World foods in the Queen City: The stories and successes of Regina’s ethnic grocery stores

The Carillon, Vol. 52, Issue 15 | Jan. 28 – Feb. 3, 2010

Food is one of the great engines of social life. We eat at holidays and festivals, we barbecue with our families in the summer, and we consume snacks with friends and coworkers at parties and meetings. For those who live in a country with strange foods, as well as those who want to reconnect with the foods of their elders, food takes on new and different meanings. Ethnic grocery stores offer a taste of home and the chance to connect with others. They are essentially bound up with the communities they serve, and can introduce strangers to new and wonderful delicacies.

The food you can find in Regina’s ethnic grocery stores spans continents and cultures. Owners begin with their particular cultural homelands, but often expand to include products far beyond their starting point. The owners trace their heritage to different places – Ukraine, Italy, Somalia, Pakistan, India, Cambodia, South Korea – but often offer similar products from around the world. While some owners have lived in Canada for their whole lives, others are recent arrivals.

Ethnic grocery stores are landmarks in their communities. Most are heavily involved in supporting community associations and organizations, contributing money, food, or space when needed. They are meeting places for ethnic groups, new immigrants and long-time residents, who remain connected over conversations at the checkout line.

Some stores are passed down through family generations, like the Italian Star Deli and India Food Centre. The Ukrainian Co-op, the oldest of all, is owned and operated by its dedicated members. Ngoy Hoa has stood in Regina’s Chinatown for 16 years, while Seoul Mart has had seven years to establish itself near the downtown core. Shah Meats and Juba Star are both less than a year old, with owners that are newcomers to this country.

Wherever we went, we heard the same message repeated over and over: ethnic groceries have become mainstream and popular. More and more people are no longer content to simply eat the food of other groups at restaurants, they want to take the food home and make it themselves. Growing numbers of curious customers have filled their cupboards, cabinets, fridges, and freezers with Indian spices, Ukrainian sausages, halal-certified products, and everything in between. Regina’s ethnic grocery stores have become places where cultures meet to eat, and each one offers something new and unexpected.

Ukrainian Co-operative: Historic business continues to prosper

With over 73 years to its name and no signs of stopping, the Ukrainian Co-op has long been one of Regina’s commercial and cultural landmarks. The co-op has come a long way since its founding in 1936, with three moves and four expansions, but has retained its relationship with the community along with consistent annual profits.

The store offers a wide range of specialty meats, with over 100 types of sausage, while the grocery section has expanded to offer more ethnic food and drink. Two walls are taken up by displays of Ukrainian cultural products, such as ceramics, glassware, and egg decorating kits.

Canada has long been a destination for Ukrainian and other Eastern European immigrants. Ukrainians have been immigrating to Saskatchewan for well over a century, and according to the 2006 Canada census, there are over 23,000 people of Ukrainian origin living in Regina alone. The Carillon spoke with three of the co-op’s managers on Saturday. “Canada has a very good reputation, especially in Ukraine, because four or five generations of Ukrainians have been coming to Canada. This is a tradition of Ukrainians coming to Canada for a better life,” said Klimochko, the chair of the co-op building committee.  “It’s a new world for them, the same as our fathers came,” added Cherepuschak, the co-op’s president.

While the co-op acts as a cultural hub for Regina’s established Ukrainian community, it’s also a landmark for new immigrants and visitors. “This is kind of the place to stop in Regina,” said Cherepuschak. “The immigrants use our co-operative because we also have offices here for the different Ukrainian clubs.”

While traditional foods have remained popular among successive generations of Ukrainian immigrants, Ernest Paluck, a member of the management committee, pointed out that these foods have also become popular in the mainstream. “Not only are the Ukrainian people carrying on some of the traditions of ethnic Ukrainian food, but other nationalities are accepting it as staples, like perogies and cabbage rolls. Those are common staple foods for many ethnic groups.”

Klimochko argued that these traditional ties and increasing mainstream acceptance may have something to do with increasing degrees of intermarriage between Ukrainians and other ethnic groups. People with Ukrainian heritage often retain those connections through mothers and grandmothers: “At Christmastime, it’s always ‘let’s go to Baba’s (grandmother’s) place.’”

“Not only are the Ukrainian people carrying on some of the traditions of ethnic Ukrainian food, but other nationalities are accepting it as staples, like perogies and cabbage rolls.”
— Ernest Paluck

With recent increases in imports of ethnic foods from Ukraine and Poland, and a greater number of ethnic eastern Europeans rediscovering the foods of their parents and grandparents, all three managers are very enthusiastic about the co-op’s future. “Over the years, it was always a growing year,” said Paluck. “The year ahead was always better than the year before.” According to Paluck, the co-op pays out among the highest dividends in Canada, up to 25% of purchases, back to its members.

