Around the world: Asheville’s ethnic grocers offer a global culinary tour

GLOBAL VILLAGE: Larry and Kheng Lee call their store, Lee's Asian Market, the "mini-Chinatown of Asheville." Photo by Liisa Andreassen

While oversized, stinky fruit and gunpowder tea may not be on everyone’s weekly grocery list, many Ashevilleans are happy they don’t have to travel far from home to find them. Whether you have a hankering for some dragonfruit, are starting an alternative diet or just want to try a new recipe you found on the Internet, local specialty grocers probably have what you’re looking for.

Making connections

Sharon Domingo is owner of Foreign Affairs Oriental Market, a family business that’s been around for 16 years. And her website assures customers that the store will do everything possible to meet their “Pacific needs.”

Sharon Domingo, owner, Foreign Affairs Oriental Market, loves sharing product knowledge. Photo by: Liisa Andreassen
Sharon Domingo, owner of Foreign Affairs Oriental Market, loves sharing product knowledge. Photo by Liisa Andreassen

“If we don’t carry it, we’ll research how to get it,” she says. “It’s all part of what we do. For example, I had a customer who was looking for a specific type of Hawaiian candy. While it was not cost-effective for me to order it, I shared what I had learned so the customer could order it herself. I like to connect people with products.”

Once a week, Domingo travels to the Atlanta Farmers Market. With 150 acres of vending space, it’s one of the largest markets in the world and serves as a marketing hub and distribution point for fresh produce in the Southeast.

“I’m like a kid in a candy store,” she says. “I enjoy seeking out exotic produce and ingredients from around the world. If I find a new item we haven’t carried before, I experiment with it at home first before deciding whether or not to carry it in the store, so I can fully explain to people what they can do with it.”

Domingo stands at the counter surrounded by exotic fruit. She explains that the beautiful red dragonfruit tastes somewhat like a cross between a beet and a watermelon. She also points to a watermelon-sized, spiky durian, commonly called “stinky fruit.”

Dragon Fruit 2
The inside of a dragon fruit tastes like a combination of beets and watermelon and it’s pretty too. Photo by Liisa Andreassen

Although it’s popular in Asia, the formidable fruit lives up to its nickname, with an aroma that food writer Richard Sterling has described as a combination of “turpentine and onions garnished with a gym sock.” “If you can get past the smell,” says Domingo, “it’s delicious.”

Euromarket caters to alternative diets

Eleven years ago, Vadim and Tatyana Apolka opened the Euromarket of Asheville, an Eastern European grocery. Their spotless and spacious West Asheville store is home to some of the tastiest European chocolates around. In fact, each year during the holiday season, they sell about 500 pounds of these colorfully wrapped treats per week. They also offer a wide variety of smoked fish and meats, goat and sheep cheeses, olives, Turkish desserts, breads, black and green teas and much more.

EurMart2
Vadim and Tatyana Apolka of the Asheville Euromarket, carry a wide array of eastern European delicacies. Photo by Liisa Andreassen

“We’re most proud of the fact that everything we carry is GMO-free,” Tatyana says. “That’s so important these days. We also carry the largest variety of organic herbs for cooking and healing.”

Tatyana splits her time between the Euromarket and Eurohealth, a body cleansing clinic that she started in 2010. She often refers customers to try foods from the market that she says are easier on the digestive system and have positive health benefits.

For example, her shop carries gluten-free buckwheat grain, which is dried in the sun and harvested at the peak time to provide maximum nutrients. There is also a bread from Lithuania — Amber bread — which is a pure rye. Available frozen at the shop, it is easy to digest and perfect for people who have gluten intolerance.

Some other hard-to-find items include gunpowder green tea, which is known for its antioxidant properties, and cold-pressed sunflower oil. “The sunflower oil retains its original smell,” she says.

The kids are alright

Also on the west side, Tienda Los Nenes is a grocery store, café and bakery. The name closely translates into “the kids” in English. Maria Soto owns the place along with her husband, Luis Prieto, and explains that when they first opened in 2010, they were “just kids.” They weren’t able to get a loan, so they scraped and borrowed from family. Their combined entrepreneurial skills have allowed them to expand to a second location in Hendersonville which opened less than a year ago.

Maria Soto and Luis Prieto, a husband and wife team, enjoy running Tienda Los Nenes and keeping customers coming back for more. Photo by Liisa Andreassen

The business started out as a bakery, so it’s no surprise that delectable treats such as conchas, bolillos, tres leches and donas continue to be the couple’s top sellers. But there are many other things to sample as well.

