Bring on the falafel!

January 26th, 2011

I mentioned in this post how the shopping hours have liberalized oh so slightly since I first moved to Switzerland ten years ago. But where I’ve really seen a change is not on the sign showing the grocery store’s opening hours, but what’s inside on the shelves. Ten years ago, when I came here with a shipping container filled with everything I own including two dozen cookbooks, most of my cookbooks were immediately rendered useless. My cooking isn’t exceptionally out there, but it leans to international vegetarian. Tried and true cookbooks that came across the sea with me include: Martin Yan’s Asia, Martha Stewart’s Healthy Quick Cook, Moosewood, Moosewood Low-Fat Favorites, Madhur Jaffrey’s World of the East Vegetarian Cooking, and A Taste of Heaven and Earth.

Let’s take a look at some of the ingredients called for in these wild and crazy cookbooks. Soba noodles. Japanese eggplants. Bok choy. Monterey Jack cheese. Oyster sauce. Thai basil leaves. Lemongrass. Wonton wrappers. Ten years ago this stuff was impossible to find. Ten years ago, I was hard pressed to find, wait for it, whole black beans. (When I found them, sold by the lovely lady who cooks tacos at the market in Bern twice a week, they were five francs a can. Yes, I still bought them. Together with the newly available and somewhat radical sweet potato, they made a lovely Navajo Stew.) Martin Yan’s Asia moldered on the shelf.

Slowly, a few speciality shops opened up, or I expanded my horizons enough to find them but I think it was the former more than the latter. Maybe a bit of both. The Loeb food shop in Bern has an entire section devoted to Asian food. I can get mung beans and chinese broccoli and two types of tofu and oyster sauce and my god I can even get galangal. Globus foods always carried specialty items, at a steep mark-up – for years they were the only place to get fresh cranberries. (Now that I’m thinking about it, I think for a few years they were my only reliable source of sweet potatoes as well.) Then we found an Indian market where we got cardamon pods and turmeric powder and coriander seeds. About five years ago I might have had to go to three shops to get the ingredients for an Indian curry or Singapore noodles, but I could find what I needed. (Actually, had I thought about it and dug around more, I would have realized that the large population of ethnic Sri Lankans and Thai in Switzerland had to be shopping somewhere and I would have tracked down their secret shops.)

Now, in an ordinary grocery store (okay, it has to be one of the larger stores but still, it’s an ordinary chain grocery store) there is this:

and this

I can get ramen noodles – which Small Boy loves eating Thursday nights after hockey practice – and your standard Old El Paso mexican foods plus the real stuff the lady sells at the market. I’ve seen blue corn chips and humous and falafel mix. Ten years ago I used to screw up my courage to ask the butcher for ground lamb and he’d sort of give me a “that’s a waste of perfectly good lamb, lady” look and now ground lamb is so popular it is pre-packaged at the Coop. Pre-packaged, people. Coop sells a little package of all the fresh spices needed for a basic Thai curry. I cannot tell you how much my culinary life has improved over the past five years in particular and I think it will only get better.

Bring on the falafel!