Broyles: International markets offer glimpse of a growing Austin

Soba noodles, pomegranate molasses, halal meat and fresh-baked pita used to be a lot harder to find in Austin.

In recent decades, especially with tech booms in the 1990s and 2000s, Central Texas’ vastly diverse Asian and Middle Eastern populations have grown to more than 100,000 people, according to the 2010 census. City demographers have said that within the Asian population, Indian and Vietnamese residents form the largest groups, but international markets around the city cater to people who were born, raised, lived in countries near and far — or are just curious about those places. (See sidebar about Austin’s thriving Mexican meat markets.)

Back in 1967, Sally Matsumae’s grandmother, Shigeko Burnie, opened what was likely Austin’s first international market that sold items, including foods, that were nearly impossible to find outside cities with larger immigrant populations, such as Houston or Los Angeles.

The store started selling out mostly gifts after Burnie and her husband, a serviceman from Michigan who had been stationed in Okinawa, moved to Austin to be near Bergstrom Air Force Base.

“They would travel to Houston to get some things; there wasn’t anywhere to get it here,” Matsumae says. Her grandmother met an importer and started ordering some goods and placing orders for friends.

The store opened as Shigeko’s Imports in the same retail center that now houses the Tigress Pub. Burnie would import products from all over the world. Customers “would request something, and she’d hunt it down,” she says.

Matsumae’s dad took over the store in the 1980s. He decided to focus on only Japanese products and changed the name. Eleven years ago, they moved the store to Burnet Road.

After graduating from UT, the Austin native says she realized that she did want to take over the family business. Now, she oversees and ever-changing inventory at Asahi Imports that now includes more fresh ramen noodles than ever — to accommodate for the increased demand — as well as high-grade fish for at-home sushi chefs. Customers are also seeking out macrobiotic and fermented foods, such as natto.

Syed Ali moved to Central Texas about three years ago after working as a police officer in London. Even though he’d never worked in food, he says he wanted to do something different, so he opened a grocery store and meat market called Quality Halal Market.

The store has already evolved. Ali, who has had relatives living in Central Texas for more than 40 years, added variety to the inventory, buying molokhia leaves, Indian yams and halal bacon. He carries frozen foods, including prepared meals, naan and other breads like paratha and pooris, as well as fresh produce and staples like milk and eggs that people might not want to get at the H-E-B across the street.

People come from Killeen, Temple and Corpus Christi to buy goat liver and kidney or chicken, some of his best sellers.

“I didn’t open my store to become rich. I opened it to provide for my community a place where they can gather and talk and buy what they need,” Ali says.

It’s a similar story near the Austin-Pflugerville city limits, where Sadiq Islam has operated Shahi Foods for 11 years. Every few years, his business expands, and now he’s taken over all of the other spaces in the building at North Lamar Boulevard and Parmer Lane. On one end is a halal meat counter; at the other is a newly opened sit-down cafe.

Now, the walls that once separated the tenants are gone. The shelves are filled with canned goods, snacks, sauces, oils, vinegars and countless other products from dozens of countries, from Pakistan to Poland. Islam has lived in Central Texas since 1982, running convenience stores for much of that time, and he says he’s amazed at all the new-to-Austin faces he sees in the store.

Both Ali’s and Islam’s stores carry bread from Phoenicia Bakery, one of Austin’s market success stories. In 1979, the Abijaoude family opened the first Phoenicia on South Lamar Boulevard, and for decades customers flocked in for their creamy hummus and tahini, fresh olive bar, savory schwarma and gyro meat. In 1999, they added a second location on Burnet Road that on a Wednesday afternoon last week had a line seven people deep.

It wasn’t quite so busy at Chai Salelanonda’s Say Hi shop.

Salelanonda has operated this tiny gift shop just up the road on Burnet since 1974, and though the Thailand native carries some dried and canned goods, he’s starting to phase out that part of the business. You might have taken a cooking class from his wife, Pat, who used to teach around town.

Last week, two cans of shark fin soup remained on one of the shelves, and Salelanonda sat quietly at the counter drawing a landscape with a fine pen. His pieces, mostly of animals, are framed and available for sale amid the sake sets and sandals.

Salelanonda wants to spend more time with his new grandson, who was born six months ago on the other side of the world. For now, he’ll keep watch over his store that, in some ways, helped pave the way for MT, Han Yang, Hana World and Hong Kong Supermarkets, stores just a little farther north that seem like megastores by comparison.

Those brightly lit, modern stores draw steady streams of customers buying fresh jackfruit, daikon and burdock root, fragrant rice and spices, gem-like candies, snacks and sodas and hundreds of other products that he could have never imagined would be so readily available in his home away from home.

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