Tastes of home
Reno residents with ties to other countries talk about their favorite foods—and where to get them locally
On my first day in Australia as a high-school exchange student, I couldn’t imagine how an entire country could be so nuts over stout little jars of goopy, black spread. Children sang the TV jingle—“We’re happy little Vegemites as bright as bright can be”—like it was the second national anthem.
My first bite tasted like what it was—a sticky, salty, slightly bitter yeast extract that’s a byproduct of beer making. As a teen in a new country though, I had an enthusiastic when-in-Rome stance, and I set out to acquire a taste for most things Australian.
Within a few weeks, I could barely imagine breakfast without a thin smear of the stuff. By then, it tasted like earthy perfection atop my buttered toast, alongside a soft-boiled egg.
Some foods, like Vegemite, are acquired tastes. Others are easy to love at first bite. Either way, there’s something about familiar foods that taste like home—or, at times, a second home. And sometimes a new food habit can be as satisfying as one you picked up in your grandma’s kitchen. To that effect, Reno dwellers shared their favorite foods from other countries, plus advice on which specialty shops or popular chain stores stock them.
If you’re game to try Vegemite, one good local source is Cost Plus, where there’s a wide range of international snacks.
★ Cost Plus World Market, 4987 S. Virginia St.
Big in Japan
Miya Hannan migrated to the U.S. from Japan, spent 17 years in San Diego and San Francisco, and landed in town about a year ago to head up an art program at the University of Nevada, Reno.
She’s found that Japanese ingredients aren’t as readily available in Reno as in her two adopted Californian cities, but one essential condiment, natto, is in at least one local freezer section.
Natto is made of soybeans fermented with Bacillus subtilis, which has long been used in some cultures as a digestive aid. The bacteria can make the natto stringy and stretchy. To conjure a reasonably close mental image, picture the kind of strings that form when you’re making Rice Krispies treats and you pull off a chunk of the melty, marshmallow-cereal conglomeration before it solidifies. Natto isn’t sweet though—its aroma is often called “cheese-like,” and it tends to elicit strong reactions. There are countless YouTube videos of Westerners trying it and making funny faces.
In Japan, though, it’s a ubiquitous comfort food prized for its protein, vitamin and mineral content.
Traditionally, natto is mixed with soy sauce and eaten on rice. After years in the U.S., Hannan has Americanized her natto habits. She spreads her daily serving on a slice of bread.
Natto is available in single-serve trays at 168 Asian Market, which specializes in Chinese groceries and stocks a few Japanese items, too.
★ 168 Asian Market, 3090 S. Virginia St.
Ruby Barrientos is the youngest of five children in a family from El Salvador, the only one among her siblings born in the U.S.
“Plantains are one of my favorite things,” she said. They’re a savory, starchy version of bananas, popular in the Caribbean and Central America.
Plaacute;tanos fritos—fried plantains—are especially popular, and for Barrientos, they were a staple of childhood.
“It was a weekend thing,” she said. “I remember on the weekends, as a kid, my dad would cook that. It was my favorite thing. … That’s just a popular breakfast. You can eat it at any time, but it’s one of the traditional breakfasts.” It’s often served alongside refried beans and crema, a thickened cream, and sometimes fried eggs.
“I make them every now and then. I usually like to go to my mom’s or aunt’s, and they make them,” Barrientos said. “My mom will just fry them in the pan with oil, and then she’ll put sugar on it.”
“It takes me back to being a young kid, having that,” she said.
Fresh plantains are widely available in Latino grocery stores and some chain markets such as Winco. One source that Barrientos and her relatives frequent for plantains and a range of Central American groceries is Tapachulteca Mini Market.
★ Tapachulteca Mini Market, 1287 Commerce St., Sparks
“I grew up with a French-obsessed mother from Holland and a French dad, went to a French school in Washington D.C., and went to college in France,” said Nico Colombant, a journalism instructor at UNR.
He’s also worked as a news reporter in a few different African countries, and wherever he’s lived, he’s always been on the lookout for the best local version of the French baguette.
“That’s our rice, our staple food from France,” he said. The iconic stick of bread plays an important role in French culture. Its price is regulated, and the bakers who make it think of themselves as artisans. The president even has an official baguette maker.
And while baguettes are easy to find stateside, the ones that taste truly French are more elusive. Colombant described a perfect specimen: “hardest on the outside and very soft and airy on the inside.”
For Francophile foodies in Northern Nevada, there’s a glimmer of hope—and, for most of Reno, it’s within easy reach. The Nob Hill baguette at Raley’s is a reasonable approximation, according to Colombant.
The Raley’s baguette doesn’t have quite the same crunchy crust and soft interior—but, he said, “I have a life hack that makes it better. … Cut it up, and put it in plastic. And freeze it.” Then, pull a piece out of the freezer as needed and toast it.
★ To find one of the several local Raley’s, visit https://locations.raleysstories.com/.
Twist of fate
Hanna Porter is from Germany and has lived in the area—first Incline Village, then Reno—for 35 years. She remembers the breads from home fondly, and Whole Foods is among the places she shops for them.
“They have a terrific bread store,” she said. One bread in particular that she recommends from there is the German pretzel.
In Germany, Porter noted, “A pretzel is something you pick up at the train station, on the streets—they sell them everywhere.”
Whole Foods’ are, “the closest I’ve ever tasted so far,” she said.
There are a few right ways to eat a pretzel. When Porter and her husband order them, she said, “He puts mustard on it, and I put butter on it, the German way.” She also advised that pretzels pair well with a glass of beer.
★ Whole Foods, 6139 S. Virginia St.