Where to find exotic ingredients in the East Bay

A guide for myself

I’m lucky enough to live in the Bay Area, where I have access to lots of stores with lots of international ingredients. And these ingredients have become far easier to find in recent years. Still, finding them can still be a hassle, and often times I forget where I actually found a particular ingredient when I need to buy it again. I’m hoping to use this blog post to remind myself.

Black Truffles I found them at the Berkeley Bowl during truffle season, but I wasn’t too impressed with the flavor.

Dark Soy Sauce is a darker, thicker and slightly sweet soy sauce mostly used to darken dishes. I found it at the 88 Manor Market in downtown San Leandro. Recipes that call for it include Soy-Glazed Black pepper chicken, Lion’s head meatballs and

Kaffir Lime leaves are an indispensable element for many southeast Asian dishes. I’d seen them at the 88 Manor Market in the past, but I couldn’t find them last time I needed them, so I bought them off someone on Facebook marketplace who had her own tree. Since then I’ve found that my friends J. & G. have their own tree. The leaves can be frozen, and they seem to retain their flavor well.

Kecap manis is an Indonesian sweet soy sauce. It’s been surprisingly hard to find, but I did find it at the 88 Manor Market in downtown San Leandro. If you can’t find it, you can make your own.

Light Soy Sauce is the default soy sauce in Chinese cuisine, lighter in color and a bit less salty than the standard Japanese soy sauce. It’s not the same as Kikkoman lite soy sauce. It’s widely available and I found it at the 88 Manor Market in downtown San Leandro. You can substitute with regular or tamari soy sauce.

Shaoxing wine This cheap, sweet Chinese rice wine is actually not too hard to find, and it’s available at the 88 Manor Market in downtown San Leandro. Recipes that call for it include Braised Winter Melon, Braised Pork Belly, Walnut chicken and Royal Concubine Chicken wings. You can substitute with sherry.

Turmeric root. Fresh turmeric root is an ingredient in many Thai and Indonesian dishes. I’ve found it at Raley’s, but it’s also available at supermarkets like Sprouts and the Berkeley Bowl.

La Croix Lemoncello & Hibiscus Sparkling Water Review

Best La Croix Flavors — We Matched the Best LaCroix Flavors for Whatever  Type of Vibe You're Feeling
Image borrowed from La Croix

This water smells exactly like lemon buttercream frosting. It’s hard to imagine how they were able to create that exact scent, but they did. As the sparkling water is not flavored, however, it does not taste like lemon buttercream frosting, but it leaves you with a weird buttery feeling in the back of your mouth. It’s pretty disconcerting.

While drinking it is an interesting experience, it’s not a particularly pleasant one. I’m slowly forcing my way through the 8-pack because I paid for it, but not because I enjoy them.

Natural LaCroix Hi-Biscus! flavored Sparkling Water
Image borrowed from La Croix

I’m ambivalent about hibiscus drinks, known as jamaica in Mexico and karkadeh in Egypt. I’m neither a fan nor a hater. But I was curious enough about this hibiscus sparkling water to give it a try. It’s somewhat better than the limoncello one, but still not my cup of tea – or sparkling water.

First, I don’t actually detect much hibiscus flavor. What I detect is a flavor similar to, albeit les pronounced than, the berry sparkling waters in the market. I completely despise those flavors, but I can bare with this one because it’s lighter. Still, I’m also only finishing the box because I don’t want them to go to waste.

Jarritos All Flavors Review

Jarritos is a popular brand of Mexican soda that has been in available in the US (or at least California) for quite a few years. Lately, they seem to be available at every store that sells sodas, from 7-11 to major supermarkets, but most stores only carry a few flavors. They come in glass bottles with 12.5 fl oz 1.5 liter plastic bottles, and they cost between $1-$2 at most stores. Recently, I was able to find a 12-pack at Grocery Outlet that features a bottle for each of its dozen flavors for $9, and decided to give them all a try. Here are my notes.

