Local grocers offer ethnic flair to dining tables across the Cape FearLast year, encore tapped into many of the diverse cultures that make up the pulse of Wilmington in one of the best ways we knew how: through their stomachs. We spoke with a handful of local chefs and restaurant owners that hailed from Italy, France, Puerto Rico and Japan to better learn about their cuisine, culture and transition into Wilmington.
For this series of “Multi-cultural ILM,” which will continue throughout 2013, I’ve chosen two women who have created their own businesses that sell authentic foods and fresh ingredients which more or less mirror what would be found in a local grocer from their homelands. To me, these stores exemplify a percentage of the spectrum of cultures that make up Wilmington—and make our dinner tables more exciting and varied.
Tatyana’s European Delights
125-2 South Kerr Avenue
As Wilmington’s only Russian, Polish and European gourmet shop, Tatyana’s European Delights is an international foodie’s wonderland. The vibrant grocer and delicatessen (located next to South Kerr Pub) provides authentic and hard-to-find grocery items from around the world, such as: European meats and cheeses, packaged foods, soft drinks, frozen meals, bakery items, pastries, gourmet chocolates and more.
Named after Tatyana Zarubin—who owns and operates the store with her husband, Sergey—she says coming from a multi-cultural family with German and Ukrainian backgrounds played a huge factor in expanding her palate.
“I think it’s important and very exciting to find out about other cultures, and what better way than through food,” Zarubin says. “There are so many delicious flavors in the world. People are always pleasantly surprised when they taste [our] real, authentic kielbasa for the first time.”
After spending most of her life in Kazakhstan, Zarubin decided to move to America with her family in 1992. They came to New York with only $300, two suitcases and barely any knowledge of the U.S.
“The Soviet Union was breaking up, the living conditions where terrible, [and] there was a lot of uncertainty,” Zarubin says. “I wanted to come so my children could have a better future. It was hard, but when I look at my kids, it was all worth it.”
After years of living in New York, Zarubin and Sergey moved to Wilmington in 2008 to be closer to her grandchild. While living in Wilmington, they noticed a lack of the authenticity they grew accustomed to in life. They knew they could serve the community with their vast knowledge and culture.
“Living in New York, there are few stores like this, but when we moved to Wilmington there was no place to get delicious rye bread or good, real kielbasa or salami,” Zarubin notes “We thought that if we miss good food, other people must as well. We wanted to offer the best and most nostalgic products from our culture.”
These products include Tatyana’s freshly baked rye bread, as well as pastries that are delivered once a week from Russian and Polish bakeries down from New York. Zarubin says the nine-layer chocolate, cherry and cream, almond and honey cakes are some of the store’s must-haves. Additionally, other pastry favorites include rugelah, babkas, strudel and the popular “walnut” cookies (named because they are shaped like walnuts), which consist of two round, hollow cookies filled with dolce de leche, butter cream and almonds.
“We always try to have the best and fresh products that are minimally processed and have only a few necessary ingredients without additives or chemicals in them,” Zarubin explains. “And we are always happy to explain or demonstrate, and love questions.”
Tatyana’s hosts free tastings on the last Friday of every month. They sample different foods and drinks sold in the shop, too. The next tasting will be held on January 25th from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
4507 Franklin Avenue
Taking the first step into Saigon Market has the power to transport one from the East Coast to the Far East. With shelves upon shelves of Asian goodies consisting of packaged foods, fresh produce, spices and other ingredients, Saigon Market (located at 4507 Franklin Avenue, right around the corner from Tatyana’s) has everything needed to prepare the most authentic Asian cuisine possible without leaving the country.
Locally renowned for its broad, unique and authentic selection of rice, sushi products, fresh produce (delivered every Friday evening), various teas, snacks, and candy—as well as products from the Mediterranean, India and Jamaica, the market also carries some of the most inexpensive spices and tofu. My personal favorite random item from Saigon is the spicy sriracha peas— a can of chili-garlic-coated dried green peas … delicious!
Owner Ngan Thi Washington—better known to her customers as Lan—came to the U.S. with her husband from South Vietnam in 1973. They settled in Wilmington in 1989 and created Saigon Market, now nearly two decades old.
“In 1994, when I decided to open the store, there was a need for an Oriental grocer, since there was not any around town,” Lan says. “Usually, I would have to drive to Raleigh to buy Asian food.”
Lan created the first incarnation of the Saigon Market in a small room in the Chinese delivery restaurant Mr. Chopstix (now just Chopstix) on Market Street. Over the years, she has moved the store to several locations as its clientele grew. Now in its current location for 13 years, with its well-established customer base, Saigon Market has cemented its reputation as a friendly neighborhood market. They provide a unique shopping experience for anyone who walks through its door. Plus, the prices are amazing!
“We are more than a grocery store,” Lan says. “We provide cooking information and knowledge about our diverse products.”
While Saigon Market’s general selection ranges from typical Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino and Korean cuisines, Lan takes pride in the fact she carries specialty items not likely found elsewhere in town. Balut (fertilized duck egg), octopus, eel, roe (fish eggs) and labne (kefir cheese) ranks among them.
Her personal favorites from her homeland use items brought from Saigon for creation, such as spring rolls, banh xeo (Vietnamese pancake), pho (Vietnamese soup) and banh mi (a type of Vietnamese sub sandwich).
“With Wilmington growing and [its] diverse population, it is important for people to have a place where they can buy food that they are used to eating within their culture,” Lan notes. “It’s also important for aspiring chefs who incorporate Asian dishes into their menu.”
In fact, Saigon Market has become a secret weapon in any local chefs’ knife bag from a plethora of spices, seeds and dried herbs, to cuts of offal meats at competitive prices, it’s a hidden gem for foodies of all skill levels and tastes.