“I can’t see us ever closing,” said Cherepuschak. “We are the oldest retail outlet in Regina, next to the Sherwood Co-op … We’ve survived 73 years, and it’ll always be here.”

Juba Star Groceries: The new kid in town

Of all the owners in this week’s feature, Omar Mudei and his store are the newest additions to Regina’s cultural tapestry. Mudei worked as a tailor in Somalia before moving to Canada five years ago, when he began taking ESL at SIAST. He opened the store only five months ago, selling East Indian, African, and Middle Eastern foods, and also providing clothing alteration and dry cleaning services. The store is named for the Juba River, which runs through Somalia into the Indian Ocean.

Like many of Regina’s ethnic grocery owners, he observes that many of his customers are lifelong Canadians. He is enthusiastic about the new life that he has forged in Canada, and is optimistic about developing his growing customer base. “When you open a business you have to be patient,” he says. “It takes time.”

Among the many products that Mudei sells in his store are perfume kits and various African brands of juice, tea, coffee, and foodstuffs. On the rear wall are prints of lush landscapes and flags from various African countries. Decorations for sale feature simply designs with elaborate Arabic calligraphy. He also has a small selection of African clothing, such as diracs, which are loose-fitting dresses worn by Somali women.

Mudei does not sell products that are contrary to Muslim edicts, and so all food sold in the store is in accordance with halal. Although halal in its broadest sense includes behavior, speech, clothing, conduct, and manner, in the West it typically refers to Muslim dietary laws, analogous to Jewish kosher laws. Pork and alcohol products are not allowed, and so products such as gelatine (often made from the bone marrow of pigs) are not sold at Juba Star. Although Mudei doesn’t have any halal meats available, he says that he plans to expand into selling them soon. He also hopes that the combination of grocery and clothing alteration will prove a winning combination in the neighbourhood.

Shah Foods & Halal Meats: Serving Muslims of all nations

Of all the stores being featured, Shah Foods is the only store that does not serve a particular ethnic group. As Regina’s first halal specialty retailers, Marjan Shah and Mehboob Ahmad serve the city’s Muslim community, which comprises a broad range of nationalities, including Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Afghani, Somali, Middle Eastern, and Caribbean customers. Muslims come from all countries and ethnicities, and roughly 70 per cent of Muslims worldwide follow halal food standards. For Muslims living in Western countries, this can often present challenges.

While the store stocks numerous masala mixes and spices, the real attraction is the counter in the back, which offers halal meat. The shop serves fresh, certified halal meats, which are difficult to find in this part of the country. In order for Muslims to consume meat, the animal must be slaughtered in a particular manner: a Muslim who praises God kills the animal, and drains the blood. Otherwise, the meat is haraam, or forbidden.

A Pakistani who immigrated to Toronto in 2003, Shah realized that Regina’s lack of a comprehensive halal retailer represented an irresistible business opportunity. Muslims were often forced to buy meat collectively from larger cities, or go to the farms and buy livestock in order to slaughter them properly.

In 2008, Shah and his family moved here with plans to open a halal store. Shah met Ahmad, also a Pakistani immigrant who previously lived in Ontario, at the local mosque, and the two men quickly became friends. While Ahmad had come to Regina to work for a crop science company, he had always wanted to open his own store. They partnered together to open the store on Feb. 2 last year, and will soon be celebrating their one-year anniversary with a large sale.

Shah said that while getting the business started has been challenging, since it can cost up to $1,000 to truck halal meat from Vancouver or Montreal, he has seen a growing community of Muslims spurred by a steady stream of migration from Ontario. Like many other immigrants, Shah came to Canada to build a better life for his children, who he hopes will attend university one day. Other halal retailers seem poised to compete with Shah and Ahmad; Saskatoon already has three stores that sell halal products, and more seem to be on the way for Regina. However, as the first halal store in Regina and a forthcoming one-year anniversary sale, Shah and Ahmad seem to have a good head start.

India Food Center: Owner adapts to serve new cultures

As customers enter and leave India Food Center, owner Tony Matharu switches effortlessly between English, Hindi, and Punjabi. He laughs and chats with the customers, asking them about their families as he rings through their purchases. This is a man who really enjoys his job.

Raised in London, England, Matharu moved to Canada at the age of 13. He later inherited the store that his father established in Regina, and has been running it for the past 27 years. India Food Center sells a variety of imported spices, beans, lentils, pickles, and frozen products. Matharu also sells a good selection of Indian movies on DVD, although he confesses that most young Indians prefer to download rather than buy them. On entering the store, however, you may be surprised to see hair weaves and a heating rack full of fresh Jamaican patties for sale.

