The World on a Shelf
According to legend, when conquistador Francisco Pizarro began his colonization of Peru in 1531, he forgot to bring seed stocks. For the Spaniard and his followers, it was almost a disaster. Unlike his counterparts in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, Pizarro did not think to bring the wheat, fruit trees, and seedlings of grapes that formed the pillars of Spanish cuisine. Instead, Peru's first wheat rose from a few seeds diligently gleaned from a barrel of rice. Within a few years of careful tending, there was enough wheat to plant a field; by 1535, the crop was large enough to justify a gristmill for making flour.
Hearing this tale, one wonders why Pizarro would take such care over a few grains of wheat when Incan granaries were already well-stocked with delicious quinoa, amaranth, and potatoes. Yet Pizarro's story reminds us that humans are the only animals on the planet who observe rules about what to eat and how to eat. Cuisine is essential to culture. More than words, food is a universal language through which cultures communicate. When people migrate to new places, they bring with them the foods that make them who they are. And in America today, modern migrating societies bring with them not just seeds, but entire grocery stores stocked with the familiar flavors of home.
Take Austin, for example. Middle Eastern, Latin American, Asian, South Asian, African, and even obscure European foodstuffs can be found in grocery stores and local markets in virtually every corner of the city. It is remarkable how easy it has become to find exotic foods like cod roe, cuitlacoche, or incubated eggs. Partly due to the population boom in Austin over the last decade, there has been an explosion of ethnic markets of every stripe catering to immigrants hungry for a taste of home.
Stepping into one of these markets can be like taking a trip to another country. The smells, voices, and tastes all conspire to transport you to their homeland. For instance, La Michoacana Carneceria bustles with the sounds and activity of an urban Mexican market. And through the doors of the Madina market, you are greeted by the pungent aromas of rich curry mixes and spicy vegetable pickle. If you're searching for exotic foods, Austin has them. So take an inexpensive trip to another country. Go visit one of the ethnic markets in Austin and experience another place by indulging in one of the most deeply cultural rituals around: eating. If you're unfamiliar with some of the spices or methods of preparation required for the journey, ask the owners how to use their products. It has been my experience that people are always glad to trade food advice, because whenever people share recipes, they are also sharing a little bit of themselves.
La Michoacana Carneceria
1917-1 E. Seventh, 473-8487
Mon-Fri, 8am-10pm; Sat-Sun, 7am-10pm
The first thing you notice about the busy La Michoacana Carneceria is the hearty smell of tortillas and stewed meats coming from their grill, where tacos are made to order. The sign over the grill says that all meats are prepared from scratch and may change daily. Anyone hungry for a little bocadillo can choose from adobabo, al pastor, barbacoa, carnitas, or guisado as fillings for the meaty tacos that come steaming off the comal. On the day I was there, they were frying fat beef chile rellenos to serve for dinner. Business has been booming at La Michoacana market since it opened a few months ago, and it's no surprise why. With a bakery, a butcher, and a restaurant in addition to standard grocery items, La Michoacana fills a long-ignored niche in Austin's largely Mexican-American Eastside. Dried beans of all varieties, chiles, corn husks, and masa fill the crowded shelves in the center aisles. Canned products such as pickled chiles, chiles in sauce, hominy, and moles vie for space on one end, while fresh vegetables and spices such as cumin, chamomile, and bay leaves occupy the other. Predictably, the meat counter sells cuts of meat suited to Mexican cookery: oxtails, beef brisket, cow and pig's feet, pork loin, and menudo blanco (the stomach of a cow). It also sells chorizo and meats marinated in hot chile sauce. The bakery turns out fresh pan dulces, cakes, brownies, sugar cookies, and bolillos. The store also sells piñatas, boots, Latin music tapes, clay cooking pots, and those colorful woven plastic bags that make great beach sacks and shopping bags, and are ideal for carrying clothes to the laundromat.
The manager told me that his largely Mexican clientele likes to come here because it makes them feel at home. The aisles are smaller and the prices a little bit better than what you get in the larger supermarkets. On a Saturday, it's hard to move, the store is so crowded with people buying groceries to make menudo, tamales, and posole, or just there having a snack at the grill. So, when you go, go early and bring along your hunger, because this is one place where you'll definitely want to absorb a little culinary inspiration before you experiment at home.
KS Oriental Market
1729 E. Riverside, 445-7468
One of the oldest Asian markets in town is not located in the emerging Little Asia (around Burnet & US183) that Mick Vann reported on in November. Instead, it's hidden in a modest building on East Riverside. The KS -- for Korean Store -- Oriental Market has been in business since 1982 and although it occupies only about a quarter of the square footage that the giants up north do, it still manages to pack in most of the ingredients essential to Asian cookery. It carries soy sauces -- sweet, medium, and salty varieties -- rice, dried seaweed, dried and frozen noodles, spices, and even some very attractive fresh vegetables. Although the owner, Mr. Yoon, sells products from all over Asia, his selection leans toward the foods of Korea and Japan. For instance, he sells hot red pepper by the kilo. It is, according to Mr. Yoon, essential to the Korean diet, which relies heavily on red pepper in the preparation of mainstays such as pickled vegetables, dried squid, and kimchi. He also sells several varieties of prepared kimchi for those of us who don't have the patience to wait the two weeks required for the piquant pickled cabbage to fully mature. Other prepared Korean specialties, such as dried squid and marinated seaweed, can also be found in the refrigerator section of the store. In the freezer, he keeps sushi-grade yellowtail, mackerel, eel, and snapper imported from Japan. When I asked if the fish was still as good after it had been frozen, he laughed and explained that most of the fresh fish eaten as sushi in restaurants has been previously frozen.
