By Anna Mindess
It’s Saturday morning and I am playing with my new toy, a conical terra cotta tagine, the traditional Moroccan cooking pot. Its dome-shaped interior magically steams meat until it falls off the bone. I scan the ingredients in the chicken recipe I plan to make. Saffron? Check. Cilantro? Check. But wait—pomegranate molasses? No worries, there’s undoubtedly a Middle Eastern shop carrying this specialized foodstuff within walking distance of my Berkeley kitchen.
The incomparably food-conscious East Bay has it all: a healthy crop of farmers’ markets, locavore activists, authentic eateries of every imaginable cuisine, and ethnic food shops that could cater lunch for the entire U.N. Indeed, the classic melting pot ideal—immigrants abandoning their native languages, values, and traditions to meld together in a stew of Americanization—probably never had a chance here in our neck of the woods, where we rub shoulders with people from all over the world. A perk of this cultural commingling: adventurous home cooks sleuthing out ingredients and transplants pining for comforting homeland dishes can find exactly what they hunger for within the borders of our gastronomic wonderland.
No East Bay neighborhood conveys the cultural richness of our region like the West Berkeley intersection of University and San Pablo avenues, festooned with banners proclaiming “International Marketplace,” and home to Berkeley’s annual International Food Festival. A slew of shops represents the diversity of food traditions of succeeding waves of immigrants and endless possibilities for culinary exploration.
Down the block on San Pablo, Mi Tierra’s cheery yellow walls, sparkly star-shaped piñatas, and spirited piped-in music create a festive atmosphere. Manager Ambrocio Hernandez, who sports a carefully trimmed goatee, shows me around, describing provisions from Mexico and across Latin America. He points out a mix for pandebono (Colombian cheese bread made with corn and yucca flours), purple cornmeal from El Salvador for shuco (a morning porridge), Brazilian coffee and Argentine yerba mate, and canned chongos zamoranos (a sweet curdled milk dessert from his native Michoacan in Mexico).
The on-site bakery turns out a daily variety of pan dulce, such as puffy shell-shaped rolls with wavy lines of chocolate, vanilla, or coconut topping. The deli also makes its own pork sausages and chicharrones (crispy fried pork skins).
In the produce section, amid barrels of straw-colored corn kernels for pozole, burnished, dried red chilis, and dusky brown tamarind pods, I meet Joy Nwoha, who works at the Jamaican Flavah Island Cafe across the street. Today, Nwoha is selecting sorrel, dried hibiscus, and ginger for a traditional Jamaican beverage. “Sometimes my boss sends me over to buy plantains to fry, too,” she says, slipping a fragrant bundle of herbs into her hand basket.
A few blocks away on University Avenue, the pungent mix of spices wafting from Milan International Market beckons before I walk through the door. Inside, I spy bags of deep golden turmeric and intense scarlet paprika. Owner Mahinder Parmar, who opened this shop in 1975, did not name it after Italy’s largest city; in Hindi milan means “together,” and he views his store as a meeting place for diverse peoples. As Ranjana, Parmar’s wife, escorts me around the store, I glimpse products from all regions of India, plus neighboring countries. The Sri Lankan section holds dozens of spicy, versatile sambal sauces and a mix for the Sri Lankan specialty—bowl-shaped pancakes called hoppers.
Milan’s selection is impressive: two dozen different flours, oils made from everything from mustard to grape seeds. Naturally, you’ll find traditional Indian ingredients here, too: big jars of yellow ghee, mango pickles, chutneys, and many varieties of rice, lentils, and beans.
Reaching into a bulk bin, Julian Smedley, a Berkeley jazz violinist with curly salt-and-pepper hair, picks cardamom to mix with assam tea and ground ginger. He fell in love with this homemade chai on a recent trip to South India. But his first exposure to Indian food occurred in London, he says, his voice betraying a slight British accent. A vegetarian, Smedley enjoys preparing Indian food and is planning a cauliflower curry for friends. Though Milan Market carries a variety of prepared curry powders, Smedley prefers to concoct his own mixture. “For the fun of it,” he says. “I use toasted cumin, paprika, turmeric, garlic, onion, sesame seeds, peanuts . . . oh, I am probably forgetting something,” he adds, laughing.
In my exploration of local ethnic food purveyors, I discover that many global grocers don’t specialize in a single cuisine, but practice an overlapping inclusiveness that reflects the East Bay’s mélange of cultures. Milan Market, for instance, stocks foods from countries far from India. Ranjana, who was born in Fiji, shows me the Fijian and Ethiopian sections. “There used to be an Ethiopian church nearby,” she says. “Its members came here and found that they used many of the same spices and then asked my husband to get Ethiopian coffee.” The church is no longer there, but the Ethiopian customers remain.
Further down San Pablo Avenue, the warm ochre and rust walls of The Spanish Table display Spanish, Portuguese, Basque, and Catalonian flags, while its shelves are filled with specialties from the Iberian peninsula: Marconi almonds, Basque chorizo, Catalan goat cheese, an ocean of canned Spanish seafood, plus cookbooks and dazzling ceramic cookware.
