Foreign Markets

Sunday, July 3, 2016


Miniature eggplant at Asia Grocery on Peters Creek Parkway in Winston-Salem. 

In pockets throughout cities across the U.S., ethnic food markets are springing up to meet the demand of a swelling culture of diversity fueled by America’s growing immigrant population. Their aisles are often crammed with everything from quail eggs and grape leaves to pickled cow’s tongue and barrel-aged feta, and their shopkeepers are quick to offer warm greetings to all those passing through.
Hidden in tiny spaces off the beaten path, these mom-and-pop shops serve as anchors for ethnic communities by bringing a sense of home and family to those living far from their homeland. They also cater to the growing number of Americans whose palettes are turning toward more adventurous pursuits, fueled by the rise of The Food Network and social media platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram. And, certainly, the shops offer a resource for local chefs to find specific ingredients needed to create a variety of exotic dishes featured on an international menu.
While larger cities generally offer a bigger selection of specialty grocery stores, Winston-Salem boasts a handful of ethnic markets throughout the city and more around its fringes. In an area already full of choices for food shopping, these small stores seem to thrive regardless of their larger competitors. We recently visited four of these markets and interviewed the owners to give our readers an inside look at the benefits they bring to our communities.


Burmese refugees depend on the variety of exotic vegetables at Om Indian for cooking authentic recipes. 

OM INDIAN

Our first stop was at Om Indian, where owner Yashpal Amarsingh revealed interesting facts about the uprising of these independent markets and the fact they were practically nonexistent when he first moved to Winston-Salem.
“My sister lived in Jersey City, N.J., so we would travel to New York once or twice a year to stock up on groceries because there were no Indian stores or any other specialty markets anywhere in the Triad,” says Amarsingh, who came here on an immigration visa in the late 1970s.
After a short stint of owning an Indian restaurant in Winston-Salem in 1984, Amarsingh and his wife, Damyanti, moved back to India in 1991 to care for aging parents. When they finally returned in 2010, the opportunity opened up for them to take over the small Indian market on Hanes Mall Boulevard, and in 2012 they became the new owners of Om Indian.


Jack fruit is native to Southeast Asia, and in its unripened state is used for cooking in curries. The ripe fruit is eaten fresh and can also be used to create alcoholic beverages.  

The store’s tidy appearance—with its abundance of spices, a large section of prepared Indian food, fresh produce, and varieties of rice—appeals not only to the local Indian community but also to a broader range of ethnic groups. Each Thursday, when the produce truck arrives, the store carries a distinct international vibe: Shoppers of Middle-Eastern descent browse for olives, grape leaves, dates, baba ghanouge (eggplant dip), and more. Burmese women, many with babies on the hip and toddlers in tow, cluster around bins filled with pumpkin leaves, jackfruit, bitter melon, and Thai chili peppers. Dina, a Palestinian woman we spoke with on a recent Thursday, says she enjoys shopping at Om Indian because “they have everything we need, and we don’t need to order it from overseas.”

“If there’s anything we can pat ourselves on the back for, it’s our customer service."

“If there’s anything we can pat ourselves on the back for, it’s our customer service,” says Amarsingh. “We love our customers and will help them find anything in the store, and we’re happy to order things they request.”


Yashpal and Damyanti Amarsingh, owners of Om Indian.


LA PROVIDENCIA

At the corner of Sprague Street and Old Lexington, tucked away in the Southside neighborhood, you’ll find a steady stream of customers entering and exiting La Providencia seven days a week. Linda and Guillermo Mendoza opened the Hispanic food and butcher shop in 1993, giving Winston-Salem its first Hispanic grocery store.
After arriving here from Mexico in 1990, the couple discovered the need for Hispanic grocery items in Forsyth and surrounding counties. (At the time, the closest Hispanic grocery store was in Charlotte.)


"We started the business by going door to door in our car, carrying our products in the trunk."

“We started the business by going door to door in our car, carrying our products in the trunk,” Linda says, recalling the early days of their now-thriving business. It wasn’t long until the business outgrew their car, and they opened a store.


From pinatas to peppers, find everything you need for a Mexican feast.

These days, the store contains anything one might expect to find in a Hispanic market, from corn husks and tortillas to dried peppers, bins of beans, salsas and sauces, and a case filled with colorful produce. (Certainly, this is your one-stop shop if you’re cooking tacos for dinner.) Cookies, pastries, and other specialties are also baked fresh daily.
The adjacent butcher shop sells meat by the pound, with cuts specifically crafted for use in Mexican dishes. While their meat case contains the usual items such as hamburger and chicken, it also features a few exotic choices such as beef tripe (lining of a cow’s stomach), moronga (blood sausage), and cow’s tongue.
One thing to note is that nearly all the labels we saw are Spanish or a combination of Spanish and English. The solely Spanish-speaking environment could be a little intimidating for some, but only if you have questions. Given all the goodies available here, it’s certainly worth the effort.


