Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Secrets of the Latin American supermarket: Part 2

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A post yesterday took readers on the first part of a tour of the Superior Grocers warehouse store in Bell, one of many large supermarkets throughout Southern California stocking the foodstuffs and other items Latino shoppers seek. Today, part dos: The best chips and sodas, the santería section and more. We'll conclude with one more installment next week.

This is the second in an occasional series of informal guides to navigating the ethnic supermarket, the mega-store grocery chains catering to immigrants that have become a part of the regional landscape. Last week, guest blogger Lory Tatoulian took readers on a tour of a Super King store, home to all things Armenian.

(Continued from yesterday.)

Ay, the snacks. Where to start?

At a mainstream supermarket, the snack aisle tends to be off my otherwise health-conscious radar. Not here. The chips at a Latin American supermarket are as bad for you as those anywhere, but they are not to be passed up. Long before the introduction of chile and lime to U.S. snack consumers, Mexican snack makers were imbuing their chips with the winning combo.

Perhaps my favorite at the moment are the Sabritas Turbos, twisty-shaped corn snacks closely related to Fritos, in "Flamas" flavor. They are an intimidating deep red and could well burn a hole in your tongue, but the blend of extremely hot chile with lime - all fake, but no matter - will make you keep coming back, panting and in pain, for another mouthful. Masochism? Yes. It's all good.

Unless you're a fan of the packaged chicharrones, avoid those - they're a little dry - and hold off until reaching the meat section, where you'll find the real deal, complete with occasional pig hair.

On the opposite side of the chips you'll find the sodas. Pass the conventional drinks until you get to the Jarritos display. For anyone who isn't familiar with Jarritos, these are those colorful Mexican sodas that come in glass bottles and look like candy, because, well, they are. But they're great. The flavors range from pineapple to tamarind. (The company has also wisely embraced the Mexican Coca-Cola fad and advertises its cola flavor as containing actual sugar, versus high fructose corn syrup).

Moving along, you come to a few of the more conventional sections - on the surface, at least. Even among the canned goods and laundry detergent are imported gems, products whose labels are familiar and comforting to the homesick. Alongside the Chicken of the Sea in the tuna aisle, there is Dolores tuna imported from from Mexico; next to the Kool Aid are packets of Zuko aguas frescas mixes, making it just as easy to mix up some instant agua de jamaica. Next to the Tide in the laundry section are the imported Ariel and Foca detergent brands, with their familiar floral-clean scents (plus they're cheap and come in space-saving bags to boot).

The coffee aisle looks fairly conventional also, but it abounds with surprises. This, my friend, is where to stock up on that ambrosial beverage we mortals call Mexican hot chocolate. To even call it "hot chocolate," which connotes something along the lines of Swiss Miss, doesn't do it justice. Try a sip of cinnamon-vanilla tinged Abuelita (sweet) or Ibarra (less sweet, my preference) and you will never tear open a packet of that stuff again.

Now you might ask, why is there so much condensed milk here? What does "La Lechera" mean, and what the heck is a Frisian Cow? Condensed milk is a staple ingredient in countless sweets around Latin America. Nearly everyone has a flan recipe that calls for it. It is used to make tres leches cake (it's one of the "three milks," what tres leches means). Boil a can of it in water for a quick dulce de leche or cajeta. Some people drizzle it over deep-fried sweet plantains.

I grew up consuming condensed milk in too many ways to mention, but one of my favorite ways was stirred into Cuban malta, a dark, thick, very sugary non-alcoholic malt drink. I've never spotted malta at the Superior in Bell, but if you want to mix up this calorie bomb at home, get the condensed milk, then pick up some malta at a little carnicería-deli called El Mundo a few blocks away. Overindulgence could kill you, but it'll rock your world.

Way too much sin so far? Time to head to the religion section, otherwise known as the santería section, for a spiritual cleansing. Not that you'll get one here, but grocery store mini-botanicas tend to carry the essentials: agua espiritual (spiritual water), a few oils, the basic candles you need to burn to attract a romantic interest ("Ven a mí," or "Come to me") or bring in money.

Spread out among two aisle-end displays toward the back of the store are are candles honoring saints that will help you when you're sick (St. Lazarus the leper, considered a healer) or when you are praying for a lost cause (St. Jude Thaddeus, known in Spanish as San Judas Tadeo). And of course, there are the New World virgins: la Virgen de Guadalupe, la Caridad del Cobre.

Why is there a religion section in a grocery store? Because no matter how religious or not any particular Latino might be, or whether one is Catholic or not, Catholicism and its New World mutations are as much a part of our collective culture as our food, as much a part of our existence as shopping and eating and breathing. It shapes the Latino psyche, is a part of the cultural DNA, is tradition and comfort even to those who have otherwise sworn off religion.

This is coming from someone who grew up with a statue of St. Lazarus in the house, and who fondly remembers the saints and the votives tucked into the back of the carnicería where we used to shop, before the supermarket religion section. It's just a part of life, no questions asked.

(To be continued: In a final installment next week, we'll check out the meat section, point out where to find the ready-made arroz con leche, and explain the odd appeal of Tampico.)