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A hungry shopper finds the best Web sites for ethnic foods.

"Where am I going to find dried shrimp by this weekend?" I asked my wife in a panic. It was Thursday night, and this was the one ingredient I still needed for a Sunday Asian brunch. I didn't have an afternoon to go to Chinatown, much less a week to wait for a catalog. So I went on-line and, with a few searches and a charge card, I had FedEx delivering dried shrimp (and 20 other items--I got a little carried away) at 8:45 a.m. on Saturday. Some sites haven't mastered overnight shipping. But the Internet will soon be the easiest way to buy ethnic foods. I've chosen the best overall sites for Indian, Chinese, French, Eastern Mediterranean and Latin-American groceries. Plus, for each cuisine I've included a site for a single specialty, from baklava to peppers.

INDIAN

Best overall site: India Plaza www.indiaplaza.com
India Plaza, which has stores in India, the United States and the U.K., sells a wide variety of ingredients, including basmati rice, curry pastes and powders, dozens of types of lentils and mango pickles.
Ease of use: Product descriptions are limited, and it's difficult to find specific ingredients if you don't know much about Indian food. Everything is organized alphabetically, but some items are listed by brand while others are listed by generic ingredient name.
Bottom line: The prices are competitive with markets in New York City's Little India and much lower than elsewhere on-line. And the service is friendly and knowledgeable. But the great deal has drawbacks: My order took a week to arrive, despite a request for expedited shipping.

Best specialty site: Surati Farsan Mart | www.suratifarsan.com
This Los Angeles-area dessert and snack shop is highly regarded by the city's Indian community. Its Web site sells exotic Indian sweets made in the store, such as ghari (a pistachio-and-cashew confection), badam barfi (almond candy) and choorma ladoo (cream-of-wheat balls), as well as snacks, including papdi gathiya (gram-flour chips) and chevdo (rice puffs mixed with peanuts and raisins).
Ease of use: The site supplies detailed product descriptions and some photographs, which are helpful for the uninitiated.
Bottom line: Most items are reasonably priced, between $5 and $7 a pound, and my box of sweets arrived promptly.

CHINESE

Best overall site: The Oriental Pantry | www.orientalpantry.com
The Oriental Pantry, an established Boston-area store, started this Web site four years ago. It now stocks more than a thousand Asian products, with an emphasis on Chinese ingredients, including mushroom soy sauce, dried lily buds, fermented black beans, Shaoxing cooking wine and five-spice powder--plus custom-printed fortune cookies. Ease of use: Finding specific products isn't easy. For example, there are so many categories for sauces--oyster sauces, bean sauces, instant mixes, other sauces--that neophytes may get confused. The short descriptions of each product are somewhat useful, but it helps to know your Chinese ingredients.
Bottom line: Prices are competitive with those of Chinatown markets in major cities. And items are much cheaper here than on other food sites: An 18-ounce bottle of oyster sauce is $2.09; at deandeluca.com, a 9-ounce bottle of the same brand is $3.25. What's more, my complete order arrived the next day.

Best specialty site: Annie Chun's | www.anniechun.com
This artisanal company, which started as a stand selling sauces at the Marin County Farmers' Market in the early 1990s, now offers a popular line of 18 types of all-natural noodles and sauces. The mai fun (rice noodles) is especially good: It's the only such product made fresh in America.
Ease of use: The site is so streamlined it took me less than five minutes to order, from start to finish. And the list of ingredients and nutritional information provided for each product is a nice touch. Bottom line:
The cost of shipping means you'll pay more than you would in stores, but the prices ($2.69 per box of noodles; most are 8 ounces) aren't that high, considering the superior quality. Most importantly, I received a quick, e-mailed order confirmation, plus a personal response to my inquiry about gluten content. And my order arrived overnight.

FRENCH

Best overall site: Le Village | www.levillage.com
Started by Frenchman Eric Bertrand in San Francisco in 1997, this site has a well-chosen (though not comprehensive) selection of imported products, including cheese, foie gras, truffles, fresh rabbit, snail shells, boudin noir and prepared foods like cassoulet.
Ease of use: Designed to look like a French village, this site allows you to click on various buildings--the butcher, the sweets shop--to go to the relevant products. Unfortunately, the site is far from speedy: It takes a long time to download a page.
Bottom line: These are mostly luxury items, so prices are high--but so is the quality. And the responses to my questions by e-mail and by phone were gracious and informed.