Don't worry. Mama is right around the corner. 


ASIA GROCERY

A few miles away on Peters Creek Parkway, the tall sign for Asia Grocery keeps watch over the tiny shop with its crowded shelves and narrow aisles. Behind the counter you’ll find shopkeeper So , who’s been waiting on customers here for the past 10 years.
Crammed and colorful, the store is a hodge-podge of merchandise with coolers of quail eggs, duck eggs, and Asian-style produce sitting next to shelves laden with specialty foods from China and Thailand, hand-painted dishes, and more varieties of noodles than one can count. There are pandan leaves and exotic fish, shitake mushrooms and miniature eggplant, and a host of teas from Horny Goat Weed to Oolong. There’s also a myriad of sauces, mixes, condiments, and rice options available.



The crammed shelves of Asia Grocery make room for a large variety of tea. 


With years of experience as a cook, So is willing to share tips on how to prepare a miso soup or which fish sauce is the best for your money. If Thai food is on your menu, this place carries all the ingredients you’ll need.
While the store packs a lot into a small space, its organizational scheme can seem a bit haphazard to newcomers. The shop also doesn’t have English labels for some of the shelves, so be prepared for a bit of a language barrier. But given its diverse selections and hard-to-find items—and given that it’s the only Asian market in town—the store is certainly worth a venture. Just be sure to come with an open mind.



While quail eggs are a delicacy in many parts of the world, here they are often used as a garnish for tapas or Asian soups. 


GREEK VILLAGE MARKET

The last stop along our ethnic grocery trail is the Greek Village Market on Healy Drive, where owners Peter and Maria Leontaritis—first generation immigrants from Greece—run a successful business selling Greek foods and other specialty items. Fully stocked shelves carry anything from spanakopita and kefir to halva, figs, beer, wine, and a variety of cheeses.
The most popular item here is the Greek feta, which comes in large oak barrels directly from Greece and is then cut up and packaged in smaller portions. If you’re an olive oil connoisseur looking for that first cold press, extra virgin variety, this is the place you’ll find it—along with fresh olives available by the pound. The market also offers various international products including Italian, Indian, and Turkish items. “We try to be very competitive with the regular grocery stores,” Peter notes.



A case full of halva, first-press olive oil and Greek feta are popular items at this market. 


Aside from food products, customers will find a number of gifts and novelty items, kitchen gadgets, and natural body products such as sponges and handmade soaps. A café area in the corner offers a pleasant place to enjoy a Greek pastry from the well-stocked case or a traditional coffee such as a freddo cappuccino.
The market, which opened in 2010, carries a distinctly Greek vibe. Its walls are decorated with family photos and old cooking utensils from Greece, and its blue-and-white paint scheme reflects the colors of the Greek flag. While the store is fairly well-known in the Triad and has a host of faithful customers, Peter says they always look forward to meeting first-time shoppers.
"We want people to feel that personal touch, just like it was in the old villages." 
“We want people to feel that personal touch, just like it was in the old villages,” he says. “We want to know people’s first name, what’s going on in their lives.”


Shop owner, Peter Leontaritis shows a variety of olive oil found in their store. 

And that seems to be the view held by all of the shop owners we interviewed — customers come first, profitability comes second. Despite the differences in their ethnicities, the stores all help advance the heartbeat of Winston-Salem’s ethnic communities while promoting a sense of neighborliness that’s hard to find in chain grocery stores. (Let’s face it, you probably won’t find a supermarket employee who can tell you which spice mix is the best for Chicken Tikka Masala, or how to roll tamales in corn husks, or why Greek coffee is good for you.) While big-box supermarkets are certainly needed in a city, it’s nice to know there are still places where you’re treated like friends and can experience a taste of the world in the familiarity of your hometown.

(Article by Naomi Gingerich as printed in Winston-Salem Monthly Magazine, July 2016. All photos by Lauren Olinger of  Red Cardinal Studio)




STORE DETAILS



Om Indian
  • Address: 1575 Hanes Mall Blvd.
  • Hours: Sun–Wed, 11 a.m.–8 p.m. | Thu–Sat, 11 a.m.–9 p.m.
  • Contact: 336-794-8000,omindiangroceries.net.
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La Providencia
  • Address: 602 E. Sprague St.
  • Hours: Daily, 8 a.m.–9 p.m.
  • Contact: 336-788-3632
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Asia Grocery
  • Address: 880 Peters Creek Parkway
  • Hours: Daily, 10 a.m.–8 p.m.
  • Contact: 336-725-5889
  • Note: Bring cash, as they require a $20 minimum for credit card purchases.
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Greek Village Market
  • Address: 3255 Healy Drive
  • Hours: Mon–Sat, 9:30 a.m.–6 p.m.
  • Contact: 336-406-1384; or find the shop on Facebook (search: Greek Village Market)

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