I tried shopping at a health-food market for a few weeks, until the time I brought my friend Stephanie along. She quipped that the clientele of Wild Oats seemed split between the robustly healthy and the sickly anxious. Her astuteness made me laugh, but she wasn't finished yet. "Which of those paths do you think you will go down?" she asked. I never returned to Wild Oats.
Nowadays I live near a Whole Foods Market, where the shoppers defy categorization and seem to be just looking for natural, delicious food. While I'm still not ready to pay a premium for many organic foods, I do go there for five items I have difficulty finding anywhere else.
5) Red Boat Fish Sauce
As garlic and onions are to Italian food, fish sauce is a foundation of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-inspired cuisine. Red Boat is regarded as the best fish sauce, as it's made with anchovies and water, nothing else.
The "40° N" on the label doesn't refer to a great latitude in which to dine, but rather the degree of nitrogen in the sauce, which comes from the protein in the anchovies. A degree-rating of 35° is good, and 40° is better. Speaking of Italian food, Red Boat is a convenient replacement for anchovy paste, and its umami taste, in Caesar salad and Bolognese sauce. I even put a few drops on pizza slices, or in hamburger patties as a replacement for Worcestershire sauce.
4) Sorghum Syrup
Matt and Ted Lee are brothers who transplanted from South Carolina to New York City. They got so homesick that they started selling Southern food products online, and wrote a classic, The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook. One of the foods they missed most was sorghum syrup.
After searching for the syrup everywhere on road trips through the South, to no avail, I found it at Whole Foods. Bittersweet sorghum syrup is indeed delicious on biscuits (homemade or not), pancakes and waffles. Substituting ½ teaspoon as the sweetener makes for a uniquely Southern Old-Fashioned cocktail.
3) Ginger People Grated Ginger
Grating fresh ginger is a pain in the ass, and on the knuckles, too, if they get too close to the grater. The Ginger People appear to have a machine that grates ginger of higher quality and less stringiness than I've ever managed to do. It tastes fresh, and keeps well in the refrigerator.
Use it for Asian food, marinades and chai tea.
4) 365 Balsamic Vinegar
In the way that Central Market has a supreme Italian olive oil as its low-priced store brand, Whole Foods' 365 Balsamic is also top-notch and sourced in Italy. The aged is $2.69 for a half-liter, and the organic is $4.99 for the half-liter.
1) Callebaut Belgian Chocolate
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Barry Callebaut's Belgian chocolate is highly regarded in the world of professional bakers. Cut some 52.6 percent semisweet into chunks (with a serrated knife) to make delectable chocolate chip cookies. Or the cookie dough is great, too. Or forget baking cookies altogether; just trim off some chunks and hold them in your mouth. You shall be sated.
I know you can find some of these items at other stores in the city, but at Whole Foods I can get all five in one basket.