A primer for Chicagoans on cooking ethnic at home–what you’ll need, where to get it, and what to do with that 64-ounce jar of kimchi once you get it home.


Of all the ethnic cuisines in the city, Korean may be the most difficult for outsiders to penetrate. Chicago has the fifth-largest Korean population in the U.S., and local restaurants get enough native traffic that they don’t really need to walk newbies through their flavors (which can be shockingly spicy or sour) and customs (like eating communally). In fact it can seem like they’re actively discouraging your business–Korean restaurant windows are often opaque.

The grocery stores can be baffling too, the aisles packed with myriad brands of dried seaweed, rice, frozen fish, snacks, and dumplings indistinguishable from one another to anyone who doesn’t read hangul. But even a blind run-through can be rewarding if you’re a little adventurous. You might start with the panchan bar, for instance. Panchan are those little free bowls of cabbage and radish kimchi, dried anchovies, seaweed, potatoes, steamed egg, acorn jelly, and beans that Korean restaurants set out before your order arrives, and the larger groceries sell them by the pound in greater variety than you’re likely to ever get with your bi bim bop.

If you’re going to cook Korean, two things will serve you well for a wide range of recipes: thick red pepper paste (gochujang) and fermented bean paste (doenjang). Both are used as bases and seasonings for a variety of dishes and also as condiments, smeared on fresh greens with barbecue. And both will keep for a long time in the back of your refrigerator.

Kalbi (barbecue short ribs) and bulgogi (grilled marinated beef) can also be had, premarinated and ready for the pan if you’re too lazy to set up the grill, along with packages of uncured “black” pork belly (samgyeopsal), which comes from Berkshire, or Kurobuta, pigs.

No Korean meal is complete without rice and soup. Lately I’ve been avoiding the various grades of white in favor of the more expensive and flavorful “black rice,” or a blend of several whole grains. Soup is easy, if time consuming, to make properly, but at groceries you can buy tubs of premade standards like miyeokguk (seaweed soup, popular at breakfast, anecdotally good for the liver) and doenjangguk, miso soup’s ballsier cousin.

For a time Chicago Food Corp (3333 N. Kimball, 773-478-5566), was the one-stop shop for all of these things. It’s still important, for both its convenient central location and its good selection, but the gargantuan Super H Mart (801 Civic Center Dr., Niles, 847-581-1212), which opened last summer, leaves CFC in the dust. Besides the most astounding and exotic produce section in the region, it has an extensive seafood department where whole fresh critters are cleaned to order, a fresh kimchi-making operation (with free samples of some really uncommon varieties), and shelf after shelf of packaged goods from across Asia. Simple recipe cards by the well-known Hi Soo Shin Hepinstall, author of Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen, are scattered around the store.

Both CFC and H Mart are overwhelming. When I want to avoid the chaos and just grab some basics I go to New Chicago Kimchee (3648 W. Lawrence, 773-583-4442), a tiny storefront that makes its own kimchi, doenjang, gochujang, steamed buns, pork dumplings, and bindaetteok, a crispy latke-like snack made from ground soybeans.

Some of the best Korean dishes are simple and adaptable. My favorite thing in the world, for instance, is samgyeopsal. In a Korean restaurant the bacon would be stir-fried with kimchi and onions and served with big chunks of soft tofu. It’s a one-skillet affair, and when I make it at home I substitute fried eggs and mushrooms for the onions and tofu. It’s not terribly traditional, but it’s damn satisfying.

Samgyeopsal and Dalgyal (Korean bacon and eggs)

2 lbs “black” pork belly

3-4 c cabbage kimchi (the older the better), with a generous dose of the juice

2 tbs gochujang, more to taste

1 lb fresh shiitake or other mushrooms, sliced

Fresh sesame leaves (also known as perilla leaves)

3 eggs

Fry the bacon at medium heat until it just starts to crisp, then remove from the pan and drain off all but 1 tbs of the fat. Turn up the heat and fry the mushrooms until tender, then add the gochujang until it sizzles. Add the kimchi (with juice) and saute for a few minutes. Add more gochujang to taste and remove to a casserole dish or bowl. Fry the eggs sunny-side up and mix them into the bacon, kimchi, and mushrooms. Wrap bites in sesame leaves and eat.


Practitioners of Dr. Jan Kwasniewski’s Optimal Diet, an extreme low-carb regimen often referred to as the Polish Atkins, maintain a whopping 80 percent fat intake via butter, cheese, lard, organ meat, and pork, pork, pork. Chicago has more Poles than any city outside Warsaw, and there are buffets, delis, and groceries all over town that can support the program–as well as undermine it with an equally impressive array of pierogi, egg noodles, blintzes, bread, beer, and vodka.

