Exploring our Community’s Rich Cultural Diversity Through Ethnic Food Markets

By Angela Madaras • Photography by Rachel Everheart

Tienda La Libertad
I recently explored many of our community’s richly diverse, ethnic, and locally owned specialty food markets with an open mind and curious palate. I was eager to find not only exotic foods but also interesting proprietors, insight into other traditions, and a sense of connection in an all-too-divergent society. Inside the following three Ann Arbor markets, I found exactly what I went in search of. It was an exotic journey of colorful images, intoxicating aromas, new and unusual flavors, and rich cultural heritage. I have seen the movement known as “Global Gastro” growing over the years, thanks to a rise in food publications, blogs, and TV shows. Global Gastro encapsulates the essence of what food adventurers crave: something exotic, remarkable, sensual, and provocative; perhaps even extreme. Our community is home to a smorgasbord of specialty food markets that cater to an ever expanding multicultural society, and to food adventurers alike. I envision food as being the key ingredient that brings us together at the communal table of multiplicity.

I encourage you to explore the world of shopping beyond the large chain stores and usual suspects. A food adventure tour like this is a great date idea for the food lover in your life. You can take your special person to three or four stores while tasting and purchasing consumables you can’t pronounce. You might end up in your kitchen preparing an exotic meal with all your treasures. Some shop owners will even send you home with a few recipe ideas, and perhaps share a story of their heritage and food culture. You might find language barriers, so I suggest you try Google Translate on your phone. It will help you understand and communicate as you dialog. I believe that mutual respect is the key to engagement and understanding. I found that people were more receptive to me when I made myself responsive and engaging. I met some wonderful people along the way.

Tienda La Libertad and Taco King, Authentic Mexican Specialties (2231 W. Liberty at Stadium) is where two worlds collide into a growing taco enterprise within a tightly packed, comprehensive and well-organized Latin foods market. They offer fresh baked goods, tortillas, corn chips by Ann Arbor Tortilla Factory, produce, Piñatas, candles, an extensive selection of herbs and spices, frozen and refrigerated items, and packaged foods from Central America, South America, and Spain. The store is organized by country of origin from Mexico to Peru and Spain. It is the only place I have found “Salsa Lizzano” from Costa Rica. They will do their best to source special orders for grocery items, within reason. You can buy their homemade salsas, guacamole, and chorizo in small quantities. 

When I shop at Tienda La Libertad, I like to place an order for take-out, which is then made to order while I shop. I warn you though; like me, you may not be able to resist eating your food immediately. They have plenty of seating in the dining area, but I inevitably jump in my van only to ravenously eat half a piping hot taco with a satisfied smile on my face and glorious juice dripping from my fingers and chin. The tacos are made with two soft corn tortillas wrapped around filling of choice. They come with a garnish of onions, lime, cilantro, and two in-house made salsas. For breakfast you can’t go wrong with any of the options, but I recommend the Huevos Con Chorizo. Their chorizo (ground Spanish sausage) is made daily in house, and is a recipe created by partner-wife Sihem. She created most of the recipes with their unique twist on traditional Mexican fare, including a Veggie Menu. If you are not ready to order food, you can buy the ingredients to make your own themed dinner party complete with Piñatas and candles. Your guests will be quite impressed. 

The husband and wife team, Saber Naghmouchi and Sihem Ben Aich, behind this popular venture are, surprisingly, Tunisian. Their recipe for the perfect marriage of culture and business is evident in her cooking talents, and his sense of business. Saber attended graduate school in Bowling Green, Ohio, then moved to Ann Arbor, where he pursued a 10-year career in business management. They purchased “Tienda La Libertad” in 2011 from the original owners, and have made many improvements in the market and in their widely popular restaurant, Taco King, a name they created. They now have two Taco Kings in Ann Arbor, but only the one market (at the W. Liberty location). Find their menu online at www.annarbortacoking.com. Taco King also delivers.

