Seattle's food scene leaves something to be desired. These days it's mostly known for its ampersand-laden bar names, reclaimed-wood tables just feet from wood-burning ovens, and Asian cuisine cooked by white guys whose credentials seem to be based upon having once had a rowdy week in Phuket.
But over in Kent, which is less than an hour away, you'll find Burmese pickled tea leaves, Punjabi syrup-soaked doughnuts, and Mexican cheese. It's not that you can't find many of these ingredients elsewhere—you could drive to White Center for Cambodian foods, to Bellevue for Russian goods, and to the north end of Roosevelt for Indian spices and pulses. But in Kent, you can find it all—not surprising, given that 24 percent of its residents were born in another country.
Kent isn't exactly obscure: It's the state's sixth-largest city, home to REI headquarters and hockey fans (the Seattle Thunderbirds call ShoWare Center home). But thus far, its culinary reputation has been tragically underrated. No longer!
Here are some of the most noteworthy markets that deserve your attention.
24202 104th Ave SE, Kent, 253-854-6800
Although it's a Cambodian-owned store, Asian Planet has a notable selection of Burmese foods, including the aforementioned pickled tea leaves. Mix them with cabbage, diced tomatoes, and a dressing of lime juice, fish sauce, and garlic oil to create one of the few exceptions to the "no salad is a meal" rule. To round out your Burmese meal, pick up some instant fish broth for mohinga, a traditional soup of rice noodles and fish. Cross over to Laos with frozen yanang leaves to make a bamboo soup called kaeng lao. Of course, all of the Cambodian ingredients are here, too, including pickled sadao (bitter flowers) and pre-shredded fresh papaya for bok lahong, the regional variation of the green papaya salad common on menus at Vietnamese and Thai restaurants.
405 E Smith St, Kent, 253-520-0198, lahuertamarket.com
La Huerta is more than a market—it's more like a supermarket. In the fridge in the back you'll find bags of masa to make tortillas and tamales, which you can also buy freshly made from the in-house bakery (as well as assorted pastries). Want to whip up some ponché (Mexican Christmas punch)? You'll find all the necessary fruits (tejocote, quince, and sugarcane, among others) to do so, as well as mango smoothies graced with tamarind-encased straws. The cheese department has multiple crema options, including versions from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Over at the full-service meat department, you'll find not only standard cuts but also beef and pork head; pork feet; meat for tamales, birria (a spicy soup), and barbacoa (pit-cooking); goat; lamb; quail; Cornish game hens; turkey; rabbit; frog legs; and more (a sign invites customers to ask if they can't find something).
23805 104th Ave SE, Kent, 253-854-5236, kkmarket.us
It's easy to feel overwhelmed at KK Market. You might find yourself standing slack-jawed at the rainbow of bulk cases of pulses (or dals, as they're known). Or perhaps you'll be dumbfounded by the sweets at the front counter (I recommend the syrup-soaked gulab jamun or the barfi, which, despite the unappetizing name, is a lovely square dessert made from condensed milk). Or maybe you're debating which of the dozens of varieties of frozen bread (roti, naan, paratha, or chapatti) would go best with your palak paneer. The rice options include parched (easily digested and prepared) and samo (small-grain for fasting days), among many others. Or perhaps you were just looking for psyllium husk? The friendly gentlemen at the front counter will be happy to help you find your way, whether it's to tell you what kuttu ka flour is (buckwheat) or what one might do with fox nuts (roast them).
Taste of Europe
24225 104th Ave SE, Kent, 253-852-7737
To be clear, the "Europe" to which the store's name refers is the eastern edge, so this is not the place to come for French croissants or Swedish meatballs. If you're looking for dark rye bread from Latvia or Russian pelmeni dumplings, however, you're in luck. There's also the famous Kiev cake from the Ukrainian candy company Roshen, which you'll find in the cake case, alongside locally made items whose labels appear to have been printed by a home printer (e.g., "Renata's Bakery," "Inessa's Cake"). The front of the store features a hot case with various types of dough wrapped around various types of meats (which is actually my favorite food group) and a cold case containing a colorful assortment of premade dishes—a bright-purple beet salad, an orange carrot slaw, red pickled peppers, and green cucumber spears. The cases don't stop there: There's also a sausage case (a case of cased meats, if you will), a fish case, and a case of farmers cheeses.
Ravi Video and Grocery
23613 104th Ave SE, Kent, 253-850-6885
I wandered into Ravi Video and Grocery, wondering what I might find in an Indo-Fijian store, only to discover mostly Indian food. I sampled the only product I could find that seemed to have been imported from Fiji, and while I'd return to the store for the mango lassi and the wide selection of South Pacific and Southeast Asian products, I would recommend that you avoid the "Unusually Flavored Objects: Burger Flavored Snacks."
23636 104th Ave SE, Kent, 253-856-8462
Across the street from Ravi you'll find Valley Harvest, an international market with food from all over, in addition to discount produce. That's where I happened to pick up a bottle of Filipino sinamak. I was told it goes well with pork rinds and fried fish, which is convenient since the store has a fish-frying service in its seafood department. Sinamak turned out to be the find of the week, a delightfully zingy and spicy fermented coconut nectar with garlic and chilies that I plan to pour over everything I eat for the next three weeks.