Best specialty site: Chocosphere | www.chocosphere.com
With Chocosphere, anyone can buy the high-quality baking chocolate that was once available only to professionals. The site carries the full line of Valrhona and Michel Cluizel French chocolates, plus an excellent selection of Belgian brands, such as Jacali, Callebaut, Côte d'Or and Café-Tasse.
Ease of use: The site gives straightforward information useful to the serious baker, like the percentage of cocoa in each kind of chocolate.
Bottom line: You can order as little as a single 2.6-ounce bar or in units as large as an 11-pound block. And the prices are reasonable: Scharffen Berger charges the same amount at the company's own site. But there, you have to order two bars; Chocosphere has no minimum. My delivery was prompt, with gel-ice packs to keep the chocolate from melting.

EASTERN MEDITERRANEAN

Best overall site: ethnicgrocer.com | www.ethnicgrocer.com
You won't find a better selection of Greek or Turkish ingredients on-line--or such a huge inventory of German, Japanese, Korean, Mexican, Thai and Philippine products. I picked up pickled grape leaves, pomegranate glaze, burghol (crushed) wheat and specialty olive oils, such as an organic extra-virgin olive oil pressed from only Calamata olives.
Ease of use: The site is intelligently organized by country and product, so it's easy to find what you're looking for. The photos are helpful, as are the succinct descriptions and the suggested uses for each product.
Bottom line: Some prices are great: For example, Peloponnese sun-dried-tomato relish is $6.09 for 7.5 powerful ounces, about the same price that I find at neighborhood markets in Astoria, the part of New York City where I usually shop for Greek ingredients. But some prices don't hold up against those of other specialized sites: Dried giant lima beans are $7.19 a pound, versus $2.99 for the same brand at asiamex.com. Still, you can't beat Ethnic Grocer's efficiency. When I posed a question about olives, I received a response almost as soon as I had pressed "send," and my complete order arrived overnight.

Best specialty site: Rafaat Hallab & Sons | www.hallab.com
This Tripoli, Lebanon-based company, run by the same family since 1881, sells mostly baklava, but you'll be amazed at how many varieties there are, including ones with pistachio or cashew in all shapes and sizes and with varying levels of sweetness.
Ease of use: The blue-and-gold site is a bit busy and disorienting, but it works effectively. And the gift box I ordered arrived in a beautiful tin decorated with the same signature blue and gold.
Bottom line: A little more than two pounds of baklava costs $36, including shipping, so this isn't an everyday treat. But the more you buy, the better the prices get: If you order four pounds, the price is $15 a pound. The service is unbelievably friendly; the Hallabs personally and promptly answer every e-mail. And you can track your package on the site as it migrates from Tripoli to Beirut to Dubai to Frankfurt to New York and, finally, to your home. Miraculously, shipments arrive in three to five business days.

LATIN AMERICA

Best overall site: Latin Grocer | www.latingrocer.com
Just a year old, this site already has a well-chosen selection of Latin-American, Spanish and Caribbean foods, from chorizo sausage to Guajillo chiles.
Ease of use: The site is in both English and Spanish, and some items definitely cater to a homesick Latin audience--six-packs of Inca Kola, for instance. The photographs are useful, but many products have only brief descriptions.
Bottom line: Latin Grocer is one of the few ethnic sites that offers fresh fish, but at a price--Chilean salmon is $26.89 for two pounds, plus $20 for shipping. Other items are available only in large quantities: You can order whole Serrano hams here, but not slices, and Manchego cheese is sold only in wheels of at least eight pounds. Still, the site has weekly sales, so many prices are competitive. Most of my order arrived overnight, but one item was out of stock and came four business days later.

Best specialty site: Peppers | www.peppers.com
Peppers carries more than 6,500 hot sauces, marinades, pickled peppers and seasonings from around the world.
Ease of use: A dancing hot pepper with a surfboard welcomes you to the site, and cute comments ("Keeps the dog out of my food!") pop up on various pages. If you're looking for a particular product--say, San Marcos chipotles in adobo sauce--you'll find it here: The Sauce-O-Matic search engine lets you zero in on exactly what you want.
Bottom line: Prices are fair compared with other pepper specialty sites: Most hot sauces are $4 to $6.

Steven A. Shaw an attorney in New York, writes often for Salon.com and Food Arts.

Published June 2000
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