Tienda La Libertad and Taco King: 2231 W. Liberty Street at Stadium, Ann Arbor 48103; (734) 585-5796; www.annarbortacoking.com. Hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Taco King at 4079 Stone School Road, Ann Arbor 48108 (734) 585-5791. Hours are Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. and Sunday 12 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Euro Market
Located on Packard at Platt in a strip of stores where there is a variety of ethnic fare, Euro Market carries a wide selection of Eastern European foods, deli provisions, and wine. Euro Market’s owner, Henry Moldovanov, came here from Siberia. He opened the store in 2004 with a partner who passed away six years ago. It is the first store of its kind in Ann Arbor, catering not only to the Russian community but also to Eastern European, Jewish, and German clientele. My husband is of Hungarian descent and I’m of German heritage. We crave fermented, pickled, smoked, and cured provisions. When I stumbled upon this market, I found a bounty of foods imported from the old world, and a few sourced locally. They offer freshly baked, organic Ukrainian and German bread, which sits on a shelf at the deli counter. The deli alone tempted me right when I walked in the door. I was on visual overload my first and even second visit. The shop is neatly organized with brightly colored jars and packages that line both walls of the store. Toward the back, they have a refrigerator and a freezer section filled with smoked fish, dairy items, including a very special cultured sour cream, pierogies, and so much more. They also have fermented Russian-style sauerkraut in a refrigerator by the front door, and it’s made fresh with cabbage and carrots. 

Upon my first visit, I purchased a delicious jar of “Ajvar” based on a friend’s recommendation. It is a creamy roasted red pepper, garlic, and eggplant spread that can be used as a dip or a sauce in main dishes. The second visit, I sampled and took home two very unique salamis and a fabulous Russian-style cheese that had the texture of havarti but with its own mild character. Paris Brand salami was mild and buttery compared to their “Gypsy Sausage,” which was spicy and robust. Both went well on pizza.

This is your one-stop specialty shop for Eastern European cuisine. It is a friendly and welcoming store. They will even special order delectables. They buy according to the needs and desires of their customers. “Food is a pleasure,” said Henry, and I can see how he serves at the pleasure of his customers. He explained to me that Russian meals shared with family and friends are lengthy, leisurely, and enjoyed along with conversation and good vodka. This communal style of slow eating and sharing is not unique to Eastern Europeans. Many other cultures take their time in this way. Slow food and pleasurable meals bring people together in celebration and community spirit. The Euro Market reflects this lifestyle. 

Euro Market: 3108 Packard Road, Ann Arbor 48108; (734) 975-4326.
Hours are Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday
from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Galleria Asian Market
Galleria Asian Market opened its doors in 2010, and is run by owners Soo H. Bang and Hyun B. Bang with the help of their son, Jason Bang, who runs the front of the market. I met Jason on my first visit to the market. An acquaintance suggested I try their in-house Japchae (pronounced jop-chae with a short “o” sound), a Korean noodle dish with meat and vegetables. Their recipe was the best yet. They also sell Kimchi Soup, Bibimbap, and other specialties to carry out. The bulk of the store offers an extensive variety of Korean and Japanese foods along with a wide range of other Asian cuisines. I was impressed by the cleanliness and organization of the store, and by their organic produce options. In season they source local produce and Michigan chestnuts. Jason gave me an informative tour of the store and the products they sell. He was attentive to all the customers in the store. It is rare to have such personal care in a grocery shopping experience. 

AM: Is there anything you want readers to understand about Asian food culture? 

JB: Asia is diverse. Wikipedia says Asia is the most populous continent with 48 countries each with their own language and culture, compared to the contiguous 48 States where people share the same language and culture for the most part, but each state has its own unique traits and food. Now imagine how difficult it is to define the food and culture of these 48 countries under the umbrella of “Asia.” We use the term “Asian” loosely because it is easily recognizable. As for the food culture, I liken it to any other refined experience; if you like it, you can refine the experience by learning more about the culture — wine, art, and so on. You don’t have to know everything about it to decide what you like, but your enjoyment will increase the more you know. It really doesn’t matter where a particular food comes from, as long as the food was tasty and nutritious. Enjoy. 

We have become an Asian ambassador of sorts in the Ann Arbor area, mainly because we opened the store in this great city, and our patrons choose to shop here. We don’t profess to know all things Asian, but sure enjoy conversing with our patrons about something as simple as making miso soup, to sourcing the ingredients to make Kimchi at home, among other things. The store can be intimidating to some. I often tell my bewildered customers to remember a name of the dish they liked, or to go eat at an ethnic restaurant and learn the name of the dish you like. Then shop for the ingredients to make that dish.

I wish to learn more with each visit to Galleria. I am happy to have found a prized example of a market, with genuinely caring people. 

Galleria Asian Market: 3111 Packard Street, Ann Arbor 48108 (734) 975-8900;    www.a3galleria.com. Hours are currently Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday.  

Posted on April 29, 2016 .