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    The World on a Shelf

    Why New York’s immigrant-owned food shops are our favorite way to travel these days

    New York’s diversity is on delicious display at its immigrant-owned food shops, whether it’s one of the five boroughs’ 16,000 bodegas or a fourth-generation Jewish appetizing store. As chain grocers continue to edge out the mom-and-pops, it’s more important than ever that we give back to the immigrant communities that make up the fabric and flavor of New York. Here, PRIOR charts five specialty ethnic grocery stores across NYC, each of which deserves a visit while in town.

    Russ & Daughters

    Photos courtesy of Russ & Daughters.

    One of the last remaining institutions of the Lower East Side’s Jewish history, Russ and Daughters is the ultimate appetizing shop — best understood as the place where one buys “the foods one eats with bagels” like lox, herring, whitefish, cream cheese spreads, and (why not) house-label caviar. It’s hard to say what’s more enticing, their bagels and bialys — boiled and baked daily at the Brooklyn Navy Yard — and satiny-pink smoked fish or the ambiance in this snug, unchanged spot. When Joel Russ immigrated here in 1907 from a shtetl in what is now Poland, he began selling schmaltz herring out of a barrel to the thousands of Eastern European Jews in the neighborhood. It took him seven years to found a brick and mortar shop. Having no sons, he named his three daughters partners, apparently making it the first business in the U.S. to register “& Daughters” in its name. The fourth generation of Russes now operate the shop on Houston Street along spinoffs, including a fully kosher restaurant a few blocks away, with another at the Jewish Museum on the Upper East Side. It’s all about community here. If service seems slow, it’s because the regulars ahead of you are bringing the owners up to date on the grandkids. Take a number and take it all in.

    Kalustyan’s

    Photos courtesy of Kalustyan's.

    When Kerope Kalustyan, an Armenian chef from Turkey, founded Kalustyan’s in Kips Bay in 1944, he most likely didn’t imagine it expanding across storefronts and floors to become an essential resource for chefs and globally-minded home cooks. Primarily focused on ingredients of the subcontinent—its popularity inspired the neighborhood nickname “Curry Hill” in the late 1960s—the two-story, packed-to-the-rafters store teems with a wide range of Middle Eastern and South Asian spices, which are offered in whole, powdered and liquid forms. It’s a global chili head’s haven, from Aleppo to arbol. Wandering the aisles, you’ll also discover a seemingly endless supply of herbs to boost your immune system (or make a batch of vermouth), like birch bark and angelica root, or dazzle your appetite with every possible color of rice and legumes and a diverse selection of hot sauces and chutneys. Delight not only in the spices, but also in the frozen Indian food, chaat mixes, tubs of prepared gigante beans and labneh spreads for the mezze plate, plump dried fruit, and a dessert case that is a journey in itself. And when you’re done stocking up on Calabrian pepper spread and fresh kaffir lime leaves, head upstairs to the deli, where you can order house-made falafel dressed to the nines. With hot sauce, of course.

    Sunrise Mart

    Photos courtesy of Sunrise Mart.

    Part supermarket, part community center, Sunrise Mart is the one-stop-shop for homesick Japanese, who are lured to the second-floor market on Stuyvesant Street by the neon veggies in the window. Squeeze into a tiny elevator and you’ll soon find yourself in a packed gem of a market. You might find it challenging to navigate the packaged goods (most are labeled in Japanese), but don’t fret: the friendly staff stand ready to translate—and will even give you cooking ideas and suggestions for what to do with that bottle of organic ponzu and 10-pound bag of sushi rice. You’ll come across bunches of fresh gobō (burdock) from Taiwan, slender Japanese eggplant; gochu (Korean chili peppers) and shiso leaves for garnishing your next chirashi bowl. (You can also buy prepared food here, from rice balls studded with salted plum to sashimi bentos.) Oh, and matcha Kit-Kats, of course. Opened by Tony Yoshida in the early 1990s, it’s a true anchor of Little Tokyo, and a spectacle to be visited like a gallery of packaging art.

    Sahadi’s

    Photos courtesy of Sahadi's.

    In operation since 1948, Sahadi’s, a family-owned food bazaar now spanning three storefronts in Brooklyn Heights, serves as an unparalleled space to find Middle Eastern ingredients, reflecting the neighborhood’s long history as an immigrant enclave. Zigzagging through its labyrinthine aisles, you’re transported to the Levant as you absorb the aromas of the region’s ancient flavors and culinary traditions. The bulk-goods section is the main draw, offering a diverse selection of dried fruits, nuts, grains, flours, and candies. Make time to explore the prepared foods section, which isn’t self-serve: Take a ticket and be helped by grocers who know their stuffed grape leaves. You might find yourself behind Alison Roman, who claims it as one of her favorite spots in the city. Order some spinach filo puffs and just-made hummus with za’atar bread to take to the nearby Brooklyn promenade for a picnic, with pistachio baklava for a flaky finish.

    SOS Chefs

    Photos courtesy of SOS Chefs.

    You don’t have to be Alice (Waters) to step into this tiny speciality boutique in Alphabet City: This wonderland of spices and rare foods is for everyone. Just look for the SOS (Save Our Spices) nailed to the sidewalk outside the front door. Expect the unexpected — and don’t be afraid to explore and ask for guidance. Everything is neatly stacked and packed in jars and clear packages, waiting to be unwrapped. Atef Boulaabi, the charismatic Tunisian-born owner, invites you to open her jars and smell the blossoms, herbs, hydrosols, powders, dried mushrooms, and infused vinegars, stacked on 14-foot shelves, as if curated by elves. Silently mingle with NYC’s most revered chefs, who are likely engaged in a high-stakes mission. A trip to SOS Chefs is an inspiring outing to pick up gifts — black truffles count! — or spice up your kitchen romance with rare ingredients such as blue salt from the deserts of Iran to sprinkle on pink new potatoes, or a spritz of apricot-kernel oil for your next bowl of Netflix popcorn.

    Ben Hannon Hubley

    Ben Hannon Hubley works on PRIOR’s content & editorial team, after having worked at the New York Times in Beijing. He received a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University, and speaks Mandarin, Arabic, and Spanish. He is based in New York.

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