I now have a basis for comparison.
One corner had these little cones of brown sugar cane that were strangely irresistible. I have absolutely no notion what I am going to do with the one I bought, but I’m sure I’ll think of something. And in the freezer, they had a colourful assortment of frozen fruit purées – strawberry, lemon, blackberry, passionfruit, blackberry, soursop (can they really mean soursop? Aren’t soursops those weeds with the yellow flowers that smell divine and taste really sour?), guava, feijoa, mango, lulo (no idea what this is) and papaya. I’ve never tasted some of these fruits before, and they were on special! So I got one of everything except the feijoa, because feijoas are known to be evil (we had a bush of them growing up). I realised after buying the purees that some of them are unlabelled and those that do have labels are labelled in Spanish, so eating them is going to be Frozen Fruit Puree Roulette. Excellent. (Andrew wants to look up the translations before eating them, but I think that would be cheating. And, as I believe I have mentioned, it probably won’t help, so why attempt to spoil the surprise?)
There were all sorts of fascinating fruit pastes – quince, guava, papaya, sweet potato with chocolate, sweet potato on its own. I was really curious about these, especially the sweet potato one, but 750g is a lot of fruit paste, even if you do like it. And then I saw that they make their own quince paste in house, so I got some of that, instead. I did get a small orange, tomato, port and brandy fruit ‘cheese’, though. And some wafery biscuity things made with olive oil and seville oranges. And I meant to get bitter orange marinade and orgeat powder and chimichurri and all manner of other things, but I can’t adequately express how distractingly full this shop was of fascinating foodstuffs, and I forgot to go back for them.
Then I decided to investigate the cheeses. Incidentally, I should mention that there were plenty of people I could have asked for help in identifying ingredients, but it was more fun to guess. Anyway, I went up to the counter and cheerfully informed the lady that I didn’t know anything about Iberian or Latin American cheese, and what did she recommend? She asked me whether I liked cow’s milk, goat’s milk or sheep’s milk, so naturally I said I’d like to try one of each. This is where I really regret not taking notes, because I did indeed try one of each, and while I know the cow’s milk cheese was from Portugal and was very creamy and felt like it would be an excellent melting cheese, I don’t know what it was called. I also don’t know the name of the nice, parmesanny goat’s cheese, or the amazingly yoghurt-tasting sheep’s milk one, though I brought samples of all three home. They were all good though, and I can always go back and ask for more recommendations. I don’t mind getting the same ones twice…
I then tried some salami-like spicy sausage that I cannot, alas, identify except to say that it was not chorizo and was not jamon, and I’m sure you all knew that anyway. The lady at the counter was very nice, and seemed both amused and approving of my enthusiasm, though I think she was initially a bit taken aback at the way I was bouncing up and down chattering madly about all these ingredients! And this shop! And ooh, this cheese is really nice! And what is arepas? Is it like bread (yes)? Does one need to bake it more, or eat it like that (you should heat it, or you can put it in the toaster, or you can slice it in half and fill it with that nice salami you just tried)?
At the end, when I was putting together all my ingredients in my shopping back, she pointed out that they came from all over the place, and she was right – their countries of origin include Portugal, Spain, Colombia, Mexico, El Salvador and Australia, and I’m sure there are others that just weren’t noted on the packaging.
I’m still not sure what I’ll do with all my lovely loot. Tonight’s dinner was going to be leftovers – which happen to include an allegedly Mayan Chilli I made the other night. I think I’ll use some of the arepas to mop it up, and I might just spice it up with the real mole from the shop. Those orange and olive oil wafers should go nicely with the ice-cream I made the other day, and speaking of ice-cream, I’m thinking that the fruit purées would make excellent ice-cream flavourings (the lady at the shop suggested tequila shots, but I think that’s a little less my style. Of course, I could always make ice-cream spiked with tequila…). And of course I’m just itching to make purple polenta at the first opportunity.
Hmm, and given that the whole point of this expedition was to find chipotle in adobo, I should probably see if I can find the recipe that started me looking for it. The terrible thing is that I can’t actually remember what it was…
Speaking of recipes, can anyone recommend a really good Latin American cookbook? Preferably a vegetarian one, and ideally one in which not every recipe will blow the top of my head off. I will definitely be returning to Casa Iberica, and I’d like to have some ideas about what to make when I do.