Kyung Min Ahn was unpacking crates of Korean pears when I arrived at his Seoul Foods grocery store in Fridley.
The pale yellow fruits, as round as softballs and a little bit bigger, were individually wrapped in Styrofoam netting, then stacked in nesting cardboard boxes to prevent the slightest bruising.
"This is something very special, only from Korea," Ahn said. "They are just in season now. Very crisp, very juicy, very sweet."
He weighed the fruit in his hands and got a faraway look in his eyes. Ahn has lived in the United States for 10 years and has run the grocery for two, but he still gets homesick when he starts talking about the food of Korea.
"Here is something I only recently managed to get: fermented skate wings," Ahn said, pulling a frozen packet from the freezer case. "It's a specialty of my hometown, Kwangju. If I open this, you go running." He said he'd tried to get his wife and daughter to try it, but they couldn't stand the smell. "Still, I find it delicious," he said.
Food is a natural expression of any culture; if you want to see the soul of a country, visit its kitchens; if you want to see its beating heart, go to its markets. That's good advice for any traveler. But because the Twin Cities is home to increasingly large and diverse international populations, it's possible to span the globe in a day of market-hopping.
The flavors of Somalia, Ethiopia, Iran, Liberia, Mexico, Poland, Norway, Greece, Russia, Jerusalem, India, Laos and Vietnam can be found in neighborhoods across the metro area. In almost every case, the store is nothing special; a rectangular structure with harsh fluorescent lighting. But on the shelves and among the customers, far-off lands are close at hand.
Earlier this month, I spent a day traveling in grocery stores. I drove just under 100 miles, but touched down on five countries that span the globe. I started at Seoul Foods, a modest grocery in a strip mall sandwiched between Great Clips and Tiffany Nails in Fridley. I left with a couple of Korean pears (succulent as advertised), frozen kalbi beef (slabs of short ribs cut across the bone) and kalbi sauce, a barbecue marinade with soy sauce, green onions, sugar and in this version, Asian pear and apple puree.
Next stop, Liberia, in the form of the Pan- African Mall in Crystal, just off Bass Lake Road. A large banner outside proclaimed, "Special today, Palm Butter $10." I was actually looking for a different market in the vicinity, but I wanted to find out what palm butter was and if it was worth $10.
While the building looked like a typical prefab suburban box, the scene inside was pure Africa. Everyone in the store was in at least one conversation, and anyone who walked in joined in.
One of the owners, James Sanigular, coincidentally arrived just after I did and took me on a tour of the shelves, pointing out top sellers such as fufu flour (made from the bananalike plantain), cassava roots and cassava leaves. "Cassava is the most important food in Africa," he said, hefting a reddish tuber as big as a large man's forearm. "It is the staple in a lot of diets."
Sanigular said business was booming; thousands of Liberians in the northern suburbs, as well as a growing number of Africans from other parts of the continent, are hungry for familiar flavors. "The market for African foods here is growing 10 to 20 percent a year, and the margin on ethnic groceries is much higher than in a regular grocery store."
"Why is that?" I asked.
"Imagine that you have lived in China for four years," he said. "How much would you pay if a Burger King opened up? People want the taste of home, and they're willing to pay for it."
The deli at the front of the store was selling the aforementioned palm butter. It consisted of a steaming bowl of chicken stew, laden with ground palm nuts, smoky peppers and unfamiliar spices and served with a big plate of white rice. It was worth every penny.
I drove south, in search of Eastern Europe. I found it at Kiev Foods in a strip mall on West 7th Street in St. Paul. An old man in a wool coat and stocking cap read a newspaper in Cyrillic in the front of the store. The shelves were laden with Slavic delicacies: rose-petal jam from the Ukraine, butter from Poland, rye bread from Lithuania and a glass refrigerator case loaded with Russian and Polish sausages.
Nellya Vadnais, a statuesque blond native of Tomsk in Siberian Russia, stood behind the counter. "What do I miss? In America, the sausages are not the same. They are not even sausages. I miss the sausages, all the sausages."
I have never been to Russia, but I lived in Slovakia for a year, and from that experience I know that in the Slavic soul, there is a hallowed place for the fine art of ground meats. I paid homage by buying a pound of excellent Moscow pork sausage and a jar of Ukrainian pickles (pickles being another area where Slavs are unsurpassed).
From St. Paul to Minneapolis, from Russia to Greece. Bill's Imported Foods is a small outpost of the Greek Peloponnesus on Lake Street. Owner Kiki Tirokomos is a native of Kalamata, and the triumvirate of olive oil, olives and feta from her home region are top sellers.
"We've been there 27 years in the same location," she said. "We used to do only Greek, but now we are expanding." She pointed out Croatian hash, fresh black radishes favored by Serbians and bags of yerba mate, the pungent herb drunk as a tea in much of South America, along with the gourds and steel straws needed for drinking it. "People in America now come from all over. So now we have food from all over."
Driving a mile east on Lake Street was plenty evidence of that. Mexico and Africa were well-represented, from Mercado Central to the Dur Dur Bakery. But earlier waves of immigrants have a presence, too.
Steve Dahl was working the meat counter at Ingebretsen's, which has been importing Scandinavian foods for more than 87 years.
"Not much has changed really," Dahl said of his 42 years working at the store. "Lutefisk used to come in barrels. Now it comes skinless and boneless, which is really nice. We'll sell more than a ton in the month of December."
His partner behind the counter, Steve Smith, noted that lutefisk notwithstanding, some of the more challenging Norwegian foods were gradually phasing out.
"We have our last piece of gammelost here," he said, picking up a fist-sized hunk wrapped in plastic. "That means 'old cheese.' They take it and throw it under some hay in the barn and leave it there for a few months. If you're 85 or 90, that's what you grew up on."
"Oh no, we have more gammelost coming," Dahl said. "But we stopped selling surs stromming some time ago. That's a kind of fermented fish. The cans it came in were all swollen up. They won't even let that in the country anymore."
I told them about the fermented skate wings at Seoul Foods; Dahl said the pattern sounded familiar.
"The kids don't like the stuff, but when they grow up, they get back into it. I myself like the lutefisk. My kids are picking at it, but I get them to eat a little more of it each year."
Chris Welsch • 612-673-7113