Aisles of Smiles
A Guide to Local Ethnic Markets And Their Piquant Delights
By Diane Weintraub Pohl
Photography by John Fortunato
Within our Costco-dominated culture, a polyglot tribe of small, exotic groceries thrives in storefronts and strip malls throughout the county. To enter is to experience a sensory assault of foreign sights and smells, a globe’s-worth of culinary traditions for sale in bins and jars. From Japanese yam flour to Iranian rosewater, here’s a tantalizing tour of the ethnic bazaar right around the corner.
The Greek Aisles
I always assumed that feta was endemic to
You’ll find them all on the shelves here, the largest selections of items being Greek, Israeli, and Bulgarian. One entire aisle is devoted to dried fruits and nuts, aligned in plastic bins like by-the-pound candy in a multiplex. There are apricots and dates, of course, but also carob pods, mulberries, and roasted Israeli watermelon seeds. “We roast the almonds ourselves,” declares manager Armen Benlian proudly. She offers me a handful to try, and they are smoky and intense. We walk and she narrates. Roasted Israeli sunflower seeds: “Israelis snack on them like popcorn. Baseball players eat them, too.” Roasted chickpeas (also called “chichis”): “Very popular with Greeks, Armenians, and Italians.” Greek honey: “Once you taste it, you’ll never want any other type.”
Freezers hold Greek phyllo specialties like cheese-and-spinach-filled spanakopita, and Armenian thin crust beef pizzas called lahmajune. There are shelves full of canned fish and jars of preserves and spreads. If you can resist three flavors of fresh halvah, go for Armen’s mother’s homemade baklava. And then there’s her Damascus rose petal preserve, from flowers grown in the family garden. Poured over Greek yogurt, drizzled with pistachios, it’s a mound of Aegean heaven.
322 Central Ave., White Plains
Maki, Mirin, and More
Thirty years ago, the odds of finding an American in Meidi-Ya market were about the same as finding one who knew tamago from toro. Today, reports Tokyo-born owner Shizue Ozao, they number about 30 percent of her clientele. And they not only know their toro but their maki, ramen, and mirin, too.
Her bright, immaculate store carries all of those, in myriad brands and guises. There are nine types of rice alone: brown rice, short-grain sushi rice, sweet rice for pillowy cakes filled with bean paste for a snack or dessert. Shelves hold more soy sauces and rice vinegars than there are steps to Buddhist enlightenment, and there are vegetables, seaweed, soybeans, and roots in all manner of pickling, fermentation, and seasoning. Those white krill-like slivers soaking in cloudy liquid? Just yam flour in seaweed-scented water. “Good with a meal of meat and rice,” beams Ozao. Those green corrugated missiles in the produce aisle? Bitter melon, she tells me, a vegetable eaten cooked, never raw. “It’s really Chinese,” she confides, “but popular now in Japan.”
Meidi-Ya has maki packaged to go for your sushi fix, and octopus, squid, and hamachi for your dinner. There are tilefish heads—great for soup, Ozao says—and frozen desserts from soybean flour. Don’t go looking for Yu-Gi-Oh cards, though. “They’re not popular anymore,” Ozao says, shrugging.
18 N. Central Ave., Hartsdale
Descend into the White Plains Mall’s subterranean lair, between the Department of Motor Vehicles and the discount beauty suppliers, and you’ll come upon it like a buried culinary treasure: Kam Sen market. “Westchester’s largest Asian supermarket,” boasts the signage at its entrance. “Over 30,000 items.”
But peering in, I’m skeptical. I would have thought there’d be more. Beyond the tables where you can grab a sushi or stir-fried lunch from the take-out kitchens, the market sprawls like a pan-Asian Whole Foods. Here, though, the organic and free-range give way to the resourceful and prudent. There are marinated duck feet and pork tongue in the Chinese prepared-foods section. Dried seaweed and kelp in the Japanese section. Snacks of dried anchovies with peanuts. And in the frozen-foods case, banana leaves and cuttlefish balls are wallflowers next to duck tongues and pork uterui (yes, as in uterus).
