Visiting ethnic markets for the first time is a little like traveling. You never quite know what to expect.

The store fronts are always easy to pass by, plain and unassuming, but once you enter the stores, you are surrounded by bright colors, smells, and sights different from that of your standard grocery store. While our standard supermarkets all have an ethnic aisle, and its easy to get the basics, there is nothing quite like adventuring into one of Santa Rosa’s Mexican or Asian markets to seek the harder to find ingredients.

I haven’t had many opportunities to travel, but I love eating and cooking meals from different cuisines. And how lucky we are to live in such an culturally diverse community where we have easy access to foods from all over the world; both in restaurants and ethnic markets that cater to the people of those cultures and to those wanting to cook with authentic ingredients.

Asia Mart on Guerneville Road is one of the places I make frequent stops at. It’s my go-to source for fresh rice noodles or lop chong sausage, as well as the basics like soba noodles, coconut milk, soy and Sriracha sauce. As the largest Asian ethnic market in Santa Rosa, they cater to a wide range of Asian populations, including Indian. I like their well-stocked aisle of sakes and the selection of oils and medicines I’m familiar with from my acupuncturist’s office. I almost always leave with a package of Banh Cam, fried sesame balls with mung mean paste, that they perch on the corner of the check out counter.

MeKong Market, on Sebastopol Road, is much smaller and specializes in Vietnamese ingredients. When I was last there and talking with the friendly staff, she told me that they also cater to the Fijian and Islander population of Santa Rosa. MeKong has a fresh meat and fish counter, and it’s always interesting to see what types of cuts people are picking out.

Their produce selection is the best of all the Asian markets, filled with exotic-to-me ingredients like fresh banana flowers and taro leaves, but also staples like cilantro, ginger and onions at a great price. Around the Lunar New Year, I try to catch a Banh Tet, or Moon Cake, during its limited 2 week production; a delicious and unique rice, mung bean and pork filling that’s wrapped in a banana leaf.

Even if I know exactly what I’m going in for, I love to wander the aisles and look at the things I’m unfamiliar with. How exactly is sorghum used? What do fresh banana flowers taste like? What exactly is in this package with writing I can’t read? Do the chickens with black skin taste any different? Even if you don’t need anything, it’s always a fun shopping trip that warrants a bit of exploration. Ethnic markets are also a great place to stock up on cookwares, fuel for warming trays, or incense and trinkets for alters.