In general, while Jarritos are made with sugar instead of corn syrup they tend to be less sweet than American sodas. This sometimes gives them a watery finish. They tend to be subtly carbonated, a bit less than American sodas – or so it feels.

Mxcn Cola: it has a citrusy, sweet flavor that reminds me of a coke on ice with a slice or two of lemon that has gone a bit flat. I like it, though I wouldn’t go out of my way to get it.

Fruit Punch: I was surprised at how much I liked this, given that I’m not a fan of fruit punch. It had a fruity flavor but wasn’t too sweet or too citrusy. It was an overall good summer drink.

Pineapple: it didn’t taste very much of pineapple or anything else, but it was pleasant, fruity and not too sweet. I’m not sure there is a particular reason to seek it out, but it’s not something I would mind drinking.

Watermelon: my daughter thinks this tastes exactly like a watermelon jolly rancher. Personally, I only tasted the watermelon in the after taste, but I found the soda too sweet and somewhat reminiscent of cold syrup. I wouldn’t drink it again.

Mango: I’m not a huge fan of mango, having overdosed on it a summer over thirty years ago, but this soda does taste like mango, and my daughter who likes mango, likes it.

Mandarin: This is one of the flavors I regularly buy. It has an aftertaste of artificial tangerine which I like, and it’s definitely not very sweet. It doesn’t resemble orange soda at all.

Strawberry: I was apprehensive about trying this flavor because, while I’ve never tried strawberry soda before, I absolutely hate strawberry-scented sparkling water. Fortunately, this one wasn’t offensive. It doesn’t taste at all like strawberries, not even strawberries’ second cousins, but it has a generic fruity flavor and it’s not too sweet or citrusy. Basically, it’s pretty close to the fruit punch flavor.

Lime: Now I understand why major soda companies have gone with lemon-lime as a flavor. The lime flavor alone lacked the citrusy spark you want in a lemon-lime soda, and thus felt pretty flat. It also didn’t have the sweet, inviting flavor of limeade. All in all, I wouldn’t seek it out.

Guava: This was one of my favorite flavors. I love guava juice, but I find it too sweet. This soda has some guava flavor, but it’s far less sweet. Plus I’m a fan of carbonation. My daughter couldn’t taste the guava at all, however. Still, I’d buy it.

Grapefruit: This is one of my favorite flavors which I have bought before often. It is pretty similar to other grapefruit sodas but less sweet and with a weaker finish. Good for thirst.

Jamaica: They translated the name of all other flavors, so I’m not sure why they didn’t do it with this one. In any case, this is a hibiscus flavored soda. I thought it was pretty good. It definitely tasted of hibiscus, particularly in the finish. I did find it a bit too sweet for me, so I wouldn’t be drinking it if I was too thirsty.

Tamarind: I had bought a large bottle of this Jarrito flavor before and no one in the house had liked it. I ended up pouring most of it down the drain. So I was apprehensive about trying it again. But this time, I rather liked it. It has a subtle taste of tamarind when you take a sip, and then a dry finish that sort of reminded me of guarana soda – but less sweet. I don’t think I’d buy a big bottle again, but it’s pleasant enough to drink.

Mondarra Blueberry & Cashews Cream Cheese Review

Blueberry Cashews | Moondarra
image borrowed from the manufacturer site

I found this at Grocery Outlet and it sounded great. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. The cream cheese didn’t have much flavor at all, and couldn’t stand to the most insipid cracker. There was some sweetness from the blueberries, but the cashews didn’t add much. And the whole cheese just had no flavor. I wouldn’t buy again.

I’ve finished cooking “I” cuisines

Did I miss any? If so, please comment below.

My international food project, started 21 years ago this month, has moved at a glaciar pace since then. But I’m glad to say that I am now done with cuisines that start with an “i”. Or at least I hope so – I keep discovering new cuisines that I didn’t know about when I reached their letter in the alphabet. Indeed, in addition to the cuisines below I caught up on A by cooking an Awadhi meal – only to realize that I’ve skipped Aceh.