The most exotic thing in the fish aisle is live eels (offered seasonally), undulating next to tankfuls of Dungeness crabs and pyramids of lobsters. A slope of cracked ice holds glistening specimens of mackerel, snapper, flounder, squid, octopus, and multi-sized shrimp at almost half the price I usually pay.
Kam Sen is geared mainly to Chinese and Japanese cuisines, though Malay, Korean, Thai, and Filipino are also represented. There are all manner of ready-to-cook dumplings and buns, and alongside them, lotus-seed paste cakes and scallion cakes tucked into their pleated paper wraps like any self-respecting cupcake. Produce bins brim with yard-long beans, speckled squashes, lily bulbs, lotus roots, and the infamously noxious fruit durian, which looks like what you’d get if a sea urchin swallowed a coconut. You might find a tub of ice cream more appealing—in taro, red bean, or lychee flavors, but available in durian, too.
The White Plains Mall
22 Barker Ave., White Plains
From Tamales To Tomatillos
The Lopez family’s supermer-cado Mexico has everything you need for your tacos and salsas. It also has many things you need for your health. “This is horse tail,” patriarch Valentino explains, pointing to a package of greenish twigs. “Mix it with this one, pelo de elote, which is dried corn silk, and some hot water, and it’ll take care of your kidney problems.” Then there are the rust-colored Linden flower buds. “Soak them for tea,” he advises, “to calm nerves.”
The Lopez market has ministered to New Rochelle’s Mexican community for 18 years. Its import company supplies much of the stock. There are eight types of fresh chiles, packages of tostadas, corn husks for tamales, cans of guanabana and tamarind nectars, jars of cured jalapeÃ±os, canned tomatillos for salsa verde, brined cactus for salads. One entire aisle is devoted to beans. I pick up a jar of gauzy beige strips in liquid. “Cured pork rinds,” Valentino’s son Ulysses responds. “They’re good on a tostada with beans, some lettuce, and hot sauce.” A lithe, stubble-chinned customer overhears. “Great with a shot of tequila and a little pepper,” he offers.
If you prefer head cheese to pork rinds on your tostadas, the Lopezes make their own, a marbled cylinder of pig ears and tongue. Mexicans eat these as appetizers as well, but Americans might prefer the appetizer of “doritos,” corrugated wheat-flour shards that you scoop out of the market’s box, bring home, dip in hot oil and munch with lemon, salt, and hot sauce. Tequila would work with those, too.
100 Union Ave., New Rochelle
My polish grandmother would have wept. Eight varieties of kielbasy, six types of pierogies, pickled potato and beet salads, stuffed cabbage. And all of them store-made. Bill Kremetz learned his craft from his parents, who opened the Yonkers Miasarnia—that’s Polish for meat market—in 1960.
Today the store features scores of Ukrainian and Russian products as well, many dear to my heart—and palate. I could have unwrapped one of their rye breads right there and gobbled it with some of the dozen types of jarred herring. Add a few of their Ukrainian pickles, a couple potato pancakes, a Polish beer, a bobka for dessert, and there’s centuries of shtetl heritage distilled into two aisles. (Okay, Polish beer never made it to my family’s table, but the rest certainly did.)
Bill makes weekly shopping trips to the Brooklyn waterfront’s central warehouse, supply headquarters for the bustling eastern European neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Brighton Beach. Other days he’s in the Miasarnia’s kitchen mixing, stuffing, and smoking his sausage masterpieces: caraway-seasoned Ukranian drohobyczka, Krakow-style krakovska, skinny kabanosy, which he likens to snack sticks. My grandmother’s not here to appreciate them, but right now my house is under construction, and my Polish carpenter is about to have a very good day.