Finally, because no Asian meal would be truly complete without the appropriate set of dishes from which to eat and drink, the Yoons also sell exquisite-looking tea sets, dishes, and kitchen utensils. And for after the meal, they have a respectable selection of Korean-language videos available for rent up at the front counter. Most of these, however, are without subtitles, so don't forget to invite a translator if Korean isn't in your linguistic repertoire.
The Madina Market
8120 Research, Ste 115, 454-7240
Sun-Mon, Wed-Fri, 10am-10pm;
Nestled unobtrusively in a shopping center along US183, the Madina Market is the only place in town that sells fresh Halal meats. The owner, Mohammed Ali Usman, cleans and cuts them himself, to sell to Muslims not only in Austin, but in Houston as well. For those who don't know, Halal meats are similar to Jewish kosher meats except that when the animal is killed, its head must be facing Kaaba, in Mecca. Since the Madina Market opened three years ago, Usman has drawn a large base of customers who shop there not just for the meats but for other culinary staples. Indeed, he regularly stocks more than 10 different types of basmati rice. The shelves at Madina are piled high with the rich-smelling spices essential to South Asian cooking -- turmeric, cumin, coriander, fenugreek, and asafetida. Because his clientele consists mainly of Muslims from Asia, Usman buys frozen fish from Bangladesh and regularly stocks Sri Lankan specialties such as sambol (a fiery paste made from ground dried fish and spices), wattalappan (coconut pudding), and a special Sri Lankan rice, which, unlike basmati rice, is short-grained and slightly acidic both in taste and smell. For those of us who love the spice mixes of South Asian cooking but are unfamiliar with the recipes, Madina also sells prepared spice mixes for masalas and, even more convenient, jarred pastes which require only the addition of water to make a great-tasting sauce.
Going to the Madina Market at lunch or dinnertime can be a real treat because the restaurant adjacent to the grocery store provides good, cheap South Asian food. When we visited, a group of Malaysian men was seated at the table next to ours, gorging themselves on an all-you-can-eat buffet with saag paneer and lamb curry -- all for around six dollars. They say they like to go there because it's the only place in town where they can get food that tastes like home. Although the owner's wife, Arifa Usman, does most of the cooking there now, the Usmans are hoping to expand the restaurant in the future and hire another chef to prepare the dishes. For people who like South Asian food but are timid about cooking it, I suggest getting your feet wet at Madina with a cheap meal in the restaurant, then picking up a few necessities, such as basmati rice, a pungent garlic pickle, and a spicy curry paste to make some of those dishes at home. (Note: KTBC news recently reported on complaints lodged against the Madina Market following an event it had catered. Although the station's story on the allegations over unsanitary meat has directed negative attention toward the market, Health Department officals say no more complaints have been filed and subsequent inspections have confirmed that the Madina Market is meeting health regulation codes. Moreover, according to KTBC, many people in the Muslim community feel that since this incident, the Madina has cleaned up considerably. When we ate there in November, we found the food delicious and suffered no adverse effects.)
2912 S. Lamar, 447-4444
Mon-Fri, 9:30am-7pm; Sat, 9:30am-6pm
In his Life of Luxury, the fourth-century B.C. foodie Archestratus advised his readers to get themselves a baker from Phoenicia, because, he reasoned, those people really knew how to bake. Things haven't changed much. Today, any food lover in Austin knows that the best place to get fresh, hot pita bread is the Phoenicia Bakery on South Lamar. With thousands of loaves made fresh daily, they supply local restaurants and grocery stores in Austin and around Texas, in addition to operating a small retail facility. But don't let the name fool you; the Phoenicia is more than a bakery. Named for the ancient traders of the Mediterranean, the latter-day Phoenicia bridges cultures, offering rare delicacies from around the world. Another longtime denizen of the Austin ethnic food scene, it is one of those places that truly inspires lavish cooking fantasies. The owners -- who are part Spanish and part Lebanese -- originally conceived the store as a Mediterranean bakery and cafe; but as business expanded, they began to devote more and more of their floor space to the grocery items their customers requested. Today, although the Phoenicia is mainly a Middle Eastern and Mediterranean market, supplying traditional foods from the north coast of Africa, Turkey, Lebanon, and similar places, they also sell items from Great Britain and Asia (I recently discovered that they sell sunflower oil from Ukraine).
Some of their grocery items include fruity olive oils, harissa, Thai chile sauce, tarama (fish eggs for making taramasalata), tahini, and pomegranate syrup for making fesinjan, a famous Persian specialty. Their selection of spices, dried beans, and grains is outstanding, and their prices are some of the best around. At the deli counter, you can choose from over 10 different varieties of olives that they regularly stock in bulk. Try the green olives marinated in lemon and red pepper, or go for a simple niçoise. They also sell five different types of feta cheese. Although I have been advised that Bulgarian feta is the world's finest, my personal favorite is the French feta they sell, for its slightly creamy, slightly citrus-y flavor. For those of us who just can't wait until they get home to eat, they also sell gyro sandwiches, fresh spinach pies, baklava, cookies, and other sweet indulgences made in their bakery. In fact, a catalog of all of the culinary treasures hidden on Phoenicia's shelves would require a professional librarian years of patient work to complete. But why bother! Go to Phoenicia and see for yourself the rich array of products offered by the world's greatest traders.