The final “I” cuisines I cooked are:

Indonesian

Jackfruit Curry, Vegan Indonesian Fried Rice, Indonesian Broiled Cod, Fried Chicken and Beef Rendang

Iranian

Butternut Squash Soup, Split Pea and Barley Stew, Fried Fish for Nowruz, Chicken Kebab, Cubed Meat Kebab, Pomegranate Chicken and Braised Short Ribs with Orange

Irish American

Irish Stew, Corned Beef and Potatoes O’Brien.

Italian

Panzanella, Pasta with lemon sauce, Bucatini with four cheeses, Pasta in Mushroom Sauce, Gnocchi in a Gorgonzola, Pear and Walnut Sauce, Country Style Chicken and Steak Tagliata

Italian Renaissance

Onion Soup, Renaissance-style Fried Chicken and Braised Beef with Carrots

These join my previously cooked I cuisines:

  • Iceland: baked fish, chicken with saffron and pepper cookies
  • Imperial China: a chicken wing recipe from the 8th century, braised chicken from the 10th-13th and beef and walnuts from the 18th.
  • India: chickpea, red bean, and chicken curries plus chicken and tofu tandoori
  • Indo-Chinese: noodles and cauliflower
  • Iraq: lentil soup, two types of kibbeh, chicken in yogurt sauce, lamb shanks, rice, and farro pilaf
  • Ireland: Irish stew, beef & stout pie, potato biscuits, and bread and butter pudding.
  • Iroquois: ghost bread and three sisters stew
  • Israel: corn shakshuka, meatballs in tahini sauce, lamb shawarma, grilled chicken and olive oil cake
  • Italian-American: minestrone, fetuccini alfredo, baked zitti, spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, vegan lasagna, chicken scarpariello and chicken parmesan.
  • Ivory Coast: grilled chicken, roasted lamb, stewed chicken and peanut sauce.

Update on Home Chef meal kits

After a couple of months of not doing almost any cooking, I’ve decided to transition into cooking by going back to meal kits. I started with Home Chef, not only because I had a good “come back” promo, but because they now offer a wider variety of meals, including some that require very little work. None are particular good deals – you can definitely save a lot by buying your own ingredients – and none are particular exciting. But if you want something tasty, familiar and easy to make, they work quite well.

These are the meals I got:

Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli Bolognese with Parmesan

As far as value goes, this may be one of the most overpriced mealkits out there. it included a package of fresh (they say par-cooked) spinach and cheese ravioli (I think the brand was Rana), sauce, cream and Parmesan cheeses, fresh spinach and the tray. You mix them together and put them in a 375F oven for 15 minutes. BUT the great revelation for me here is that you can cook fresh ravioli in the oven in the sauce. I imagine the same would be true of frozen ravioli, albeit for some time longer. I am definitely going to try this some winter night.

BBQ Cheddar Meatballs with Bacon Potatoes

These meatballs were very easy to make and should be easily replicated at home – when I get the craving for something with BBQ sauce. Basically, they involved mixing the raw ground beef with shredded cheddar, seasoned salt and BBQ sauce (the one provided was Sweet Baby Rays, which I like well enough, but I used Everett and Jones’ BBQ sauce instead, as I had some open already that I wanted to use up. Then, I put the meatballs in one side of the prepared tray, and the potatoes and bacon bits on the other. Easy peachy and a tasty enough meal. Then again, this should be super easy and cheap to make with your own ingredients.

Note, Home Chef allows you to substitute impossible meat or ground pork for the ground beef in this meal.

Chicken Thigh Shawarma Wild Rice Bowl with Tzatziki Sauce

This recipe was easy and quick to make, and combined both pre-cooked, pre-made and fresh ingredients:

All I had to do was combine the raw, cubed chicken with the pre-sliced onions and the seasoning and bake – and later add the pre-cooked rice and fresh spinach leaves and bake some more. It came with tzlaki sauce to pour over. I made this for my husband and non-vegan daughter and they both liked it.

