My favorite thing about Chicago is the food. Specifically, the fact that I can go on a 15 minute walk and potentially get authentic bibimbap from the impossibly small counter-service kitchen in the back of a Korean grocery store, a cheap and salty al pastor taco, a saucy Ethiopian chicken dish, and an arepa barely able to contain its filling of cheese and avocado all in one go (not that I do this routinely… I just like knowing that I could if I wanted to).
I’m also a dietitian, and my education and the science behind my field has leaned heavily on Western-style diets in terms of representing “healthy” or “nutritious” ways of eating. However, this doesn’t mean that other cultures and foods can’t be nutritious, they just haven’t been as popularly represented because of the historical exclusion of non-Western cultures in scientific research and repeated stigmatization in the media industry. But I’m so happy to say that that is changing.
It is the time of the underdogs: the time when the bright, unadorned herbiness of a Vietnamese dish or the bold spiciness of a stuffed rocoto pepper from Peru are becoming the front and center stage of the food world, including the health and wellness niche. Nutritious dishes and ingredients can be found in every cuisine and they can spark new ideas and ways to use an ingredient you eat all the time, remind you of things you already know and love, or give you experiences you’ve never had before. Even the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has recognized this change by dedicating this year’s national nutrition month to “Celebrate a World of Flavors.” And it’s about time.
Okay, that all sounds great, but how do I actually celebrate these worldly flavors if I’ve never cooked or eaten them? One tip is to start with what you know and already eat; pick an ingredient you like and see if that pops up in other cuisines. Take for example, chicken. You can find a multitude of chicken recipes on food blogs, cookbooks, etc. that you’ve never seen or eaten before, but you’re already familiar with the main ingredient, such as Jjimdak or Korean braised chicken. Unfamiliar title, but look at the ingredients: chicken, potatoes, carrot, onion, mushrooms, sweet potato noodles, chili peppers, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, rice wine, brown sugar, and sesame oil. How many of those ingredients do you recognize or have eaten before? There might be one or two new ingredients, but more than likely, you’ll know the bulk of the ingredients.
Another tip is to do the opposite and pick one unfamiliar ingredient to try out at home. For example, instead of just salt, pepper, and garlic on your roasted vegetables, try using a spice or blend you’ve never used before like the Middle Eastern Za'atar blend or dried sumac.
Once you feel comfortable with a little change, maybe you dive a bit deeper and pick out a recipe so you have a set list of ingredients, then find a grocery store that has the more diverse products that you need. Or maybe you don’t know where to start with preparing these foods at all. Here at The Chopping Block, we have a tremendous variety of classes and cuisines that we can explore with you to give you that starting point. For example, our pozole and corn tortilla virtual class on Sunday, March 6th will teach you about a traditional Mexican soup and how to make corn tortillas from scratch. We also have hands-on classes such as our Ramen Workshop on Saturday March 19th if you want to try your hand at a Japanese dish in-person!
I’m incredibly spoiled here in Chicago with a plethora of a variety of grocery and restaurant options, but even in small hometowns, like the one I grew up in in Wisconsin, there are some hidden gems that just haven’t been in the mainstream limelight yet, places you drive by all the time and never noticed. But inside, you just might find not only some fantastic new flavors, but some fantastic new people and experiences as well.
Here are a few authentic food blogs to get you started:
And a few restaurants/grocery stores in the Chicago area to explore:
- BienMeSabe (Venezuelan)
- Joong Boo Market (Korean and pan-asian grocer plus a dumpling stand outside its entrance and a counter-service corner kitchen inside its Kimball location)!
- Carnitas Uruapan (Mexican)
- Demera Restaurant (Ethiopian)
- Patel Brothers (Indian grocer)
- Tryzub Ukrainian Kitchen (Ukrainian)
- Sticky Rice (Thai)