Among the more coveted items are thinly sliced, Latin-style meats, dried beans from Peru and Brazil, Harina P.A.N. (white cornmeal flour used to make maize dough), dried chili peppers and Mexican candy.

Prieto, who comes from a long line of bakers, has been making cakes since he was a kid. He’s often found with flour on his hands greeting customers with a smile and something sweet.

Asian influence

Lee’s Asian Market is a self-proclaimed “mini-Chinatown in Asheville.” Owned by Kheng and Larry Lee, the market opened in 2013. Larry was a chef in California for many years, so he likes talking to customers about ways to cook the merchandise he carries.

When asked about his favorite thing to make, Larry smiles and walks to the area of the store where one finds ingredients to make tom yum, a hot-and-sour soup that is usually cooked with shrimp. It’s widely served in Thailand, Cambodia, Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore and has been made popular around the world.

In addition to shelves of sexy ingredients and refrigerator cases where shoppers can find everything from black salt and saffron to palm juice, lemongrass and galangal (a type of ginger root), Lee’s freezers are also stocked with colorful whole fish such as bonito, parrot, round scad and pompano, and whole, free-range chickens from California, which is one of their top-selling items.

Are you ready to travel the world? It’s just around the bend.

Foreign Affairs Oriental Market
611-A Tunnel Road

Euromarket of Asheville
1341 Parkwood Ave. Suite 101102

Tienda Los Nenes
1341 Parkwood Ave. Suite 110, Asheville, and 1945 Spartanburg Hwy., Hendersonville

Lee’s Asian Market
1950 Hendersonville Road

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13 thoughts on “Around the world: Asheville’s ethnic grocers offer a global culinary tour

  1. Why did you overlook Kim’s Oriental Food and Gifts? I think they have been in business longer than any market in your story.
    5 Regent Park Blvd #110, Asheville, NC 28806

  2. Shultz!

    I’d love to see a little Indian market come to town. Coming from Raleigh where they were plentiful, I miss the dirt cheap bulk spices, giant bags of basmati rice, pappadams, and the homemade sweets, all with the sound of Bollywood music playing. While living there I never fully realized how special it was to have ‘little India’ in Cary like we did…

    • boatrocker

      There are quite a few markets in town that sell what you’re looking for.

      The Mountain X will not publish reviews of any said restaurants or grocery stores any more, as when they did, a whiny minority felt that saying anything negative about places that served/sold food might offend someone’s safe space. Check the archives for the Mtn X- editors’ grovelling at the foot of advertising dollars.

      • The Real World

        @boatrocker – I moved to AVL 3 years ago from a big, big city and it was an adjustment to realize that local publications/reviewers would soft-pedal negative commentary about local businesses or productions.

        But, you know, it’s really a necessary reality in a smaller town. A lousy review of a local theater production would likely kill the play and the same might happen to a local business. Whereas in bigger urban areas there is often enough of an interested population that one bad review wouldn’t kill a business. (But, a solid argument can also be made that a bad review could serve as an important wake-up call to a mediocre business and provide an important catalyst for improvement — thereby saving the business).

        For film reviews, it’s different because those movies play worldwide and whatever Cranky has to say only affects local market sales, if at all.

        • boatrocker

          I think your comment that ‘a solid argument can be made…’ pretty much negates the argument you put forth that ‘smaller’ towns like Asheville can’t handle a negative review. C’mon, we’re not the huge city you moved from, but we’re not Mayberry either with 1 restaurant- far from it. A negative review, just like a positive one is earned and reflects performance.

          To only give shiny happy reviews is disingenuous does a disservice to the profession- reviewing. That’s what reviewers do- they review. Would you rather a reviewer include a disclaimer such as:

          “this reviewer acknowledges that every review published, regardless of how crappy said restaurant is, will be met with flowers and unicorns and happy comments in order to keep said crappy restaurant in business, even though nobody eats there and it is losing money because it is awful”.

          Kim’s Oriental Foods still has my business for refusing to play a rigged game.

          • Able Allen

            To be clear, we do theater and movie reviews, but we do not do food or restaurant reviews.

          • Liisa

            FYI- Kim’s reason for not participating was strictly for personal reasons – not political. They are lovely folks and were happy we approached them to participate. Now go enjoy our lovely city and all it has to offer.

    • Liisa Sullivan

      Foreign Affairs has a good Indian selection. As for papadums…many mainstream markets such as Harris Teeter and Whole Foods carry them too. Good luck in your search.

  3. boatrocker

    Allen’s comment that the Mtn X does not do restaurant reviews is a good thing, Rather than going through the motions of presenting a faux objective review, simply do not include them- problem solved.

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