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Ethnic markets, a taste of home for St. Louis newcomers, bring the world home for others

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 13, 2010 - In a day's shopping at St. Louis' ethnic markets and bakeries, one can find a world of products -- Chinese bok choy, African Fufu (plantain) flour, Turkish coffee, Halal meat, kosher matzo, South American plantains, Mexican tamarind popsicles and Bosnian lepnja, a specialty bread. From Olive to Grand, University City to Kirkwood, ethnic markets and bakeries add spice to St. Louis' food scene.

While these items may be exotic to some St. Louisans, for others they represent a taste of home. 

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The customers "see their homeland in the brands we carry," said Suchin Prapaisilp, the owner of Global Foods Market and Jay International Food Co. "They don't mind driving 100 miles for it. First-generation immigrant customers are used to seeing the brand and recognizing the brand. They're used to that brand, so they come" to shop.

That's also the experience of John Jiang, the manager of Olive Farmer's Market. He told of customers driving all the way from Iowa to get certain delicacies. "When we opened, they were very happy because they could eat hometown food."

Many of these markets feel like outposts of their home nations. At the Europa Market, magazines with titles like Moja Tajna, Gloria, Globus, Vita, Tjestenine, Nogomet and Kvizorama overflowed a rack at the checkout. World cup soccer blasted from the African Grocery Store, and manager Fatima Kamara confessed she was ecstatic when Ghana beat the United States.

Obtaining these specialty items and brands regularly can be a struggle. At Jay International Food, manager Noy Liam, Prapaisilp's brother-in-law, spoke in front of the store's display of the many flags representing the origins of the food. "We spend a lot of time and put in a lot of effort," in getting such a wide variety of products. Liam says it took a long time to cultivate relationships with providers and they must work hard to maintain them.

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Fresh, cheap and delicious

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Despite the distance some items, the freshness often rivals, if not beats, local supermarkets and grocery stores, says customer Frank Kollinger.

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At Jay International -- one of the oldest and best known ethnic markets -- Kollinger, a regular customer, said he comes once a month to the store for the plantains and yucca, staples from his years of missionary work in the upper Amazon and Ecuador.

While deliberating over which plantain was the best in the yellow green batch, Kollinger said, "Here there are better prices and it's generally fresher than the bigger supermarkets where people [generally] don't know what the food is or how to cook it," he said.

Surrounded by fresh greens and juicy orange mangos at Jay International, Alison Liam, a worker and the wife of manager Liam, stressed the freshness and nutritional value of the foods they sell.

"Our food is better than all the fat foods that are frozen," she said. "Food here is cheaper than a hospital bill. It's healthier and tastes better."

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Some consumers warn, however, that some items are not as fresh as they could be. Check expiration dates, they suggest, or be on the lookout for freezer burn on frozen items.  

Outside the Vine, a Mediterranean cafe and grocery store, owner Ali Mohsen, emphasized his fresh, homemade food. "Our food is made fresh on a daily basis. Everything here is made from scratch."

Ditto that at Kohn's market where owner Lenny Kohn said, "Everything we make is homemade. We put a lot of attention into it." In addition, Kohn's offers a wide range of kosher products, which can be hard to find elsewhere.

Beyond the unique, homemade fresh food, many markets tout their prices. Every manager of the markets and bakeries interviewed said that customers save money by shopping at their store.

At Diana's Bakery, which features Mexican pastries, four colorful pastries and cookies the size of a hand were $2.77. Freshly killed lobster at the Olive Farmer's Market was $9.99 a pound. Other stores offer various kinds of rice at low bulk prices.

The cheap prices are due to the fluctuations in world currency and labor costs in different countries, said Prapaisilp, the owner of Global Foods and Jay International Food. Citing the cheaper labor costs in China, he said it takes a Chinese worker three years to earn what a worker in the U.S. earns in one. "We cannot compete" here in the United States, he said.

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A taste of the world

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When Prapaisilp opened his store back in 1974, it had one lightbulb and no air conditioning. Sometimes they couldn't buy merchandise because they didn't have enough money. Over the years, Jay International expanded into the large store it is today. It also has a sister store -- Global Foods Market.

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"We used to buy 3 bags of rice, now we buy three trucks. That's 45,000 pounds," Prapaisilp said. "We have come a long way."

Just as the food and ethnic stores have come a long way, so have the customers. While most shoppers have an ethnic connection to what they are buying, Prapaisilp is also seeing a new generation of shoppers.

"Before, the Midwest was closed. More people were afraid to try new things," he said. "Now they try more, and they like it," citing the public's love affair with sushi, hummus and pita bread.

Mohsen of the Vine agrees. "The beauty about this place is we have a diverse clientele -- Lebanese, American, Indian, Pakistani, you name it. You'll see everyone. We worked hard on making it diverse and bringing out all sorts" of people.

Even Kamara, who said the majority of her customers are African, observed that Mexicans in particular are fans of her chicken.

"It's really a spectrum of diversity here at La Tropicana," said owner Luis Trabanco. "Everyone is more global."

a Sampling of St. Louis' ethnic restaurants

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*Afghan Market, 3740 S. Grand Blvd.: Offers Halal meat as well as Afghan and Middle Eastern brand name clothing and beauty products
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* African Market, 3558 S. Grand Blvd.: One of the most popular items, said manager Fatima Kamara, is Africa's own version of Viagra -- the bitter kola fruit. Kamara said, "I don't care if you're 100, it'll have you going all day."

* Akbar Grocery, 10606 Page Ave.: Main draw is Halal meat, meat prepared to Islam's dietary standards. Customers can see the lamb and other meats prepared.

* Bhasic Bakery, 5506 S. Kingshighway Blvd.: Known for its Bosnian bread. Cashier Alen Idrizovic said, "Whoever tries [the bread], they come back."

* Diana's Bakery, 2843 Cherokee: Known in particular for its tres leches or "three milks" cakes.

* Europa Market, 5005 Gravois Ave.: Known for Turkish coffee, sausage selection and European chocolates.

* Global Foods Market, 421 N. Kirkwood Rd.: Sister store to Jay International; carries a wide selection of goods from many nations.

* J&W Bakery, 8148 Olive Blvd.: Specializes in bread and goods baked in the Hong Kong style. Most popular is, ironically, the "Napolean," a creamy, flaky treat.

* Jay International Foods, 3172 S. Grand Blvd.: Opened in 1974. Carries goods from many countries.

* Kohn's Kosher Market, 10405 Old Olive Street Road: Known for its pastrami.

* La Tropicana, 5001 Lindenwood St.: Known for Mexican tamales and prepared Mexican and Cuban dishes. Live bands play in the restaurant throughout the week.

* La Vallesana 2, 2801 Cherokee St.: Specializes in paletas, Mexican popsicles, made with fresh fruit, including favorites such as tamarind.

* Olive Farmer's Market, 8041 Olive Blvd.: Has more than 31 types of fish on ice and more than 40 fish in a tank.

* Pratzels, 10405 Old Olive Street Road: Chocolate-covered cupcakes are among the most popular items.

* The Vine, 3171 S. Grand Blvd.: Open two years, offers a selection of hookas along with Mediterranean groceries.

Lauren Weber, a student at Georgetown University, is an intern at the Beacon.

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