Far beyond the Michelin star galaxy, outside restaurants altogether, is a realm of exotic, memorable food - in that least expected place, the convenience store.
This is one way to distinguish foodie from food snob: If it tastes good, who cares that it came from a Kwik-E-Mart? You can find delicious breakfast sandwiches at bodegas in New York, succulent fresh figs and homemade pastries at an épicerie in Paris, and tasty oddities such as musubi (a slab of spam and sushi rice) at a corner store in Lahaina, Hawaii. But not unless you look past the newspaper racks, chewing gum and lottery tickets.
In the United States, a group of chefs and activists is working to encourage a culture of fresh local food in corner stores. But for connoisseurs, the mix of unusual foods and unique small businesses is reason enough to give convenience-store cuisine a try.
"It's like an alternate universe of food," says Michael Citrome, a recent University of Montreal law graduate and self-described convenience-store aficionado. Citrome spent part of his studies in China, where he did a lot of snacking at 7-Elevens, indulging in interesting twists on familiar items, like crab- and lemon-flavoured potato chips. He fondly recalls munching on onigiri - triangular Japanese rice packets, with protein or veg filling, wrapped in nori seaweed - washed down with Sri Lankan Elephant Brand cream soda.
"I make a point of visiting convenience stores whenever I travel," Citrome says. "You really get a feel for a particular neighbourhood by browsing what's on the shelves."
Frugal foodies often have anecdotes to share about unfamiliar-but-delicious convenience-store foods encountered on their travels. Look for yummy seaweed salad packets at the Korean dépanneur near Sainte-Catherine and Fort streets in Montreal, the chaczapuri (Georgian cheese bread) at kiosks in Moscow, and the best Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches in New York sold at convenience stores in the city's Chinatown. Exact recommendations are hard to come by, since store names and locations are usually fuzzy at best.
"There's a convenience store in Toronto that sells the usual smokes and pop, but also Tamil 'short eats,'" says food writer Steve Pitt, using the colloquial term for Sri Lankan snack foods. "They're made by some anonymous aunties in the apartment building it's attached to, in their own kitchens."
On a good day at this corner store - which a scouting mission determined to be AGP Mart on Wade Avenue, near Lansdowne subway station - Pitt says you can find deep-fried, breaded egg rolls filled with curried mutton and potato, fishcakes with cumin and curry leaves, lentil doughnuts with hot chilies and onions called vaddays , baked mini-patties filled with spicy fish paste, and roti wraps stuffed with spicy meat, fish or vegetables.
Until Zagat comes out with a convenience store guide, finding other such gems requires a lot of trial and error. Of course, this variety of dining is happenstance by nature - even for daring foodies, the lowly convenience store isn't a preferred dining choice so much as a last resort. And, as food purists will point out, most of what these places sell is processed food with little or no nutritional (or culinary) value. Fortunately, this is starting to change, with wholesome items increasingly finding their way onto store shelves. One American group, the Neighbors Project, is attempting to speed up this shift by promoting the idea of convenience-store cookery.
"Getting convenience stores to carry healthier food can be a pretty hard sell," says Kit Hodge, a member of the non-profit organization aimed at improving life in gentrified urban neighbourhoods. "Fruits and vegetables are highly perishable and some suppliers won't deliver in small quantities.
"Also, there's major stigma to overcome," she says. "Many people wouldn't even consider buying food from convenience stores, which they associate with junk food."
To combat "fresh food deserts" in urban neighbourhoods, Hodge's organization developed The Bodega Cook Book , a 44-page collection of recipes and bodega shopping tips ("bodega" is a Spanish term for convenience store commonly used in New York and other American cities). Contributors include Food Network TV chef Daisy Martinez, who doesn't shy away from using prepared Goya products or other bodega staples in her dishes, and food bloggers from across the U.S.
The cookbook is part of the Bodega Party in a Box (bodegapartyinabox.org) - a convenience-store tasting party kit, with invitations, reusable shopping bags and decorations - that is meant to encourage support for local, independent convenience stores by teaching people to cook with the ingredients sold there.
"Convenience stores are one of the only places where people of all ages and social status rub shoulders. With gentrification, new residents often don't appreciate the importance of their corner store as an anchor of their neighbourhood," Hodge says.
Cathy Erway, who writes the blog Not Eating Out in New York (noteatingoutinny.com), created a canned roasted red pepper and chickpea penne pasta dish for the cookbook. She takes pleasure in the local flavour of her corner store, but shares the Neighbors Project's urgency to promote healthy food choices there. "I live in the Crown Heights part of Brooklyn, which has a large Caribbean population," she says. "The bodega near me has all kinds of neat stuff like canned ackee fruit and coconut milk, but very little fresh produce."
"People vote with their dollars," Hodge says. If customers start asking for healthier food and it sells well, she says, store owners are likely to carry more of it. "Even convenience stores can be agents of positive change."
Special to The Globe and Mail
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Cheap eats: 5 dishes under $5
1. Banana bread at Irving gas stations across the Maritimes
2. Various Pakistani dishes at Lahore Deli, 132 Crosby St., New York
3. Beef empanadas at El Mercado Meat Market, 3767 N. Southport Ave., Chicago
4. Liver sausage and mustard on rye bread at Norma convenience stores, across Germany
5. Sushi rolls at Lawson stores across Japan
The Neighbors Project www.neighborsproject.org