Creamy Truffle Steak Penne with Cheese and Garlic Croutons

This was another quick and easy meal that combined fresh and cooked ingredients. It involved sauteing the raw steak, adding peas and seasoning, then adding cream, Parmesan and pre-cooked pasta, and finishing it with truffle butter and crushed croutons. It wasn’t my favorite meal – the flavors sort of melded together – but it was tasty enough and very quick and easy to make.

Steak and Goat Cheese-Pecan Sweet Potatoes with roasted asparagus

While Home Chef seems to be concentrating on very quick meals right now, they do have some more traditional meal kits. For this one, I had to actually peel and cut the sweet potatoes, trim the asparagus and slice the shallot. Then I seared the steak on the stove and finished them, with the asparagus, in the oven. I boiled the sweet potatoes, mashed them and mixed them with the goat cheese and pecans, and made a sauce for the steak by mixing the pan drippings with demi-glace and shallot.

It was a pretty good meal, though I’m not a fan of sweet potatoes. The goat cheese certainly helped them. Note that at $26 per kit, this was a more expensive meal than the other ones (usually $20). This is usually the case for meals that include steak.

Steak Frites and Marsala Sauce with smoked almond and Parmesan salad

I got this meal but didn’t make it, as I ran out of time before the meat had to be used or frozen.


Note, you can use my referral link to save $35 off your first box. If I happen to be subscribed at the time (unlikely), I’ll also get a $35 credit for my next box.

Battle of the Snacks Day 5: Eti Pizza Kraker v Orion Mini Sour Candies

Winner: Japan

Sometimes, it’s hard to decide which snack we liked the most, while other times it’s a contest of which we liked the least. The latter was the case on our latest snack testing.

Eti pizza crackers were a pretty big disappointment. The crackers – similar in size to oyster crackers – were dry and had a very mild flavor. Maybe there was some oregano there, but we definitely could not taste pizza. Most of the pack went uneaten (though granted, we had just had dinner so we were pretty full).

Still, if we went to Turkey, we wouldn’t be buying this.

While this tiny candies were new to me, my kids recall buying little fizzy candies that came in soda can lookalikes when they were little. These Orien Mini Sour candies reminded them of them.

It seems that these are supposed to be effervescent as well, but we couldn’t notice any fizzy effect. Still, they had a non-unpleasant sour flavor.

El Torito’s Fiesta Packs Are a Great Deal – or at least were.

Update – My last two experiences at El Torito have been less than stellar.

Since I wrote this post the fiesta/party packs – at least at my local El Torito in San Leandro, California – have both increased in price and decreased in quality. The packs now cost $5 more, and the last couple of times we ordered, they were missing some of the sides, we originally got. I’m not sure if this is because the fiesta packs no longer include them or our El Torito was particularly busy now that California has reopened, and the workers were careless with what they packed in our orders.

The Fajita Pack

The fajitas pack is now $45 and our last order included the beef fajitas (and we felt we got less meat than in previous occasions). Still, it was very tasty. In addition to the meat, we got rice and beans, warm tortillas, guacamole and sour cream and chips and salsa. What we didn’t get was the corn pudding we enjoy so much.

The Tacos Pack

We ordered the taco pack once before and in addition to the stuff shown in the photo (meal, rice and beans, tortillas, chip and salsa and corn pudding) it came with sour cream, pico de gallo, shredded cheese and shredded lettuce. This time, the last four listed items were unavailable. That made for very, very boring tacos.

That said, the beef for tacos is very tasty, flavor wise it’s better than the fajitas. The chicken, which we got the previous time, isn’t as flavorful and it’s a bit dry. They also offer carnitas.

Photo shamelessly stolen from El Torito website

El Torito, a California-based chain of Tex-Mex (or Cal-Mex, for that matter) restaurants, is offering a great take out deal during the pandemic. For $30-$40 you can get a tacos, carnitas fajitas or combo (enchiladas, tamales or chile relleno) deals that feed at least four people. Given that an order of steak fajitas for just one person is $21.50, $40 for four times that amount is as good a deal as you are likely to get. Indeed, at $10 per person (or less, depending on how hungry you are), it’s the same or lower cost than the mid-priced meal kits I’ve used so much. For $20 more, you can add a pitcher of margaritas (not my thing).

