SimmerD: Savoring Hamtown flavors

A few months ago, I was getting groceries at Al-Haramain International Foods, one of Hamtramck’s larger independent greengrocers. As I placed various items in my cart (perfectly ripe avocados at 50 cents apiece; cilantro and parsley at 50 cents a bunch; limes for a quarter), it struck me just how great a resource it was for affordable produce, not to mention Middle Eastern specialty foods.  I pondered the fact that although I hang out with a lot of folks who love to cook, no one really talks about Hamtramck’s diverse offering of Eastern European, Bangladeshi and Middle Eastern grocers. This led me to wonder how many people may be driving several miles to get groceries in the ‘burbs, directly bypassing all the goodies right under their noses.

Al-Haramain has long been a favorite of mine since it opened in 2003. Sadly, they weren’t around during my 5-year stint in Hamtramck way back when. But with frequent visits over the last couple years to a certain photographer whose house was right up the street, I became a regular, and was quickly enamored with their selection, prices and convenience. In addition to a produce section that includes all the basics, they carry items that are harder to find or just plain too expensive elsewhere, such as Jerusalem artichokes, papaya, and firm little Lebanese cucumbers.

On the opposite side of the store, you’ll find aisles stocked with both American and Mediterranean dry goods like pita bread, metal gallon jugs of olive oil, Greek honey and jars of ajvar (a spicy eggplant-pepper spread of Serbian origin). Carnivores can grab lamb and other meats (including house-made kibbeh) at the butcher counter; dried legumes and spices are available in bulk for those who want to whip up their own homemade falafels or veggie burgers.

Maybe you’re not so much of a cook?  Not a problem; hit up the olive bar, which also features antipasti, homemade hummus and grape leaves for a couple dollars less per pound than similar suburban offerings. Add a bag of pita, a container of labne (thick strained yogurt) from the cooler, and maybe a jar of ajvar, and you have the makings of a pretty damn fine picnic. Or a late night snack- they’re open until midnight.

Located directly across from the Baitul Mukarram Masjid (mosque) on Conant, Bishr Poultry and Food Center offers another type of Arabic food shopping experience- they are one of a few local markets that slaughter live chickens on site. You can purchase a whole bird just relieved of its feathers in the back room, or buy a boneless mixture for $3 a pound that comes pre-seasoned with parsley, carrots and flavorful spices. If you don’t want to cook it yourself, they have a hot food bar behind the counter with some of the best rotisserie chicken in town, fried chicken, and side dishes like saffron rice and okra with tomatoes. 

If your palate appreciates the warm, pungent flavors of the Indian subcontinent, take a jaunt further south down Conant, re-christened Bangladesh Avenue in 2008. According to one of the owners of Meghna Grocery Store, who goes simply by "Khan," there are no fewer than two dozen grocers from Bangladesh doing business in Hamtramck. His shop happens to be on Carpenter, but many of the others can be found on the stretch of Conant between Carpenter and Holbrook.

Marhaba Bazar is notable for being one of the most welcoming shops on the block, which only makes sense since its name translates to "hello" or "greetings." The interior is bright, clean and well-organized and its owners are happy to help non-Bengali shoppers navigate the products at hand. I was excited to find a few items I’d been hunting for, such as amchoor (a sour powder made from dried green mangoes) and dried pomegranate seeds.

As I was perusing bags of flattened brown rice, owner Mozir Uddin helpfully told me that it was often eaten for breakfast with powdered coconut mixed in. It cooks up in a couple minutes in the microwave and I’ve been starting my day with it ever since. And speaking of coconut, Hamtramck’s barflies need not look far for coconut water, a favorite hangover remedy; it’s stocked here and in the coolers of every Bengali store we visited.

After exploring several of the Bengali shops, whose butcher counters are lamb and chicken-centric due to the owners’ Muslim faith, the first thing that struck me walking into Bozek's on Caniff was the preponderance of pork. Chops, shoulders, kielbasa, and bacon-wrapped pork loin line the butcher cases- they even have a large walk-in cooler dedicated to meat. Bozek’s is one of the few remaining Polish markets in the neighborhood, harkening back to Hamtramck’s first wave of immigrants, and seems to be going strong despite the changing demographics. 

The store is a great resource for prepared foods like your babka used to make: kapusniak (cabbage soup), bigos (hunter stew), czarnina (duck soup) and a few kinds of borscht are all available in the coolers, ready to be warmed on the stove to ward off autumn’s chill. For those seeking an even more, ahem, “authentic” experience, they also have both chicken and pork jello, and of course, headcheese. More comfort food awaits in the rear of the store, where you’ll find a cart with hot foods like stuffed cabbage and pierogies. To wash it down, grab some Eastern European beer, which often carries a higher alcohol content (and flavor) than your average domestic brew. 

For even more meaty Polish goodness, don’t miss Srodek's Campau Quality Sausage. They make several types of traditional sausages like smoked kielbasa, hunter sausage and kiska (blood sausage). Although the shop calls itself a sausage company, you name the Polish specialty and they likely make it: kluski (fresh egg noodles), kopytka (gnocchi-like dumplings), crepes, pierogi, golabki (stuffed cabbage), fresh spreadable cheese in several flavors and even jarred sorrel leaves (for soup) are all prepared in-house. Mrs. Srodek even sells local honey gathered from her four hives.

Unsurprisingly, people make pilgrimages to shop at Srodek's; while I stood in line, I overheard shoppers discuss the hours they’d driven to get there. After I sampled the hunter sausages, whose salty, smoky-rich goodness made me an instant addict, I understood why. The store has attracted national attention as well: third-generation family member Rodney Srodek proudly tells us that food celeb Andrew Zimmern of Travel Channel’s "Bizarre Foods" paid a visit on August 31 (the episode will air sometime in February 2012). 
Although I have shopped in Hamtramck for years, on my recent visits I was still bowled over by the scope of products available. My shopping bags overflowed with everything from jaggery and screw pine essence and homemade beet borscht to fresh sardines and green papaya to bulk lentils and basil seed drink. Three distinct culinary traditions can be explored in less than one square mile, and even those who don’t consider themselves adventurous eaters can find basic staples well past the time when most traditional supermarkets would long be closed for the day. Best of all, Detroit, it won’t take a whole paycheck to cover the bill.

Noelle Lothamer writes about her kitchen exploits on her blog, Simmer Down! Over the next few weeks she’ll be blogging about some of the dishes she’s making with her recent Hamtramck ethnic food purchases

All photographs Marvin Shaouni Photography

Contact Marvin here.
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