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Welcome to Jungle Jim's

You don't just shop at this international food mart in deepest Ohio—you go on safari

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Along with being an impresario of foods, Jungle Jim is also a collector of junk. When he’s not working 80 hours a week, he says, “I go junkin’.” His collection fills two barns next to his store. Spilling into the market — which now covers four acres — Jim’s junk helps give this cosmopolitan emporium the kitschy atmosphere of a yard sale: a 40-foot cabin cruiser fronting the seafood section, a full-sized ricksha perched above the Chinese-food section, an Amish buggy next to the meat department.

It’s time to start shopping. I buy Queso Manchego, a hard cheese from Spain, and some salted watermelon seeds from the Middle East. Going Down Under, I pick up Koala Tea from Australia. Tightening my veldt, I find canned youngberry jam from South Africa. Turning tropical, I buy some tamarind from Thailand.

Usually it’s unwise to grocery shop when you’re hungry, but at Jungle Jim’s it pays because of all the free samples. I try several cheeses, Luigi’s ravioli and an Italian wedding soup. Then, up against the Great Wall of Rice, I check out several hot sauces ranging from “mild” to “inferno.”

Just because the food at Jungle Jim’s is more interesting than the stuff my kids eat doesn’t mean I have to like all of it. Monkey gland sauce from South Africa? No thanks. Swamp cabbage pickles from Florida? Sorry, but I’m allergic to anything grown in a swamp. A can of green boiled peanuts? I prefer my peanuts any way but boiled. And although I might like the Asian produce — lemongrass, daikon radishes and some black rope of a root — I’m afraid that after eating it I might never be hungry again.

According to Jungle Jim, recent waves of immigration have brought many new customers to his market. If America is a melting pot, Jungle Jim’s is a multicultural salad bowl. In the cheese sections, downwind from the Gorgonzola, I hear a man and a woman speak French, pricing Brie and Boursin. I hear Hindi in the Indian aisle, Spanish near the Mexican mole sauce, Japanese at the sushi bar. “Back when I started putting international foods here, most American shoppers didn’t even know what romaine lettuce was,” Jim recalls. “To them, that was exotic.” A typical week sees tens of thousands of shoppers pass through the market. Get there early on Saturdays and Sundays. And for those of us who are still learning to venture beyond meat and potatoes, Jungle Jim’s offers cooking classes in several cuisines. Yet when it comes to foreign foods, many of Jim’s customers need no introduction.

Growing up in India, Falguni Oza learned how to cook samo, an Indian rice. She boils it, adds green chile, ginger and sour yogurt. Oza could buy samo at the Indian store in Sycamore, Ohio, where her husband, Rashmi, is a chemical engineer, but then she’d have to make a separate trip to Jungle Jim’s for the Belgian chocolates sitting in her cart. Over in the Asian section, Lisa Chu has come all the way from Louisville, Kentucky, 125 miles away, to fill her cart with things she says she couldn’t buy anywhere else, including pea tips, galong and Asian yali pears. Meanwhile, Donna Spenny has her cart filled with French cheeses, ground buffalo meat and, true to her heartland heritage, Stove Top Stuffing Mix. Spenny is an adventurous shopper. “If something looks good, I’ll give it a try," she tells me.

After three hours on safari, I follow the animal tracks to the checkout counter. Elvis is still singing “All Shook Up," and when I find out I’ve spent $128, I’m pretty shook up too; that ought to be enough to put some spice in my family's meals for a while. Back home, my kids find the blood oranges "gross," yet youngberry jam passes the test in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But wait! I forgot the kangaroo meat! And the guava halves! And how could I have come home without Creole hot pepper sauce from Dominica? Oh well. I guess I’ll just have to get them on my next shopping trip to the jungle.

By Bruce Watson

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