The fajitas pack comes with large containers of beef strips and onions, Mexican rice, beans (choose between re-fried or de olla), corn pudding, salsa and guacamole, a stack of warm tortillas (your choice of corn or flour) and a huge bag of tortilla chips.

They tell you at what time the food will be ready when you order (or you can specify the time), and it’s very, very quick. El Torito offers delivery (sans alcohol) for something like $3, as well as curbside and in-restaurant pickup. The food is ready when it says it’ll be.

I used to be a huge fan of Chevy’s back in the day. Then it declined, and then the one in San Leandro closed, and then most of them closed. At some point, the remaining ones were bought by the same parent company from El Torito, which carried Chevy’s influence into El Torito’s kitchens.

You can taste this influence in the fajitas pack. The beef marinade now resembles Chevy’s, as does the salsa – while the corn pudding is practically identical to Chevy’s sweet corn tomalito. The chips are still not as thin as Chevy’s, but they’re thinner than other restaurants.

All in all I’ve enjoyed their meals, and I think I will give their other offerings a try later.

Battle of the Snacks Day 4: Ulker Alpella 3D White Chocolate v. Coris Whistle Soda Candy

Winner: Turkey

Today’s challenge put a white chocolate cookie bar against whistling candies. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize the whistling candies were that, and as just candies they were failures, so the victory went to Turkey

Ulker Alpella 3D White Chocolate is a small pyramidal bar of multiple wafers covered with white chocolate. It was very tasty, though very sweet and pretty one dimensional. Still, it will satisfy your cravings for white chocolate.


According to Wikipedia, “Ülker is a Turkish multinational food and beverage manufacturer based in Istanbul, Turkey. Its products are exported internationally, to 110 countries.  Ülker’s core products are biscuits, cookies, crackers, and chocolates, although it has expanded to other categories.” Alpella is one of their chocolate snack brands.

The Coris Whistle Soda Candy consisted of a small package with all Japanese writing and three flat candies with a whole in the middle. Unfortunately, we didn’t look at the packaging carefully or we might have noticed that the singing birds had a candy in their mouths – but even then I’m not sure we would have realized we were supposed to do the same.

Apparently the point of these candies is to put them in your mouth, blow on them and they produce a whistling sound. I’m sure it would have been fun to try that. As it is, we just ate them and they were OK. They’re chalky, with a sour but otherwise hard to identify flavor.

Battle of the Snacks Day 3: Eti Wanted Karamel vs. Ninjapo Texas Corn Fried Chicken Taste

Winner: Turkey

Day 3 presented us with two very different snacks, and both were surprisingly good. But the Turkish one was so delicious that it was the clear winner.

Eti Wanted Karamel is basically a milk chocolate candy bar filled with caramel.

The chocolate part seems to be aerated chocolate balls, similar to Aero chocolate, dipped in a chocolate layer. It has a nice crunch and together with the caramel, it’s absolutely delicious. I finally get why Turkish treats may actually be a “thing”. This is probably the most delicious chocolate bar I’ve eaten, and I’ve been gorging on Ghirardelli caramel chocolate squares since Christmas.

These bars are made by a company called Eti which manufacturers lots of snacks. They seem to sell not only in Turkey, but in the Balkans, Russia and the Middle East and Africa. I’m sure we’ll be encountering more of their snacks in this box.

Ninjapo Texas Corn Fried Chicken Taste is another puffed corn snack, this time with “fried chicken” flavor.

As with the last one we tried, it was a little weird at first but it quickly grew on us. I can’t say it actually tasted anywhere near chicken flavor, but the savory flavor was very satisfying.

While we enjoyed both snacks, the Turkish chocolate was so good that it would have been very, very hard to beat.