39 Lockwood Ave., Yonkers
Sugar and Spice and Everything Rice
For most of human history, the Indian spice trade has been the stuff of legends. It has by now reached many an urban street corner. With Bengal Grocery, the retail arm of Bengal Tiger Restaurant, White Plains has one of the best outlets. “I got tired of running to Manhattan for spices,” explains owner Kalathara Simson. Now he and the rest of us can conveniently indulge our ardor for dals (lentil-based dishes), chutneys, chats (spice mixes for salads and fruit), and masalas (spice mixes for cooked foods).
Hankering for samosas, those potato- and green pea-stuffed patties? Bengal’s got them fresh and frozen. There are packages of kofta dumplings from the south, and spinach and cheese palak paneer from the north. There’s fresh pomfret fish, fresh goat meat, and dozens of flavorings and pastes to go with them like red tandoori, ginger, curry, eggplant, hot mango, lime, and of course rice of all sorts. Scoop up curries or chutneys with your flatbread of choice: whole wheat chapathi, tandoori-baked nan, deep-fried poori—or bake your own from the store’s two dozen or so types of flour. And after all the spicy pyrotechnics, cool your palate with some gooseberries or jackfruit, or the ice cream kulfi—though those irrepressible Indians couldn’t help flavoring it with saffron and cardamom.
140 E. Post Rd., White Plains
A Little Italy
The street signs “e. 187 St.” and “Arthur Ave.” posted just inside the entrance are a good hint of Casa d’Italia’s provenance. But you won’t get to read them unless you peer between the hanging blockade of proscuittos, sopressatas, and 120-pound provolones.
“Growing up on Arthur Avenue, we were used to fresh Italian goods,” says co-owner Lucy Selvaggio of herself and her husband, Steve. “There weren’t any when we moved to Harrison.” Eight years later, they still return there every morning for bread and fresh pasta, then Lucy starts cooking: sausage and peppers, fried zucchini, potato frittatas, sautÃ©ed broccoli rabe. But, she laughs, she has it easy. Steve’s the one plunging his hands into boiling water to make the mozzarella, or sawing 80-pound wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
There are about 25 other types of cheese here, and enough sweet and spicy sausages, marinated artichokes, and roasted peppers to make an antipasti platter even Lucullus might have trouble with. The market’s shelves are testament to the wonders of pasta geometries, with tiny stars, stelline, the size of a newborn’s pinkie nail; and skinny circles of anelletti like so many anorexic Cheerios.
On a tray, rows of store-made cannoli shells sit waiting for their vanilla-scented ricotta cream. “They’re only filled fresh to order,” says Steve. “We don’t want them to get soggy.” No, indeed.
261 Halstead Ave. #7, Harrison
For Latin Lovers
Libia had exotically labeled jars and packages like every other market I visited, but it had one thing the others didn’t: a rumba on the sound system. I swayed down its aisles examining the Paraguayan breadsticks coquitos, Colombian sugar cane disc panela, and Uruguayan dulce de leche.
The market, which features South and Central American items, is small and cramped but manages to squeeze in a butcher case featuring Argentinean cuts of beef and a pork rib belly that Ecuadorians mix with toasted corn for a dinner of chicharon.
Peru weighs in with jars of pepper pastes, bags of purple corn flour, and the ancient grain quinoa. There are jars of the rich, tart cream that Salvadorans spoon onto avocado tacos, and bags of cornmeal for the biscuit-like arepas that sustain Colombians and Venezuelans. Bags of rice and beans are as prevalent as bikinis in Rio. Pick up a package of passion fruit or mango fruit pulp and mix it with water for juice as Colombians do, or with soy milk, like the Argentines.
And, of course, Libia stocks many configurations of the Latin American item that shook the world: a little seed called cacao.
253 Grove St., White Plains
Diane Weintraub Pohl is a frequent contributor to the magazine. Her interest in ethnic foods has recently been applied to the James Beard Foundation’s food education program in the New York City public schools.