Sunday, April 20, 2008

Upon disclosure and intended recycling of all community college papers that have been lingering in the parental's garage since graduation, I stumbled upon a paper eminent from the rest.

Asked to visit an "foreign ethnic market" (whatever that means, I have no idea - do they think I'm xenophobic or something?), everyone in introductory anthropology "got outside their comfort zones" (again, no idea...) and tested our gastronomic palettes.

My rendezvous as a Middle Eastern garmound -

“Where are you from?” asked a middle-aged man dressed business casually.

“Vietnam,” I responded hesitantly while jotting down notes on produce.

“Vietnamese? You have all this in Vietnamese markets, no?” the man asked curiously. For a few moments, I became absolutely speechless.

“Actually, there’s quite a lot here I’m not familiar with,” I replied surprisingly. My simple visit to the Altayebat Market in Anaheim, CA soon became a cross-cultural experience. While I do have a Vietnamese ethnic background, I am a product of assimilation here in the United States. I was born in Sioux City, Iowa but lived in Orange County for a good majority of my life. Even though I have grown up with Vietnamese foods, I have become more familiar with Anglo markets as I tend to frequent Trader Joe’s or Henry’s Marketplace. Ethnocentric views aside, I spent a good amount of time in Altayebat Market’s aisles, noting similarities and differences.

“Altayebat” means “the tasty and delicious” in Arabic. The market, originally founded by Mohamed Sammy Khouraki and his wife Noha in 1983, primarily serves the Middle Eastern community but has branched to varied nationalities over the past quarter of a century. Foods within the store are labeled “halal”, meaning “permissible” in Arabic. “Halal” most frequently refers to food that is permissible according to Islamic law and religion. Situated on Ball Road and Brookhurst Street in Anaheim, the market’s mission is “to provide the freshest produce, the finest international groceries, and the choicest Halal meats – all at a price everyone can afford”.

As the largest section in the market, produce was well-presented and kept cool. The air was fresh, crisp, and cool to the touch. Similar fruits included grapes, apples, oranges, and watermelon. However, there were some unrecognizable fruits such as the quince, which is related to the apple and pear. Relative large and about four inches in diameter, quinces are yellow-brown in color and bumpy on the surface. Quinces have great big leaves, some even the same size as the actual fruit. Common vegetables in the market included squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, asparagus, and carrots. Some uncommon vegetables were fava and fenugreek. Fava, which look like three times the size of regular split peas, are broad green beans in a pod. About four to five inches long, each piece of fava contained six to seven bean seeds. Fenugreek, an herb, had a yellow-orange color and is used in curries and pastes. Prices in the produce department were similar to that of an Anglo market, as they were relatively inexpensive with various marketing tools used such as “3 for $1.00” deals.

The busiest section of Altayebat Market with a constant flow of customers was the meat department situated in the back corner of the store. With a counter displaying varied Halal meats separating the customers from the workers, there was a myriad of different meats. Beef was quite prominent, ranging between $3-4 per pound. Two uncommon meats were bastirma and mortadella. Bastirma is a Middle Eastern specialty; it is beef marinated in spices and then air dried for a prolonged period of time. Mortadella is the Middle Eastern version of “bologna” and is a combination of ground beef, pistachio nuts, garlic, and varied spices. Lamb seemed to be quite popular as well with the market selling lamb shoulders and leg portions. While there were some meats that I knew such as beef patties, chicken, and ground beef, there others that weren’t quite as familiar. Large portions of beef tongue, beef brains, lamb testes and kidneys, and ox tail were sold. Even though reading some of these labels may exude putrid smells, the aromas were actually controlled and little ceased to exist. There were some other intriguing observations that I made while in the meat department. Large olives were set right next to the varied meats. At $2.49 per pound, customers could buy large, smoky, bitter alfonso olives or dark-brown almond-shaped kalamata olives. I also observed how the meat section was divided. Like in an Anglo market, Altayebat had a meat counter for customers’ customized meats and another aisle with individually-packaged meats.

My nose brought me to the next department. Placed next to the meats were the spices. With such a strong and pungent aroma, it was quite the sight to see over sixty spices by the Middle Eastern brand “Sadaf” being presented. Traditional spices included lemon pepper, baking soda, cinnamon and chili pepper. Sour orange peels, sour grapes, and regular orange peels were the fruit-induced spices. There were even some spices composed of flowers such as hibiscus and chamomile. Seeds being sold included black caraway seeds, anise, and sesame. Some other unfamiliar spices included citric acid, cardamom, frankincense, angelica, and physillium. Many types of leaf condiments were being sold such as savory, tarragon, parsley, mint, cilantro, and sage. While the quantity of spices seemed much larger than those sold in Anglo markets, the prices were similarly inexpensive ranging from $1.49 to $2.99.

The dairy section of Altayebat surprised me the most. Located in the far back of the market, the dairy section consisted of large clear refrigerators Like most Anglo markets, I expected to find milk, a familiar and staple product. However, there was none to be found! Yogurt seemed to be the substitute as there was refrigerator after refrigerator of either Alta Dena yogurt or Middle Eastern “Byblos” pasteurized cheese. There was only unsalted margarine and butter, and no salted options were found.

The baked goods section was one of my favorite experiences in the market. While I expected to find loaves of bread pre-cut in individual slices, there was none to be found! All hand-made with no cholesterol and only whole wheat, the main breads were large, circular, and flattened. Circular pocket pita breads were common as well. Baked treats were either braided or circular with either some type of nut baked with it or fruit jam inside. Some unfamiliar treats included barazi, which are sesame cookies with pistachio nuts, and ghourabia, or butter cookies that looked like flattened donuts.

Throughout my visit, there were some general, but captivating observations that I made. Displays and presentation in the store was clean, printed, easy to see, and surprisingly, mainly printed in English. A majority of the jars sold had a combination of Middle Eastern and English text with a pictorial representation of the item on the outside. There were many healthy options available: over twenty kinds of beans, a dozen type of jams including mulberry molasses, and watermelon peels, and healthy cooking oils like canola, olive, corn, and grape-seed. Compared to individual servings in Anglo markets, Altayebat sold everything in large quantities and portions. In green shirts, the employees were cordial, quick, and attentive, and communication among them was done in English.

While I would expect large parking availability in Anglo markets, there were only a dozen spots open to a constantly busy customer population; I actually had to park across the street! Grocery shopping seemed to be a family affair in which everyone helped out. While there were food items that I was unfamiliar with, I was relatively comfortable in a consumer crowd of varied background. With affordable prices, healthy food choices, and a balanced between Middle Eastern culture and the American mainstream, I would definitely consider visiting the Altayebat Market again sometime in the near future.

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