Adventures with ingredients – Casa Iberica!

Screen Shot 2013-01-03 at 3.29.57 AMI 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:

  1. There are a lot of different kinds of chilli in the world, and you can buy them all at Casa Iberica.
  2. I still had no idea what most of the non-chilli stuff was.
  3. 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.

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12 responses to “Adventures with ingredients – Casa Iberica!

  1. This made me smile so much. I love exciting new food shops too, and your enthusiasm for this one is very infectious.

  2. You are, as always, in the very best of taste. 😉

    This reminds me of the glee I felt, standing in the middle of the very extensive library book sale yesterday. The possibilities are endless.

    Have you tried empanadas yet? They’re sort of-not quite turnovers. When I lived in Texas, the anglos usually went for apple, but the pumpkin [calabaza] was most popular amongst the latinos.

    Adelante!

    • I think I’ve had empanadas at Amigos restaurant – filled with spinach and potato which I thought was a surprising choice, but tasty.

      Mmm… library book sales are dangerous…

  3. If it is any consolation, my Australian cookbooks call for all sorts of ingredients that aren’t to be found in grocery stores in the US. I’m not at all convinced that our grocery stores are really all that different though. The big difference that I noticed was in the varieties of fresh fish for sale. (That wasn’t surprising. It just made it somewhat hard to figure out which fish to buy to cook for dinner.) I think a lot of cookbooks just call for ingredients that aren’t typically found on the shelves at the average grocery store. I got a Cuban-American cookbook a few months ago and have been trying some of the recipes in it lately. Some of them look interesting but are on hold because they have ingredients I’ve never heard of let alone found at the grocery store. One day I’ll get around to visiting one of the bigger Spanish-speaking groceries and see if I can find what I need.

    I love the taste of soursop. I don’t know about your yellow-flowered weeds, but soursop fruit comes from a broadleaf evergreen tree native to South America. It is related to custard-apple which is another fruit I love and can’t get here.

    • Funny, I don’t think of Australian cookbooks as making their way to the US!

      Yes, fish are always tricky! The other big difference (apart from giving things different names) is in tinned and pre-made ingredients; tinned black beans, tinned pumpkin puree, italian sausage, and a variety of chillis dried or in tins are ubiquitous in US cookbooks, and quite hard to find here, and premade polenta (which does, admittedly, sound dreadful) is also unknown. Not to mention hominy, and grits (which I tend to just interpret as polenta). Rachel Ray’s books always drive me batty, because I like her recipes a lot, but she does tend to rely on ingredients that are unavailable at our supermarkets – I could make them myself, but that does rather take away from the 30 minutes part!

  4. My Australian cookbooks mostly come from the discount table at Borders. How they ended up there I can’t explain. Most of them are from a series on various topics put out by Bay books. I use recipes from those cookbooks a lot. At least I start out with the recipes. Sometimes they get changed quite a bit.

    It sounds like you’re running into some stuff that is regional even within the US. Hominy and grits (which may be made from hominy) are both southern foods in my experience. I wasn’t aware that polenta came pre-made. I’d never think to look for chillies or sausage in cans although now that I think about it, Vienna sausages come that way. Pumpkins and black beans do commonly come in cans.

    • I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Australian cookbooks you refer to! Amazing!

      Interesting what you say about regional differences between supermarkets in the US (we have the same here, of course, even within a single city. Over in Caulfield, the supermarkets and shops naturally stock Kosher bits and pieces; in my area, it’s all halal, and the supermarkets stock rosewater. Vegan and organic ingredients are big in the Brunswick supermarkets, but not so much here…). I sort of assumed that Rachel Ray went with what was universal. And I was obviously unclear about Italian sausage in the US – I didn’t mean to imply it comes in cans, and I presume it’s something you get at the deli or in the meat section; I just don’t know what it is. I’m guessing it’s some sort of sausage meat with particular seasonings and herbs, but it’s certainly not something we have here. I have the impression it’s reasonably ubiquitous at your end of the world?

  5. I found a link on Amazon for one of the cookbooks I mentioned – http://www.amazon.com/Step-Step-Thai-Cooking-Books/dp/B000FUW88C .

    Italian sausage in the US is a type of pork sausage. I think it is usually flavored with fennel or anise and it can be either mild or hot. It is fairly commonly grilled and put on a roll like a hot dog. It also gets sliced up and added to soups and other recipes.

    On the subject of regional differences, a chain called Food Lion opened a store here several months ago. They’re one of the common grocery stores down in Virginia and the Carolinas, several hundred miles south of here but they don’t have many stores in the north. The local newspaper interviewed the manager around the time that the store opened. One of the things he talked about was having to figure out which foods besides their standard foods they needed to stock here. He mentioned ring bologna and Lebanon bologna, both of which are processed meats that originated with German immigrants at least a couple of generations back. Shoo-fly pie and fastnachts are two more foods that fall into that category of local foods that are hard to get elsewhere but common here.

  6. Casa Iberica is great – I tend to not buy stuff and regret it later but I try to minimise all the food stuffs I rarely use but hang around my pantry (unsuccessfully of course)

    Hominy is amazing = you should buy a tin from casa iberica – I tried it in a chilli non carne last year and it was great and tasted so odd in a really good way – sort of chewy and white and tasting corny but not looking at all like corn

    re your request for a latin american cookbook – I hear that viva vegan is a good – Mel at veganise this has blogged about it a bit – eg http://veganisethis.blogspot.com/2011/05/portobello-feijoada-brazilian-black.html

    • I’m not regretting anything yet! Thanks for the tip on what to do with hominy – I’ll have to investigate that.

      I’m still most excited about the blue cornmeal, though…

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