Claudia Bernard, a trim, 50-ish Oakland resident who works as a professional mediator, calls herself “an adventuresome cook who likes challenges and is not intimidated by making new things.” She appreciates The Spanish Table for its “huge selection of really good Spanish wine, their variety of paprikas and olives and their friendly advice. They helped me find everything I needed to make paella.”
Across the Mediterranean Sea from the Iberian Peninsula lies a mosaic of ancient lands we call the Middle East. While the warm climate provides bountiful crops that cross borders—wheat, olives, grapes, figs, dates, chickpeas, and eggplant—each country claims its own gastronomic specialties. Middle Eastern markets usually encompass the flavors of several cultures, with an emphasis on a specific country or two. Mehrdad Jafarzadeh, the proprietor of Middle East Market on San Pablo Avenue, previously owned restaurants in Sausalito and San Francisco featuring California cuisine. Then his wife, Jeannette—an Ecuador native who speaks fluent Farsi—convinced him to connect to his Persian roots.
Their six-month-old store stocks items from all over the Middle East, but specializes in Persian delicacies. Besides baking five types of flat breads and sweet noonesherin bread four times a week, Jeannette, an artist, has decorated the store with deep blue walls and scarlet curtains. She shows me a Persian shortcut for time-pressured cooks: a frozen chopped mixture of parsley, chives, and fenugreek that forms the basis of many dishes. The market also carries fallodeh, a frozen dessert with vermicelli noodles, rosewater, vanilla, and lemon. A small cafe in the back of the store serves their signature kebabs for lunch.
One doesn’t need to voyage very far on San Pablo Avenue to uncover another Middle Eastern store with an alternate set of flavors. Just across University, Indus Food Center displays Afghan bread, Lebanese nuts, Saudi Arabian cookies, and eight kinds of filo dough to satisfy its wide range of customers. Hatice Seflek, a loyal Indus Food shopper, moved to El Cerrito from Turkey with her husband and two young children 15 years ago. “At first, I was very worried about where I could find traditional Turkish foods,” says Seflek, her features animated beneath a patterned hijab headscarf. At that time, the store’s Turkish selection was limited to tea and pickles, but Seflek asked them to import Turkish coffee and cheeses. As the Turkish community grew and more of Seflek’s friends frequented the store, Indus accommodated their wishes and now features a wide array of Turkish foodstuffs, such as Labneh cheese and whole black olives, which Seflek explains are important for breakfast. “Here are some must-haves,” she says, pointing out jars of paprika sauce for meat, canned okra and eggplant, fire-roasted red peppers, and hot pickled cabbage. “They even carry sodas uludag [a brand of Turkish soft drinks] and helva, a sweet my husband loves, especially after breaking the Ramadan fast.”
One of the few perils of culinary traveling is developing a taste for hard-to-find dishes. I know this firsthand, having acquired an unshakable herring addiction during recent trips to Denmark. Who knows what might have happened upon my return had I not managed to find a local herring heaven, Nordic House. Located on Oakland’s Telegraph Avenue since 1962, this Scandanavian market carries herring in all its wonderful guises: fried, pickled, marinated, smoked, with wine sauce, in sour cream, and even in curry. On a recent visit, I discover Blair Prentice, a regular customer for 15 years, shooting nostalgic photos of the store’s shelves because of the shop’s impending move to—you guessed it—Berkeley’s San Pablo Avenue.
This kind of attachment to a grocery store is not uncommon: for many of us, a source of familiar, comforting food serves as a sort of surrogate mother. But ironically, although Prentice’s mother was of Swedish descent, she never cooked Swedish food. “Rather,” he says, “she anticipated fresh California cuisine decades ago.” Nordic House has allowed Prentice to rediscover his culinary heritage. He’s going home today with havarti cheese, gravlox, and some sweet pickled herring. Another shopper, Carin Caroe, 74, is a native Dane. A retired real estate agent, she has been frequenting Nordic House for the past 35 years, stocking her Oakland kitchen with the foods she grew up with. Today, Caroe purchases house-made liver pâté and meatballs, and nibbles from the bowl of licorice on the counter. “This is also a good place for gift items and candles,” she says, “that create a feeling of hyggelig [Danish for warm, homey coziness].”
On my frequent excursions, I’ve never found Nordic House short of customers. “But,” says owner Pia Klausen, “Christmas time is when we’re really packed.” People flock for traditional seasonal specialties: Norwegian pork ribs, Swedish brined ham, and Danish Flæskesteg med svær (pork with a crispy, crackly crust). Also popular: Glögg (hot spiced wine), and the classic Christmas dessert: rice pudding with cherry sauce. The lucky diner who finds the almond hidden in the pudding gets a marzipan pig as a prize.
