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!


6 Responses to “Bring on the falafel!”

  1. Tracy on January 26, 2011 4:15 pm

    The first time I went to our grocery store here, my mouth dropped open when I saw the number of Old El paso products (alas, no retried beans or enchilada sauce, but we make do). The Finns, they love their Mexican. There are several Tex Mex restaurants in town all of mediocre quality. About 3 weeks ago, a small Mexican cafe opened, though, run by 2 Mexicans. So awesome and so authentic. My husband and I are from TX and AZ, respectively, so good Mexican food is key!

  2. rswb on January 27, 2011 8:39 am

    I can never seem to find ground cumin here without a bit of an effort (which usually means buying it at those market stalls that sell all the teas and spices). Everyone sells it whole, no one sells it ground. For a while there I resorted to mortar-and-pestling it up, which was in no way satisfactory.

  3. Claudia on January 27, 2011 10:50 am

    Hey, shall we all send each other the key missing ingredients that our respective countries don’t carry? Here I am at this very moment snacking on crackers with hummus and sumac. My friend had recently gone to a big city with a big Middle Eastern population, and scored me a bag of sumac.

    I can’t get canned black or refried beans, but I can get dried black beans. I can get sweet potatoes, but not much of the other veggies mentioned. Canned pumpkin remains totally unknown here.
    It has definitely gotten better in the nearly 8 years I’ve been here, too. I could have written most of that post myself.
    I have a recipe for a very acceptable enchilada sauce, but til recently also had to make my own corn tortillas. Despite having a tortilla press from the states, I’m not good at it. But now I can get some tortillas that have 18% corn, and it’s just enough to work.

  4. Jennifer on January 29, 2011 10:35 pm

    Tracy – interesting, we can get the refried beans. Good thing, bean and cheese quesadillas are our tried and true before Saturday hockey practice snack. Now that we can get cheddar cheese, that is- that started appearing in regular old stores about 5 years ago maybe.

    Robyn – my problem with the random spices is that I always forget which speciality shop/stand carries what and end up going to three places before I find it. But there’s an Indian-run shop in Bern that is pretty well stocked.

    Claudia – can you imagine the customs declarations forms on that? It’s gotten harder and harder to transport speciality items back and forth, I’ve noticed. The American Women’s Club I belong to has a fundraising raffle and one of the big prizes is a food hamper filled with stuff like proper American brown sugar, vanilla extract, Nestles Chocolate Chips (because yes, Nestle is a Swiss company but you can’t get the chips here) and other things along those lines that people crave. They collect all year long from people who go to the states and bring things back.

    I have a vegetarian sometimes vegan friend who used to live in southern Denmark and the food options, or lack thereof, drove her bonkers.

  5. Bethany on January 31, 2011 5:36 pm

    Italian Coop needs to take a lesson from the Swiss ones! Of course, Italians tend to have no pressing desire to eat any other cuisine, and so I can duly appreciate the 1/8-aisle display of “international” food at our city’s biggest supermarket. Lidl has more options, but I think we must be the sole purchasers of their frozen spring rolls… not that we mind. 🙂 I absolutely could not live without Tex-Mex, and being here has taught me wonderful lessons in making food from scratch. I make my own refried beans now (mash pinto beans with a little bacon grease or butter and salt; fry; enjoy) and my own salsa with cilantro and chilies grown on our balcony. I’ve also learned what spices to stock up on when I’m in the States or the UK, and we certainly don’t suffer at the dinner table. We might have to make a special trip to Coop, though, next time we’re in Switzerland.

  6. Tracy on February 1, 2011 8:17 pm

    We just started to consistenly be able to get cheddar cheese about a month ago. It’s not Vermont cheddar, but it works just fine when I melt it on tortilla chips and eat it with the refried beans we brought in or shipment! (yes, some my tastes are the same as the 5 year old crowd!). I’ll have to pass on the raffle idea to our AWC, that would be a huge hit here!

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