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Spices of life 

Curiosities and delicacies at six ethnic groceries

Fresh oxtail? No problem. Cachaca for the perfect caipirinha? I'll just run up the street. Chocofreta when Hershey's just won't do? Shoot on over to the corner market.

We're a lucky bunch here in Atlanta. We enjoy not just an excellent roster of both bargain and luxe ethnic restaurants, but also have an ever-expanding vista of well-stocked food shops kitted out with exotic comestibles. Name an ingredient and it's out there for you to find -- from more common items such as Haloumi cheese to rare jewels like fresh banana blossoms. Browse the aisles of these specialty stores and you'll also find specialized cookware you never knew you really needed, as well as cookbooks detailing the arts of ethnic cookery.

Yet these ethnic groceries aren't just a gourmand's toy store, they're also important cultural centers of a sort for the communities that make up the bulk of their clientele. Homesick ex-pats find childhood treats to comfort the soul, while the rest of us discover worlds we long to visit.

Cape Food & Beverage

After a recent move from its original relocation on Roswell Road, this South African specialty food shop had just finished setting up at press time, but it plans to continue offering a variety of freshly baked, flaky meat pies. Shelves are stocked with a varied assortment of Cadbury candies usually not found in the U.S., including the intriguingly textured chocolate Flake bar. Pure, exotic mango and litchi juices are available, as are rubs and barbecue sauces and tea biscuits imported from South Africa. Cadac grills are also for sale: Popular for their extreme ease of portability, the lightweight barbecues come in handy should you need to cook up on the spot the big game you just scored.

2080 Peachtree Industrial Court, suite 116, 770-395-1255.

Ranch 99

Part of a California-based chain, Ranch 99 is constantly bustling with Asian families and Asian food fanatics gathering hard-to-find ingredients. Cases in the produce department bulge with longan, curry leaves, sugarcane, three varieties of papaya, fresh bamboo shoot. You name an organ meat, and Ranch 99 carries it, from whole cow tongues and cow spleen to raw pork blood. You'll also find dry goods like haw flake candies, bean curd sheets elegantly tied into knots and dried, and Moon Cake gift sets worth collecting if only for their stunning presentation boxes. The houseware section merits a visit in and of itself. Buried within the piles of bargain-priced spatulas, slotted spoons and bamboo steamers, look for highly humorous, mildly pornographic coffee mugs whose nipple-biting artwork is in the style of Japanese woodblock prints.

Asian Square, 5150 Buford Highway, 770-458-8899.

Coisas do Brasil

In addition to bikinis the size of postage stamps and bog-booty jeans, this Brazilian food store offers all you need to make feijoada, the national dish of Brazil. Black beans, dried pork, and farofa (manioc meal) are for sale, as well as packaged mix to make pao de qeuijo. The lunch counter is a must-visit. An attentive audience sipping vitaminas (shakes of milk and fresh fruit) stare at the large mounted TV blaring Brazilian soap operas. Perch on a stool and enjoy the show with some bottled guanabana juices, cheap and tasty sandwiches and a savory snack bomb called cochinha, a tennis-ball sized mound of zesty chicken wrapped in potatoes and deep fried.

1480 Terrell Mill Road, Marietta. 770-541-1117.

International Bakery

I would be the happiest person on the planet should International Bakery sell a bevy of tiropites (phyllo-wrapped cheese pastries) as many neighborhood shops in Greece do, but until then I'll be satisfied with the regular suspects -- baklava, kataifi and spanikopita. Nescafe and Nou Nou are available for whipping up refreshing frappes, and the refrigerated case is stocked with several brands of thick, creamy Greek yogurt. Kaseri, kefalograviera, manouri and myzithra cheeses are sold here as well. Chocofreta bars, pasteli (sesame candy) and halvas are register-side temptations.

2165 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-636-7580.

Tomato International Company

Perhaps the hardest to find and the most fascinating food shop in Atlanta, Tomato International is a portal into the Japanese universe. Aisles are packed with imported treats, many of which have nary a word of English on them. In the place of such lexical gems as Let's Making Dessert with Milk (as one brightly colored box proposed) are designs so gorgeous you'll want to frame them and hang them on your kitchen wall. Create your own world of culinary wonder by selecting packaged foods based solely on their aesthetic appeal. We did, and were surprised with an afternoon snack of sugarcoated sweet potato fries, blueberry-flavored rice balls and malt ball candies in the shape of pine cones with chocolate-dipped tops. The malt balls were packaged in strips emblazoned with dancing, blue-eyed raccoons.

2086 Cobb Parkway, Smyrna. 770-933-0108.

New Odessa

A second outpost to the smaller Peachtree Industrial location, New Odessa on Clairmont Road is chock-a-block with all things Russian and Baltic. A stand-alone case dedicated to sausage boasts a seemingly endless variety of cured and smoked meats: bear sausage, Ukrainian smoked pork loin, and links as short as your thumb or long as a whip. The freezer case offers hand-made pelmeni and pierogi, both savory and sweet. Lithuanian and Russian beers entice from a reach-in cooler. All manner of preserves, dark and mysterious with thick fruit, line the shelves next to preserved meats and nut spreads. Penny candy, in the form of chocolates wrapped in papers worth collecting for their striking designs, is stationed in front of a deli case stocked with red caviar. Although the $4.99 sandwich and drink special includes sandwiches of the American deli sort, plans to offer housemade blini and pierogi are in the works.

2793 Clairmont Road, 404-321-3544.

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