Sake, saffron, Salvadoran flor de izote—flavors from around the globe converge in Union Square, and the Somerville Arts Council wants to share the spice with its 2016 walking tours of the area’s six international markets.
The tours are part of the Nibble program, the council’s food and community initiative which advocates for culinary creators in Somerville—especially those from the city’s immigrant population. “We want to promote the diversity, the food and also the culture of Union Square,” explains the Arts Council’s Maria Martinez.
Guiding the culinarily curious through Union Square’s international shops is an exercise in community building, one that highlights the globe-spanning fare of the area while connecting locals with their neighbors. Yes, you’ll be introduced to a wide world of flavor, but you’ll also hear stories from entrepreneurs who understand the importance of relating to your community on a local level, like La Internacional Foods (318 Somerville Ave.) owners Nora and Byron Cabrera. The Cabreras noticed that the area’s large Haitian Creole population didn’t have access to traditional Haitian ingredients, and in response started carrying Creole foods like djon djon mushrooms and a cornmeal-based drink called Akasan. Nora, who wanted to better communicate with her customers, even learned how to speak Creole in addition to English and Spanish.
Martinez says it’s easy to connect with and learn from the proprietors of these shops. New Bombay Market (359 Somerville Ave.) owner Jeetendra, she says, is almost always in his shop, and he’s happy to share what he knows about cooking with Nepalese ingredients. “You go there—not only as a client—but a member of your community,” she says. “You have the opportunity to learn more about them.”
But in addition to community building, the Arts Council has a very practical goal in mind with these tours: to get shoppers thinking outside the supermarket by emphasizing the variety and affordability of foods available from independent shops. Take Mineirão One Stop Market (57 Union Sq.), where shoppers can find pão de queijo—tasty, snackable cheese puffs made with yucca flour. The shop also serves an all-day Brazilian buffet (one that was a favorite of Martinez’s when she worked at Union Square Main Streets). At Mineirão, Martinez says she could get a filling lunch spread for just $6, and that low price point is shared by many of these marts; Reliable Market (45 Union Sq.), for example, has sushi rolls for less than $5, and the shop also carries an array of fruits and veggies nestled alongside Pocky and other Japanese and Korean groceries. “If you know you can find that kind of produce that you usually buy [at a supermarket] here, you are creating business for that market,” Martinez explains.
That’s important, because as the Green Line Extension looms and rents shoot up, the future for these markets (and for many Union Square businesses and residents) is uncertain. Until recently, there were eight international markets in the square; a Brazilian and Latin American market, which had been in the square for decades, closed its doors last year, and the Bengali market Well Foods Plus shuttered a few months ago.
“The other part of the story is that we want … to help them to survive through the Union Square changes,” Martinez explains. Asked to list her favorite international foods, she rattles off a list of items—the cheese bread from Mineirão (especially when it’s recently baked), Reliable Market’s mochi ice cream, Little India’s spices and rice, the fresh pasta from Capone Foods—a literal world of flavor available in just one block.
“People love diversity, and we love to say that in Union Square you can eat food from around the world,” she adds. “This is a really important part of the community, and we want to keep them.”
You can find upcoming tour dates below and RSVP for one of these dates by emailing Martinez at firstname.lastname@example.org. (If you have a large group or are interested in attending on a date not listed here, she says she’ll work to accommodate you.) Tours are free—though you’re definitely going to want to have some cash on hand so you can take some delicious, new-to-you food items home. You can also take a self-guided tour of Union Square’s markets with the Arts Council’s international markets brochure, available in English, Spanish and Portuguese.
Tues., March 22nd, 6:30p.m. – 8:00p.m.
Sat., April 9th, 1:00p.m. – 2:30p.m.
Tues., April 18th, 6:30p.m. – 8:00p.m.
Thurs., May 12, 6:30p.m. – 8:00p.m.
Sat., May 28th, 1:00p.m. – 2:30p.m.