Journalism: Food : Afros'marts print page

From the

December 8, 2009

Off the Eatin' Path
By Zachary Barowitz

photo/Zachary Barowitz

Ilham Ali had a very short shopping list for her trip to the African grocer. “We usually get 20 pounds of frozen goat stew-meat and a big bag of rice and call it good,” said Ali, a West Ender born in Somalia.

Customers like Ali are the reason many African markets have long consisted of little more than a freezer, a band saw, sacks of grain piled on the floor and a few large cans of baby formula. But that is changing. The newly opened Peace Food Market on Cumberland Avenue is bringing camel meat back to town (it tastes like beef), and several other markets have recently been renovated and now offer expanded food sections.

In what must be the fastest-growing retail sector in Portland, there are now eight businesses on the peninsula that can fairly be called African markets or that cater to a primarily African clientele.

Halal Discount Market on Washington Avenue is the biggest and best-stocked of the bunch. You can get incense and incense burners, Islamic books and prayer rugs, bedding, spear-sized shish-kebab skewers, and glass water pipes with the accompanying charcoal and guava-flavored tobacco. Priced as low as $16, the pipes are considerably cheaper than similar models sold at head shops, and our tester found that they work well with a variety of smokable materials. Halal also has a sizeable health-and-beauty section that features $40 perfume bottles with names like Breed, Attractive, and Charming. A test spritz indicates they’re both worthy of their names and worth the price.

Somali cuisine has been strongly influenced by South Asian and Middle Eastern cooking. Accordingly, Halal Discount Market is well stocked with sacks of basmati rice, cans of ghee (clarified butter — a.k.a. butter oil), and large containers of Indian chutneys — from acrid mango pickle to sweet, plum-like boroi (a.k.a. jujube). There is a fine selection of sweets, including fig jams, honey, massive sheets of chewy apricot fruit-leather, halva, and a Lebanese gulab jamun (deep-friend cheese curds in a heavy, aromatic syrup). As refined sweeteners have become gastronomically gauche, two products at Halal made from dates are of particular interest: syrup and molasses. The syrup may be used like honey or maple syrup on pancakes, in tea, or over ice cream; the latter is better suited for cooking and baking.

There is qaxwe (pronounced GEH-wah), a Somali coffee flavored with ginger powder. The spice section has cardamom (also great in coffee; see sidebar, below), saffron, big bags of sage, and dried limes. Also known as Persian limes, these feather-light dried fruits resemble brown ping-pong balls and are used in Iranian cooking (crushed or pierced in a pot of stew or lentils) to contribute an appealing flavor without the bitterness of the pith. Somalis boil them into a dark citrus tea that’s reputed to relive stress.

Items like olives, Bulgarian feta cheese, and dried cassava leaves (a.k.a. yuca, the plant from which tapioca derives) are examples of Halal’s expanding scope. The dried cassava leaves, which come mixed with dried leeks, have a grassy/nori-seaweed flavor and make a nice thickener for soups and stews like South Asian palack stew, a nice complement to goat. Mitpheap Asian Market, just across the avenue, is a good place to get fresh goat meat (including the desirable skin-on chunks), as is Hamdi, the Somali restaurant and market down the block that’s also renovating and expanding its grocery section. [For more on goat, see the January 2009 edition of Off the Eatin’ Path.]

The rather reductively named African Market on the corner of Congress Street and Deering Avenue differs from its Somali competitors. Owned by James Shol, a Christian from Southern Sudan, it has no goat meat. The shelves are neatly stocked, there’s hip hop playing in the background, and the market boasts a wide selection of fufu flour [see “Fufu Frenzy!,” the March 21, 2007 edition of this column]. Shol cuts lamb and tilapia on the premises, and both sell for $4/lb.

“We have a lot of customers from Rwanda, Congo, Sudan,” said Viola Lupar, an employee at the market.

No Somali customers? “They come in, but only for phone cards,” she said.

You’ll find a good selection of West African import products at African Market. Staples include annatto-colored palm oil and chunks of dried fish which, when simmered, produce a thick broth that could make a good chowder base for the lactose intolerant.

A bottle of sugar-cane vinegar I picked up at African Market epitomizes the topsy-turvy nature of globalization. The label has both English and Arabic script. The vinegar is produced in the Philippines by a company called South Asian Imports that’s headquartered in Venezuela. Unfortunately, despite this pedigree, the flavor is far from exotic — it’s virtually indistinguishable from normal white vinegar.

African Market is also the go-to place to get your African movie fix. The Nigerian film industry is the second largest in the world by volume, behind India, producing more than 25,000 movies a year. Morality tales are prevalent in Nollywood. The difficult-to-follow, soap-opera plot of a movie like Revenge seems to be little more than an excuse for lively banter, withering looks, and booty shots. Nevertheless, the acting is solid and there’s a lively soundtrack.

Portland’s African markets are no slouches when it comes to convenience. Halal is open daily from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.; African Market is open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day. Shol plans to expand his fresh produce section to make African Market less of a specialty-foods destination and more of a one-stop-shopping experience.

There’s plenty of room for growth in the local African-market market. To wit, I asked Ali where her family gets the rest of its food.

“Save-A-Lot,” she replied.

— Zachary Barowitz

Flavored coffee
The term “flavored coffee” suggests a sickly smelling, artificially enhanced, syrupy concoction that’s anathema to purists. However, much of the world flavors coffee by simply adding spices during the grinding process. Most of the coffee-friendly spices below can be found in whole form at Portland’s African markets. If you don’t have a grinder, use a mortar and pestle (or the bottom of a mug).

Cardamom: Eighty percent of the world’s cardamom goes into coffee. Add 3-5 pods per pot. Cardamom-enhanced java is typically served with sugar and without milk or cream.

Cinnamon: Cassia cinnamon (a.k.a. Chinese cinnamon) can be found at Hamdi, the restaurant and market on Washington Avenue, and Al-Amin Halaal Market on St. John Street.

Anise: Use a half or a whole dried star anise fruit, according to taste; prepare with sugar and a splash of vodka to approximate an Italian caffè corretto a sambuca.

Cocoa: A teaspoon of cocoa makes an easy mocha.

Dried Hot Chili: For the morning red-eye; can also be used in conjunction with cocoa.

Dried Lime: A small piece of a dried lime approximates the Israeli custom of squeezing lemon into coffee. (Note: milk will curdle if added to this preparation.)

Lemon Juice: Another preparation popular in Israel. The addition of lemon seems to eliminate the anxious jitters coffee can induce. I like to add lemon juice to cardamom coffee and then sweeten with honey.

Recipe: Persian-style stew for goat or camel

Cut two pounds of meat into small cubes and marinate for at least 12 hours in a mixture that contains an acidic liquid (such as vinegar, wine, or lime juice), as well as flavoring (ketchup, coffee, or ginger ale). Brown the meat in a heavy pan, cover with three or four chopped onions, and simmer covered. After approximately one hour, add a can of tomatoes, three cut carrots and/or turnips, three crushed dried limes, a few tablespoons of date molasses, and a tablespoon of boroi chutney. Simmer uncovered until liquid has evaporated. The stew may be thickened with chunks of a baked yam or sweet potato.

— Z.B.