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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Vancouver's multi-cultural grocery stores

By Mia Stainsby

You’d need to lock yourself up and swallow the key to remain parochial in multi-flavoured Vancouver.
For instance, I walk into Alborz Fine Foods, a small but bright new Persian food store that recently opened in Park Royal Mall South. I indulge, one or two bites at a time, in unknown foods whenever I’m in an ethnic store. This time, I walk around and wait for something to grab me.
I notice bottles of a milky beverage in the cooler. It looks healthy, so I buy one. I also note some large and crispy okra, deep-fried, displayed in a brown bag. I ask for a sample, and it’s as delicate as a potato chip and has a mildly spicy taste. I buy some of that. And from the display of nuts, I buy a bag of cashews.
At home, I wonder if the beverage (called doujh) will be bitter, and I’m prepared for it. But no, it’s a carbonated yogurt drink with a bit of saltiness and a bit of mint and really refreshing. My sister, who’s visiting from Ontario, loves the crispy dried okra. The cashews are salty, but with a citrusy edge
Mitras Market, in Ambleside, another Persian store, is always a bit of an adventure, too. I’ve bought Persian breads, roasted nuts, tahini and free-range chickens there as well as mulberry seeds and Persian cookies for snacks.
Ethnic grocery stores start up to satisfy Metro Vancouver’s immigrant cravings, but they also play a powerful ambassadorial role. And prices at these stores are easy to swallow, too.
At Minerva’s Mediterranean Deli in Kitsilano, owner Mike Georgiopoulos has witnessed how culinary cultures converge. When he opened in 1971, his customers were 100-per-cent Greek immigrants, he says.
“Now, it’s the opposite way,” he says. “About two per cent of my customers are Greek and 98 per cent are other Canadians.”
He remembers a time when a Greek restaurant in the neighbourhood spit-roasted a whole lamb every Saturday.
“A lot of people thought they were barbecuing dogs and got angry, especially when they saw the head. They had never tasted lamb. The owners would be trying to explain that it was lamb,” he says. Now, in his own store, which has a deli section, lamb is one of his bestsellers.
Where, I wondered, did his Greek customers go?
“I’m gonna tell you,” he says in his Greek accent. “Greek products — you’ll find them all over the place. Now the supermarkets have it because there’s big demand.”
That’s not all. The most average of supermarkets sell items such as nori, tofu, tortillas and couscous, along with the phyllo and pita. At Minerva’s, Georgiopoulos says, you’ll find just about everything you’d find in Greece.
In ethnic stores, you should ask questions of the “What’s this?” and “What do you do with that?” variety. Otherwise, you might never taste foods such as “the famous” Atiki honey.
“The bees collect honey from thyme flowers, and it’s a special flavour,” says Georgiopoulos. “It’s one of the tastiest aromatic honeys you can taste in the world.”
Or you might forever be a one-variety olive eater, ignorant of what you’re missing. Minerva’s has 50 varieties of Greek olives alone.
Georgiopoulos says Greek restaurants have played a big role in bridging food cultures. Who, these days, is stumped by baklava? But if you talk to someone like Georgiopoulos, you might discover that the saganaki, which you’ve probably tried in a restaurant, can be souped up.
“Cut the cheese [a soft Greek cheese such as kefalogaviera], dip in egg, flour it, heat olive oil in a pan and cook both sides until it’s golden. A lot of people take brandy or ouzo and flame it in the pan and bring the cheese to the table while it’s flaming,” he says. (But we both agreed, readers shouldn’t try this unless they know what they’re doing.)
To Tina Fineza, chef at Flying Tiger, a pan-Asian restaurant, this is an incredible city for cooks. Her restaurant kitchen requires ingredients for Chinese, Malaysian, Singaporean, Korean, Japanese and Filipino dishes. She’s also a consultant to restaurants such as La Tacqueri, and has to know sources for Latin American ingredients.
“We can get practically everything in Vancouver,” she says. “I lived in Seattle for a long time, and it can be hard to find some things in American cities. Here, I’ve been able to find every single ingredient. I’d be hard-pressed to say I can’t find something. I can make dishes with exactly the same flavours I’ve experienced in Thailand. I can find baby eggplants that are the size of peas. I can find wing beans,” which are square-shaped beans. T he flowers from these beans are used for purple food dye for use in sticky rice desserts.
The Asian fruits available in Metro Vancouver’s Asian stores, she says, are amazing.
The super-successful T&T Supermarkets, purveyor of Asian foods of all types, are almost as common as Safeways in Metro Vancouver. (There are eight, with another one to open in Park Royal Mall.)
About 20 per cent of shoppers are non-Asian, says marketing manager Sandra Creighton. The goal is to attract non-Asians as well Asian customers and to carry some North American products as well.
“We’ve developed a series of ‘Asian Food Made Easy’ recipes that shoppers could easily make,” Creighton says. Selection is as varied as in any supermarket in Hong Kong, she says.
Fineza likes to go to T&T for steamed buns: “I’ll make pork-belly sliders with them. They bring the bao [buns] in fresh from local bakers, and it’s so fresh.”
She’s all over the map in her shopping. “I live on the East Side, and I’m spoiled with the price points and variety,” she says. She’s figured out that on Fraser, between 24th and 27th Avenues, she can find Filipino stores.
“And on Kingsway, from Windsor to around Clark, it’s bam! bam! bam! It’s interspersed with shops selling Chinese barbecue duck and pork bellies hanging in the window and Vietnamese stores and bakeries with amazing French baguettes, hot from the oven, for $1.50. The signs aren’t in English, so I’ll just try this or that.”
If you live in Metro Vancouver, you can’t whine about not being able to cook ethnic dishes, she says.
“You’ll find everything you need. There’s no way you can’t make authentic ethnic dishes.”

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