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.
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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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