But while Polish food is not known for being subtle or delicate, there is a dish that flies in the face of the stereotype–a smooth, lightly tangy soup, its magic disguised by an appearance no more compelling than cream of wheat. I first tried zurek, also known as white borscht, in Helena Madej’s tiny Wicker Park restaurant, Podhalanka Polksa Restauracja (1549 W. Division, 773-486-6655), and I never imagined how simple it is to approximate. Unlike its better-known purple cousin, white borscht contains no beets. It’s based on a concoction called zakwas that’s made by fermenting rye flour and garlic in water for several days with a slice of rye bread floating on top. It’s a traditional Lenten potato soup (unless you put kielbasa in it, like Madej does), but the fermentation also makes it a popular hangover cure.

There are quite a few Polish supermarkets around, but the king has to be Bobak Sausage Company (5275 S. Archer, 773-735-5334). The array of smoked sausages draped behind the butcher counter is staggering, as is the selection of prepared deli items like pork cutlets and potato dumplings, opposite refrigerated tubs filled with vacuum-sealed smoked bacons, hams, and other meats. Toward the back of the store, past shelves of pickled vegetables, is a podium of self-serve sauerkraut barrels. The dairy section has several brands of high-fat Polish butter. Down the aisle are nearly a dozen prepared soups, including the famous bigos, a hunter’s stew of sauerkraut and various pork parts; czarina (beef blood soup); and krupni (barley soup with pork and chicken broth). This is also where you’ll find tubs of zakwas, the solid elements settled to the bottom.

For zakwas for this project, I wound up going to the smaller Kurowski’s Sausage (2978 N. Milwaukee, 773-645-1692). And for sausage–well, both the above stores have great sausage, but I like to get mine at the even smaller Andy’s Deli (1721 W. Division, 773-394-3376), whose kielbasa mysliwska (hunter’s sausage) and kielbasa jalowcowa (juniper berry sausage) go particularly well in zurek.

There are tons of different ways to make zurek, but Madej says hers is almost like the one I showed her in the 1979 cookbook Old Polish Traditions in the Kitchen and at the Table. She wouldn’t dream of buying premade zakwas, but didn’t seem offended when I suggested it. Between that and the other major shortcut I took (canned vegetable stock) my zurek didn’t turn out as fantastic as her brew, but it was pretty good.

Zurek (adapted from Old Polish Traditions and Helena Madej’s recipe)

1 qt vegetable stock (some recipes call for chicken stock or water)

2 c prepared zakwas

1 lb red or yellow potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes

1 lb kielbasa, cut into small cubes

1 clove garlic, crushed

2-3 tbs fresh chopped dill or marjoram

sour cream


Bring potatoes, kielbasa, and garlic to a boil in the stock, then simmer until the potatoes are soft. Add the zakwas and dill, stir, and serve garnished with sour cream and/or horseradish.

Middle Eastern

The intersection of Lawrence and Kedzie in Albany Park is a hive of restaurants and groceries that serves the divergent threads of Chicago’s sprawling Arab-American community. Here you have Iraqi Christians, Muslim Palestinians, and other non-Arab groups (Assyrians, Iranians) serving up regionally specific dishes as well as pan-Middle Eastern standards such as falafel, hummus, and shawarma.

None may be closer to a traditional home kitchen than City Noor Kabab (4718 N. Kedzie), partly because the cook is a woman (unusual for the neighborhood) who learned from her mother, who learned from her mother. Maysoun Rabie’s repertoire runs the gamut of standards but also includes some uncommon specials not found anywhere else, like mansaf–a layer of pita drenched with nage, reconstituted cow-and-goat-milk yogurt, topped with rice and slivered almonds and a hunk of unbelievably tender braised lamb. Even the simplest dishes, like green beans with lamb, have a homey touch that you rarely run across in a restaurant.

Rabie and her husband, Sami, are Palestinians (via Jordan). They’ve run the neighboring City Noor Meat, a halal butcher shop, for many years but recently stopped selling meat–“too much work,” says Rabie–and are getting out of retail altogether. But there are plenty of other options for fresh cuts and dry goods nearby. At Sahar Meat Market II (4829 N. Kedzie, 773-583-6098) you can get imported basics as well as more specialized ingredients. The butcher case is heaped with meats, offal, bright red merguez sausage links, cheese, and olives. On the opposite wall you’ll find frozen meats, halal ducks and chickens, sausages, and a refrigerated case for yogurt, labna (yogurt cheese), and other dairy products. Between the two, towering shelves are packed with teas, nuts, and spices, including two of my favorites: sumac, a tangy purple-red powder that goes great on fried potatoes, and zataar, a green blend of sesame seeds, oregano, cumin, and other spices that brightens scrambled eggs. Don’t want a whole jar of white pepper? Fresher spices are sold by weight at the butcher counter, including the mysterious “mixed spices”–a blend of cumin and perhaps cinnamon or nutmeg that Rabie puts in her green beans.

