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Featured in Vallarta Lifestyles Magazine, Fall/Winter 2006 issue.

Food is a universal language equated with love in every culture. So when you’re thinking of thoughtful gifts to take back home for friends and family, why not surprise them with fabulous food finds from our local supermarkets? Granted, this type of store is not the first place one would normally look for souvenirs. But the truth is they offer excellent prices and one-stop shopping for a wide range of items, including alcohol and even T-shirts!

And while you’re in Vallarta, what better way to tap into Mexico’s vibrant soul than to not only sample its most esteemed dishes in restaurants, but to experience shopping for, and perhaps even making, some Mexican specialties yourself!

Vallarta offers a panoply of foodstuffs and associated implements and serving ware that you would have a hard time finding in small-town Canada or the USA - southern California being a definite exception because it’s home to so many Mexicans. And when you consider the rising Mexican migration into the entire USA, in the not too distant future most foods from this country will likely be widely available there. So why not give yourself and those you care about a head start in getting acquainted with them?

In the areas frequented by tourists, the most popular local supermarkets are Gutierrez Rizo, better known as Rizo’s, in the South Side on Constitucion beside Isla Rio Cuale; Mega Comercial Mexicana in the Hotel Zone just south of the Sheraton and also in Plaza Marina; and Wal-Mart, which is beside Sam’s across from the marina where the cruise ships dock.

Although I have been into each of these stores countless times, they contain many items I never noticed until a Mexican friend recently pointed them out to me, reminding me of the truism that we tend to see only what we recognize. Plus, normally when we go to a supermarket it’s to stock up on the things we’re familiar with, as opposed to letting ourselves discover unique treasures.

But find them you can. And here are a few of the intriguing things to look for that are authentically Mexican, most of which you should be able to take home with no hassles from customs; however, I recommend checking out the current Canadian laws and American stipulations on bringing items into these countries.

But when all is said and done, if you had to take just one item home with you I suggest it be vanilla — pure vanilla, not adulterated or synthetic substitutes for the real thing. So look for “coumarin free” on the label. Mexico is the home of “vainilla,” which is actually a beautiful fragrant orchid whose pods contain the beans from which he essence is extracted. Its aroma unlike any other, vanilla has the uncanny ability to instantly transport you back here every time you open the bottle.

Ate con Queso: A Delectable Duo

It only takes two ingredients to impress your guests with a popular dessert served all over Mexico. “Ate” (pronounced AH-tay) is a fruit preserve readily available in supermarkets. This delicacy has the consistency of a hard jelly. “Ate” is traditionally made of “membrillo,” or quince, a relative of the apple and pear native to Persia, where it is considered the fruit of love and fertility. The sweet, floral taste of “ate” truly shines when paired with a manchego or cheddar cheese. A common presentation is to serve a quarter-inch slice of cheese with a slice of “ate” atop. Start with equal proportions of each until you discover your favorite combination!