Food and memories go together like potatoes and pierogis. Inside jars of kimchi, grandfather used to hum songs. With freshly baked conchas dipped in coffee, auntie watched soap operas. That beautiful lady on the colorful packet of kare-kare seasoning speaks to you just like your mother would. The motions of buying ingredients, making the food and sharing it with others becomes a memory. And, in Anchorage and Wasilla, it all starts in a specialty market. The market owners, Alaska's protectors of cultural memories, share why they maintain shelves chock-full of products from around the world.
MARIA and EZEQUIEL HERRERA
México Lindo, est. 2001
Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean
concha bread, various types of mole, corn flour mix, Mexican cheeses, arepa, Inca Cola, raspado, plantain chips and dried, whole chilies (New Mexico, black pepper, puya, California, guajillo, ancho, vasillas, chile de árbol, cascabel)
"¡La Comida de Mexico es la mejor! (Mexican food is the best!) I've been cooking other kinds of food, but Mexican food is still the best," says Ezequiel, founder of México Lindo. He misses Mexico, yet familiar flavors from the spices he keeps stocked on his shelves embody home and it's like he's back again. "We hold on to these memories by cooking the same exact way it's done back in Mexico."
He used to cook for Greek and Italian restaurants. It was the owner of one of those restaurants who encouraged Ezequiel to start his own business. They offer products that customers recognize, no matter what part of Latin America they're from.
"Mexican, Central or South American, we all use very similar ingredients," says Maria. They even have a little raspado stand in their store so they can offer customers the traditional Mexican dessert made of shaved ice doused in fruity syrup, chunks of fruit and condensed milk.
Customers can also enjoy fresh rosca de reyes, a sweet cake made every January.
"We celebrate Jesus Christ's birth on January 6. We make a rosca de reyes and put a little plastic toy baby in there. We usually put two or three babies," says Ezequiel. "So, everybody gets together, cuts a piece of the rosca, and if you find the toy baby in there, you have to throw a fiesta at your house. We keep the fiesta going!"
HYUN "SONYA" YOO and JOSEPH CLARK
New Central Market, est. 1998
Korea, China, the Philippines, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Pacific Islands
kimchi, an original recipe made in-house; assorted banchans (Korean side dishes); rice cakes, namkeen (a spicy, salty afternoon tea snack in Indian culture), high-grade meats, fresh Asian pears, Thai basil, tons of Asian candies
"I was an experienced teacher for 17 years. I didn't know anything about grocery stores," says Sonya Yoo, founder of New Central Market. She came to Anchorage from South Korea and started out selling only fish with two chest freezers. It became a big hit with the Vietnamese and Filipino community, which encouraged her to start a grocery store. "My original market burned down … twice. My house burned down, too, around the same time. But, everything is good luck now," says Sonya. "I am a survivor," she adds.
One product at a time, her store expanded to feature a plethora of Asian countries–even tossing in products from the Pacific Islands. She now runs the store on Northern Lights with her husband, Joseph Clark.
"We have the coolest customers! I didn't get to learn about these food products by being a chef in some culinary school or anything like that," says Joseph. "We learned just by listening to our customers. They taught us how to cook their food and we try to build upon that."
Here's a neat success tip: watch TV.
"A part of our success is that we watch international TV programs. They do product placement in a lot of soap operas, especially Korean ones. We see what's hot and we have to get it for our store. Our customers are notorious for soap operas. A customer will ask for it, and already ahead of the game, we're like, 'We already got it. We saw it, too!'"
Alaska Halal International Market, est. 2016
India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Ghana, Nigeria, Gambia, Senegal, Turkey
halal meats, palm oil, atta flour, couscous, biryani rice, Gambian findi lah
"Gambians like fish with palm oil. It's very spicy," says Lamine, the owner of the Alaska Halal International Market. "My wife can describe the food better. I'm not lazy, but I'm also not a very good cook."
A Gambian native and president of the Islamic Community of Anchorage, he saw the demand for halal in Alaska. "The Muslim population was growing, so I was looking at serving my community. Before, halal was very hard and inconvenient to bring it up here. We always got it from Seattle, Oregon, even as far as California."
Halal is what you label meat after it has been prepared according to Islamic cultural traditions. "You must respect the animal. You pray first for the soul of the animal before you slaughter it. It must be grass-fed with no chemical products. We are very careful what we consume because you are what you eat," says Lamine.
Along with halal meats, he provides key ingredients for the variety of customers that come in. Ola-Ola cassava flour and palm oil is popular among African customers; for Pakistanis, biryani rice; Indians use atta flour for making flatbreads like naan and roti. "This is a very special store because all cultures meet here. I see them all. It's a unifying factor, I must say."
Eastern European Store & Deli, est. 2008
Poland, Hungary, Germany, Russia, Macedonia, Croatia, France, Brazil, Bosnia, Ukraine, Albania, Austria, Bulgaria
Over 90 varieties of sausages and cheeses, pierogi, pelmeni, borscht, European chocolates, cookies, loose candies, kvass, fresh German bread made in-house
Inside the Eastern European Store & Deli you'll hear a conversation in Russian, then down a separate aisle, a snippet of Bosnian. For some customers, it's familiar, warm–it's home. To others, it's gibberish, yet comforting because it feels like they're "traveling," sampling food from all over the world without having to step onto a plane. "There are some folks that come in and get weirded out. They can't read the labels," says Nonna Pryt. "However, 99 percent of the time, they'll buy something; and most of the time it's our chocolate. Our chocolates are one of our biggest hits. We especially have a larger selection of chocolates during the holidays."
Nonna's parents arrived from Russia and wanted to share a little piece of their home with Alaska. So, they decided to open up a market, one in Anchorage and one in Wasilla. Customers unfamiliar with Eastern European cuisine can try traditional dishes made fresh in their store. "You have to try our pierogi. It's like a dumpling, filled with potato, mushrooms and cheeses. Another delicious dish is our pork and chicken filled pelmeni, a traditional Russian food." Then, wash it all down with a refreshing bottle of kvass, a fizzy liquid bread drink.
Anzilotti's Tuscan Market & Deli, est. 2009
Tuscany region of Italy, but also features various regions of Italy; some from Mediterranean region
parma prosciutto, pecorino Romano cheese, D.O.P. olive oil, fresh cannoli, tiramisu, focaccia panini sandwiches, gluten-free pasta, lasagna
"I've heard people say, 'If the cook's not Italian, I'm not going to that restaurant!' That's crazy. There are awesome Filipino cooks, Mexican—you name it. They're not just cooking their food," says Wendy Anzilotti, who can relate. Not being Italian didn't stop her from learning Italian cuisine. She grew up in Illinois and later married into an Italian family. "I did extensive research on tried-and-true Italian cooking. I also learned from my customers who grew up with these products. We want to demystify Italian cooking. People think it's going to be so hard. No, it's really about quality ingredients. Their recipes are so simple." Located in Wasilla, Anzilotti's is a family-operated grocery store with a deli and coffee shop. They pride themselves on making the freshest focaccia bread in town, made from scratch using their own original recipe.
"Food–it's memories. It's what's going on around you in your culture that makes you decide how to do something. Sometimes people don't know why you do things a certain way. One customer told me about how their grandmother made cannoli shells. She would go get a broom and wrap the dough around the handle to make that shape! It's because that's just what they had."
This article was first published in 61°North – The Food Issue. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at firstname.lastname@example.org