It’s always seemed a little odd to me that none of the groceries sells fresh hummus or any of the other simple mezes most people identify with Middle Eastern food. It’s probably because hummus is so easy to make well at home–chickpeas, tahini, lemon, garlic, and olive oil in the food processor, and you don’t need to go to Albany Park to find the ingredients. But as long as you’re here you might as well buy your tomato paste imported from Jordan or your olive oil from Nablus; it’s a neutral, greenish oil when cold that bursts with fruit when it hits the pan.

Farm Meat Market (4810 N. Kedzie, 773-588-1266) is a smaller butcher with a more limited selection but somehow seems more accommodating. Bread is a serious consideration with anything you’re going to eat from the region, and a few neighborhood stores stock the pita popularly known as “south side bread,” from Oak Lawn’s Salaam Bakery. But if a short trip across the city in a delivery truck offends your standards of freshness, Al Khayam Bakery (4738-46 N. Kedzie, 773-583-3099) makes it out in the open, every day. A warm pita smeared with olive oil and zaatar in the morning makes a fine breakfast.

Maysoun Rabie’s Green Beans

2 lbs green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces

2 lbs lamb shoulder or chuck cut into small chunks

1 can tomato paste, mixed with a little water

2 c water

white onion, chopped

pinch curry powder

pinch white pepper

pinch mixed spices

pinch seasoned salt

1 tbs olive oil

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 tbs cilantro, chopped

Wash the lamb and pat dry. Simmer in water for 15 minutes, skimming the froth that rises to the top. Add the onion, spices, and green beans. Cover and simmer for 15 more minutes. Add the diluted tomato paste; cover and simmer for another 20 minutes. Heat oil in a separate skillet, saute the garlic and cilantro for a few minutes, then add the mix to the beans.


Outside of meaterias like Fogo de Chao, Brazilian food is fairly underrepresented in these parts, and that’s a shame. A nice little place reflecting the fusion of African, Portuguese, Native American, Italian, Spanish, and Middle Eastern cuisines could be a smash.

For now anyone wanting a taste of Brazil that’s not hacked off a spit by an actor dressed as a gaucho would do well to attend Sunday brunch (more like a late lunch, served from two to six) at Jorgina Pereira’s Victorian three-flat (2018 W. Adams). Pereira, the owner of Sinha Elegant Catering (312-491-8200), grew up and learned to cook in Rio, but her style reflects the influence of the northeastern state of Bahia–heavy on African, Portuguese, and Indian elements, same as her own ethnic background.

Almost every Sunday she throws a party (musicians, tango dancers, BYOB), the centerpiece of which is feijoada completa, the national dish of Brazil–black beans simmered for hours with piggy parts and served with rice, collards, oranges, fried bananas, and farofa, or toasted manioc meal.

Aside from the feijoada buffet she’ll make a number of other dishes–sometimes Bahian specialties like casquinha de siri, a crab-meat casserole stuffed into shells topped with a mixture of Parmesan cheese and bread crumbs. Many Bahian dishes use a lot of red palm oil (dende), coconut, seafood, and tiny, powerful malagueta peppers. There aren’t any groceries devoted strictly to such products, nor is there a particular neighborhood where Brazilians are concentrated. But two important sources for Brazilian goods are located within blocks of each other on Western.

Pepe’s Food & Liquor (2333 N. Western, 773-278-8756) appears to be your standard neighborhood liquor and sundries store, but it also carries a small stock of Brazilian goods, most importantly two kinds of cachaca, the rumlike sugarcane liquor critical to caipirinhas and batidas. There are also a couple brands of Brazilian beer in the refrigerators; on the shelves are packages of yerba mate and little bottles of pickled malagueta and pimenta peppers. Hidden in the back of the store is a freezer full of picahna, top sirloin beef roasts with a thick crown of fat. These are the larval-looking cuts you see Ozzie Guillen skewering on the Brazazz billboards. Don’t let that turn you off–they’re delicious. The owner of Pepe’s says he orders these from Brazil–which gave me hope they might be some good grass-fed beef, but they were stamped “Australia.”

Down the street, Brasil Legal (2153 N. Western, 773-772-6650) stocks Brazilian-flag tchotchkes, clothing, and other doodads, along with jars of dessert sauce, manioc flour, a soft cheese called quejio mineiro, paio–a coarse-ground pork sausage often found bobbing around in feijoada–the highly caffeinated Antarctica brand of guarana soda, and a freezer case full of pao de queijo, those little cheese buns the churrascarias try to get you to fill up on before you start scarfing down all that expensive beef. On Saturdays the owner fills orders for takeout feijoada at $10 a head.