On another trip halfway across the world from Denmark’s herring, I discovered a Japanese temple to fresh fish in Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market. After my pre-dawn visit and a breakfast of sushi so fresh it wiggled, I came home to discover a miniature version in my own backyard, the Tokyo Fish Market, a staple of West Berkeley for nearly 50 years. Here, you’ll find glistening fish that look like they just leaped from an ocean wave, waiting for you behind the counter. The market also carries the classic Japanese comestibles: ramen noodles, miso paste, dried seaweed, a rainbow of pickled vegetables, and fresh produce like shizo leaves, daikon sprouts, and lotus root.
With a bow to the islands halfway between Japanese and mainland American shores, Hawaiian specialties, such as poi, Portuguese sausage, frozen pork lau lau, and chocolate-covered macadamias also grace the shelves.
In the checkout line of Tokyo Fish Market, I meet Ken and Brady Mendoza, an Oakland couple who work together as wedding photographers. “The staff are super-friendly and helpful,” says Ken. “I bought some udon noodles and asked the clerk what else I should put in the soup; he showed me fish cake and crab shumai.”
“We come here after we’ve enjoyed something in a Japanese restaurant and want to make it at home,” adds Brady. “Tonight I am actually fixing bouillabaisse, but I get the fish here because sushi-grade fish is the best you can buy.”
Imported edibles enjoy a long tradition in the East Bay. Beneath a striped awning in downtown Oakland, a gracious Victorian embraces G.B. Ratto’s, a 113-year-old ethnic market—although you might not think of it as such. In 1881, 13-year-old Giovanni Battista Ratto left his native Italy as a cabin boy aboard a schooner bound for Argentina. In 1897, he opened this Oakland grocery, importing a variety of foodstuffs to satisfy customers’ Old World cravings. The current owner, Elena Durante Voiron, is the great-granddaughter of the adventurous entrepreneur. “Our focus is now our deli, with cheeses, meats, and sandwiches for the lunch crowd,” says Voiron, “but we still want to keep the flavor of an old-style European market.”
Shelves are piled high with Spanish quince, Bulgarian stuffed zucchini, French lavender honey, Croatian rose-hip jam, and Armenian pumpkin preserves. And of course, a large selection of Italian pasta, tomatoes, olives and olive oils, vinegars, wines, and house-made pestos that would make Great-Grandfather proud.
Whenever I decide to whip up some hot and sour soup, pad thai, or spring rolls, I wish I had an Asian grandmother to help me gather ingredients from all the little shops in Chinatown. Lacking that (mine was Romanian), a reasonable substitute is the 35,000-square-foot 99 Ranch Market in Richmond’s Pacific East Mall, a one-stop shopping emporium for Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, and Korean products. The back wall of the market could be mistaken for the seashore (sans sand) with mounds of mussels, swimming catfish and carp, live crabs, lobsters, spiny pink sea urchins, and swirly shelled sea snails amid a briny, ocean scent.
Two staples of Asian cuisines, noodles and rice, are found here in dizzying profusion: skinny skeins of Chinese noodles, bundles of translucent bean threads, snarls of yellow egg noodles, brown nests of seafood noodles, wide rice noodle ribbons, and long buckwheat soba matchsticks. Rice (short, long, jasmine, red, black, and more) is available in five- to 50-pound bags.
Long, wide aisles house the edibles of many lands: Indonesian mixes for gado gado and nasi goreng, Filipino lumpia wrappers, bitter melon leaves, and jackfruit. Ranch 99 also stocks more familiar fare for its Euro-American, African-American, and Mexican-American neighbors.
Years of local food market forays have given me a different take on the melting pot, East Bay style. Certainly, our numerous ethnic markets provide comforting, exotic, and just plain tasty comestibles. But it’s not just about the food. A cultural salad bar, this abundance of offerings sits side by side, eager to be tasted. They’re available for mingling or enjoying on their own, with integrity and respect for their neighbors.
Anna Mindess is a freelance writer specializing in food and culture and a frequent contributor to The Monthly. She enjoys Japanese confections filled with adzuki bean paste and bread dipped in olive oil and zahtar (a North African spice mix). Keep up with her at cultureandfood.wordpress.com and annamindess.com.
Munchie mélange: Proprietors Ranjana (left) and Mahinder Parmar (right), stock staples from Sri Lanka, Fiji, Ethiopia, and India at Milan International Market in Berkeley. Pat Mazzera.
Iberian influence: Hector Farias, assistant manager of The Spanish Table in Berkeley, wields a giant paella pan. Pat Mazzera.
99 Ranch Market, 3288 Pierce St., Richmond, (510) 558-2120; 99ranch.com.
Indus Food Center, 1920 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, (510) 549-3663.
Mi Tierra Foods, 2082 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, (510) 540-8946.
Middle East Market, 2054 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, (510) 704-8800.
Milan International Market, 990 University Ave., Berkeley, (510) 843-9600.
Nordic House, 3421 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, (510) 653-3882; nordichouse.com (moving mid-April to 2709 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley).
G. B. Ratto’s International Grocer, 821 Washington St., Oakland, (510) 832-6503; rattos.com.
The Spanish Table, 1814 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, (510) 548-1383; spanishtable.com.
Tokyo Fish Market, 1220 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, (510) 524-7243.