Shopping for Latin food ingredients in your neighborhood can be a very rewarding experience. Globalization and trade agreements with South American countries are bringing new products to the US all the time, so it’s easier to find things that were not available before. You'll be amazed at what you can find with a little effort.
This depends a lot on where you live. Large cities will of course have more options. Suburbs of large urban areas are often especially rich with Latin markets, restaurants, and bakeries. Some of these may cater to the cuisine of just one country, but it’s common to find stores that sell products from many different countries. I've come across a lot of markets that sell a combination of Asian and Latin international foods. Explore any interesting international market you can - you never know what you might find.
Lots of smaller communities now have Latin markets, because so many people from South American countries are settling in smaller towns. Shopping is these small neighborhood stores is interesting, and a great place to get to know the Latin community in your area. You might have to ask around and look for them – they are usually more of the mom and pop variety and may not advertise. If you don’t know where to begin looking, check the yellow pages or try online. A search for “latin food markets," “latin food," or “latin grocery” with the name of your town will probably turn up something. Ask at a Latin food restaurant where they shop for their ingredients. South American restaurants and ingredients are popular blog topics too, so you might come across a local blogger who has already explored your area.
Large Grocery Chains
Certain upscale grocery stores have large international food sections. Whole Foods Market has an extensive selection of produce from around the world. I recently found an impressive array of nonperishable Latin specialty ingredients at a Wegmans in Pennsylvania, including masarepa, which can be hard to find.
Because fruits and vegetables are perishable and sometimes difficult to import, they may be harder to find. But it's amazing how much more is available nowadays. Keep an eye out at your local farmer’s market, where artisan farmers are sometimes growing exotic produce.
Certain things like tropical fruit just won’t grow this far away from the equator. Fresh fruit can be difficult to import, as it must be harvested early in order to ripen at the right time. After it travels so far, it usually doesn't taste as good, and it can be very expensive. But you can find imported frozen fruit pulp that works beautifully for many recipes. Companies such as Goya sell bottled tropical fruit juices such as mango, papaya, guava, and passionfruit. And key limes are the best substitute for the special high acid limes grown in South America (essential for making ceviche).
Don't Forget the Internet
It’s great fun to hunt for ingredients at your local store. It can be a chance to practice your Spanish, and you're bound to learn something new about your community. But if you can’t find what you are looking for, don’t worry. You can order just about anything over the internet. Cookbooks about South American cooking are a great resource for shopping online – they usually list some websites and mailorder stores that carry the ingredients in the recipes. Check out this list of online resources for South American food, which has several links to excellent Latin food webstores.