Pereira gets a lot of her ingredients at Danny’s Old World Market (5129 N. Broadway, 773-989-4440), a mostly African and Caribbean supermarket in Uptown. It has an excellent if small produce section and carries coconut milk, bacalao (salt cod), and several brands of dark red dende oil imported from West Africa. In front of the butcher counter there are barrels filled with pig tails, riblets, snouts, and feet–just the sort of flotsam you need for a real feijoada completa.

Jorgina Pereira’s Casquinha de Siri (stuffed crab)

Pereira bakes the stuffing in individual crab shells but says it’s OK to use a single casserole dish or, for a more authentic look, a cast-iron skillet.

1 lb crab meat

2 tbs olive oil

2 small onions, grated

1 garlic clove

2 tomatoes, seeded and diced

1 bay leaf

black pepper

1 tbs lime juice

1 c stale French bread, cubed

1 small can coconut milk

tsp minced malagueta pepper or more to taste

c cilantro

c diced scallions

1 tbs heavy cream

1 medium green bell pepper, cored, seeded, and minced

3 tbs dende oil

2 egg yolks

c Parmesan, grated

3 tbs bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a casserole dish. Saute the onions, garlic, and green pepper. Add the tomatoes and bay leaf, then the crab meat, lime juice, salt, and pepper. Cook for 15 minutes. In a separate bowl soak French bread cubes in coconut milk for 5 minutes. Squeeze the bread dry and shred finely with a fork. Add the bread and residual coconut milk to the crab meat. Add the malagueta peppers, cilantro, and parsley. Mix well and let cook on low until heated through. Then add the dende and mix well. Stir the yolks with 2 tbs water; add to pan and mix well. Add the cream, stirring for 1 minute. On the side, mix the Parmesan with the bread crumbs and cover the crab mixture with them. Bake in oven for 15 minutes.


There’s no street in the city that gives one more hope for the peaceful coexistence of various religious and ethnic groups than Devon Avenue: Indians and Pakistanis, Jews and Muslims, carnivores and vegetarians, all working, shopping, and eating side by side. Perhaps it’s the heady aroma of cooking spices wafting up and down the street that keeps the peace.

Little groceries and halal butchers abound alongside a handful of monsters like Patel Brothers (2610 W. Devon, 773-262-7777), the mothership in a nationwide empire of Indian groceries. The shelves are stuffed with spices, legumes, jarred pickles and relishes; there’s a big freezer case full of subcontinental TV dinners and ice creams (mango, fig, pistachio); and near the front window are 48 self-serve chat barrels, each filled with a different crunchy fried snack. Down the street, World Fruit Market (2434 W. Devon, 773-506-0700) has a more global selection, with Hispanic, European, and (other) Asian sections. There’s also a wide selection of frozen exotic vegetables not likely to be stocked fresh in the fine produce department, where you’ll find bunches of the pretty green methi leaves, otherwise known as fenugreek, which you’ll need for the recipe below.

Restaurants come and go on Devon and it’s sometimes hard to keep track of who’s making really good, fresh stuff with any consistency. But a few stand out, among them Khan B.B.Q (2401 W. Devon, 773-274-8600). This might be the last place you’d want to go meatless; the half-dozen vegetable dishes on the menu seem almost an afterthought to grilled meats, kebabs, chops, and meat-based curries that predominate.

The impish, bespectacled cook here, 54-year-old Sultan Ahmed, is a hoot. He doesn’t drink and doesn’t smoke but loves techno and goes dancing at Crobar a couple times a month. He and his boss, owner Khalifa M. Amjad Khan, both learned to cook from their mothers in Lahore and have spent years in the business. Khan did time in a number of kitchens, including Sultan’s Palace, before opening his own place. Ahmed owned an Italian beef stand on the south side for 15 years, but it tanked after 9/11.

Try as I might I’ve never been quite able to get the handle on northern Indian or Pakistani cooking. Typically I turn out pale, dull facsimiles of more vibrant restaurant versions. But Khan B.B.Q.’s simple, tasty channa masala is nearly impossible to screw up–no tomatoes, onions, or garlic, like many versions, just nutty chickpeas stewed with a few spices.

Channa Masala a la Khan B.B.Q.

2 c dried white chickpeas, or kabuli channa

1 tbs baking soda

tsp salt

1 tbs ground red chile

1 tbs ground cumin

1 jalapeno, minced

2-3 tbs fresh methi leaves, finely chopped (or 1 tbs dried fenugreek)

3 tbs cooking oil

Cover chickpeas, baking soda, and salt with cold water and soak overnight. Boil for 1 to 2 hours, until uniformly dark yellow when mashed. Drain off excess water if overly soupy. Heat the oil in a skillet over high heat, and when a drop of water sizzles on its surface add the spices in order and fry for a few minutes, until the foaming subsides. Add to the cooked chickpeas and stir until incorporated.

For more recipes see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs/Jim Newberry.