Next time you go to a chain grocery store in Tyler, take notice of the single aisle containing significantly limited international products. For Tyler residents with ties to other countries, foods and familiar brands from home can mean a lot.
According to DataUSA’s demographic information, in 2019, Tyler was home to 10.1% foreign born residents in 2019. The most common countries of origin for foreign born residents in Texas were Mexico, India and El Salvador.
While first-generation Tylerites may embrace barbecue and sweet tea, they may lean on the culinary repertoires of their families’ home countries as well.
Along with enriching Tyler with multiple languages, faith traditions and practices, foods from afar bring new flavors and aromas to our city. There’s nothing like mouth-watering cooking smells from the kitchen that remind us of home. Special foods become even more desired around important holidays and annual celebrations.
But some international foods require distinct, hard-to-come-by ingredients. Enter Tyler’s multiple locally owned international markets. These shops’ shelves are laden with a wide spectrum of international products that many consider necessities.
The Tyler Loop caught up with five such food stores in Tyler, exploring their products and the residents who love them.
Zoe’s Afric Mart, 3500 S Broadway Ave. #304
Immediately upon entering, the fragrance of pungent spices greets you, followed by a warm “Welcome to Zoe’s Afric-Mart” from the shop owner, Paulina Anaab.
Open since 2013, the market is filled with popular imported products including raw shea butter and unrefined African black soap. Both of these skin care products are known for their extensive healing properties and affordability compared to other high-end products.
Another prominent item offered is fufu, which is a staple food in West African culture. Typically eaten with soup, the ingredients needed to make this soft, sticky dough are easily found at Zoe’s Afric-Mart. The store features a variety of imported goods including fresh produce, traditional mortars and pestles, yam flour, fruit juices and sought-after spices.
During the economic hit due to COVID-19 when chain grocery stores were closed, Anaab’s market remained open to the public. She says her shop is not limited to groceries, but features many other traditional African market items.
Import Emporium Asian Market, 5503 S Broadway Ave.
Located on Broadway next to Shogun Sushi & Hibachi Grill is a family-owned Asian grocery store. Open to East Texans since 2003, Import Emporium was formerly located across from Legacy High School but moved to a more visible location.
Nipaya Russell said her decision to open the store in Tyler was made when she noticed the inconvenience of traveling to Dallas to find necessary groceries. Despite discouraging comments advising them against the idea, Russell and her husband took the plunge.
Russell’s fondest memory is watching her children go from helping restock shelves to occasionally working with her at the store. Each of the store’s aisles contain a range of regional staples from countries across Asia. Near the back of the store, refrigerators are filled with bean sprouts, Chinese eggplant, Gai Choy and other fresh produce. Another set of refrigerators lined features frozen Asian delicacies including mochi, pot stickers and spring rolls.
Traditional Asian market items such as mortars and pestles, Japanese chopsticks, and tea sets. Colorfully hand embroidered purses from Thailand, Nipaya’s home country, line the shelves. Import Emporium is a great place to find Asian goods with plenty of variety for exploring.
Valon African and Caribbean Market, 1503 S Vine Ave.
Another shop contributing to African necessities is Valon African and Caribbean Market. Encouraged by friends and family and inspired to help others, Onyeka officially opened the doors of the Afro-Caribbean store in 2018.
The market’s shelves hold traditional African, Caribbean and American items, as well as some popular products from other cultures. Onyeka says her market is diverse and though it is known for African products, they try to be culturally inclusive.
Especially during COVID, while most grocery stores and restaurants were closed, Valon’s doors remained open and well-stocked. “So many different types of people came in during COVID,” Onyeka said.
At the market, you can find high-quality yams, different types of flours for soups, a variety of meats and fresh produce. In addition to African seasonings, the shop sells Indian, Middle Eastern and Jamaican spices. Onyeka said the majority of his spices are not typically found in chain grocery stores. Likewise, she says the spices and seasonings that can be found in local supermarkets are not comparable in flavor.
Supermercado Monterrey, 510 S SW Loop 323 #300
In 2007, a large grocery store opened in Tyler to cater to the Hispanic population. Upon entering Supermercado Monterrey, you are greeted with the sweet aroma of fresh baked goods displayed next to the produce section. Colorful pinatas hanging from the ceiling smile down as you walk through the aisles.
An assembly line of skilled staff members make fresh corn and flour tortillas daily, sold at a very reasonable price. Juan Francisco, the store manager of the past 10 years, says that Supermercado Monterrey offers a range of products that are not available at local chain supermarkets and at affordable prices. These include seasonings, fresh meats and seafood and fresh produce.
Another highlight is the conveniently placed café inside the supermarket serving traditional Mexican foods. Cesar’s Tacos menu includes authentic tacos, tortas, aguas frescas and flautas.
Himalaya Market Indo-Pak, 3092 Spur 124
Himalaya Market Indo-Pak is a new international grocery store that opened on New Year’s Day of 2021. The store specializes in Indian and Pakistani essentials. Prior to its grand opening, East Texans originating from India or Pakistan would need to travel to Dallas or Houston to shop for traditional necessities.
The market offers fresh halal meat, snacks, produce, grains and spices. In addition to groceries, they offer beauty products such as hair oils, herbal toothpaste and activated charcoal powder.
Also available are precooked frozen entrees: vegetable pulao, Punjabi sarson ka saag and aloo matar. For those who cannot wait to get home to heat up a meal, there is a restaurant with a menu of traditional entrees conveniently located inside.
Since traditional Indian dishes center around a mostly vegetable diet, there is a wide selection of vegetarian options, including veggie burgers, aloo tikki and palak paneer.
During Ramadan, a holy month in Islamic culture, the store offers dried dates, typically eaten at sun down to break the daylong fast. Additionally, Himalaya Indo-Pak grocery provides halal meat without the inconvenience of traveling to bigger cities during the holy month, which continues in 2021 until the evening of Wednesday, May 12.
Esra Malim is a biology student at The University of Texas at Tyler. She has worked at Christus Mother Frances as a unit tech and scribe for two years. Esra is the vice president of the Keep Tyler Beautiful Youth Advisory Committee. In her spare time, she enjoys rescuing animals, volunteering at Nicholas Pet Haven, painting and making handmade rings.
Chris French is an independent photographer based in Tyler, TX, who takes all of his photos through vintage film lenses. He is also a local musician and barista. Chris loves to share in the nostalgic feeling provided by photos and aims to bring that joy to others. To see more of Chris’ work, you can follow him at @mrcoffeeswag.
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