Owning and operating his own business for almost three decades has given Matharu a great deal of flexibility, and he began selling Jamaican products 13 years ago, after buying the stock of another store owner who was retiring. “We have a lot of Christian customers, Jamaican people, so we bring in a lot of specialty buns for Easter,” he said. His store is a hodgepodge of different cultures, adapted to fit the needs of his diverse clientele, which includes people from India, Pakistan, the Caribbean, Africa, Latin America, and Sri Lanka.

Matharu said that he tries to avoid being biased in favour of any particular demographic or religious group, “because in Canada, everybody is multicultural … We try to go along with all the main holidays, because I’ve become kind of mainstream.” He tries to have something for everyone, although he does draw the line somewhere. “I don’t sell cigarettes or lotto tickets,” Matharu said, glancing behind the counter where cigarette displays are often found in small retail stores. “I could, but I don’t.”

“In Canada, everybody is multicultural.”
— Tony Matharu

Lately he has been very successful, in part because of the increasing acceptance of Indian food among other minority groups and mainstream Canadians. When asked if he’s worried about an outside competitor moving in to exploit the growing market, he shrugged. “I’ve seen competition come and go,” he said, “and nothing has ever come of it.”

Matharu approaches business with a relaxed and humourous attitude that endears him quickly to his customers. He jokes around with his friend and employee Derik, who has been working with him for roughly 20 years, and punchlines fly back and forth through the aisles. His priority is to make connections with the community and give people what they want in a small Indian grocery store. He said that he has been running the store for so long that it no longer feels like work, but more like a venue for meeting people and making friends.

Ngoy Hoa Asian Foods: Chinatown’s grocery store

Nestled in the heart of Regina’s Chinatown district on 11th Ave., Ngoy Hoa Asian Foods has long served the various Asian ethnic groups that occupy the area. Hee Cau, the store’s owner, sells food from a broad range of Southeast Asian sources, including Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Laotian, Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese products. Although it is a large store, the aisles are narrow to accommodate shelves of rice, canned foods, spices, traditional medicines, and utensils. The storefront display includes decorative vases and elaborate chinaware.

Originally from Cambodia, Hee Cau has lived in Regina for 25 years. He worked as a cook until he was able to start the store 16 years ago, and since then he has achieved moderate success as a specialty grocer for Regina’s Asian community.

Chung Hoa, another store that sold Vietnamese, Chinese, and Western groceries, closed almost a decade ago, but the building remains vacant, with a prominent sign still advertising its former tenant. Although the neighbourhood still hosts a number of restaurants, including Korea House and Ngoc Van, Cau says that the block has seen better years. He remembers when the city first put up the bilingual signs, which was within a couple of years of his opening the store. “Unfortunately, because of economics there’s not much left,” he says of the neighbourhood.

However, new immigrants still come to live in the area, which drives Cau to constantly adapt the products that he offers. When he started the store, he says, there were many immigrants moving to the area from Hong Kong; now there are many new Filipino immigrants. Cau makes sure to constantly shift his product line, with new items arriving almost monthly, to fit the changing market of Regina’s Southeast Asian community. Cau strongly supports the local Chinese association, often contributing money whenever it holds functions.

Seoul Mart: A little piece of Korea near downtown Regina

Ricky and Lucy Park moved to Regina with the dream of bringing South Korean food to a new city. They and their two children moved to Regina from South Korea over seven years ago, and opened their store at the corner of Broad St. and 13th Ave. soon afterwards. According to Mrs. Park, they chose Regina because it was an open market, as opposed to “Calgary and Edmonton [which] already had Korean groceries.”

The couple has so far enjoyed bringing their country’s food to Regina, saying that it makes them feel connected to home. Mrs. Park estimates that there are roughly 200 Korean families living in Regina, many of whom she has met through the local church. She and her husband are frequently involved with the church, as well as their young children’s schools.

Korean food is often spicy, Mrs. Park said, and looking around the store, one finds a fair selection of powders and seasonings. Rice and tea products dominate the aisles, and one section is dedicated to various types of Korean cookware. There are several freezers full of frozen foods, which might be a good start to someone unfamiliar with Korean cooking. The store also sells an assortment of gift items, such as Oriental jewellery, toys, and decorations.

Full Feature Credits
Writers: Alex Colgan, Jennifer Squires
Photographers: Alex Colgan, Kelsey Conway
Flag images courtesy of Wikipedia

2 Responses to World foods in the Queen City: The stories and successes of Regina’s ethnic grocery stores

  1. 9jafoodie says:

    This is a very insightful piece, I am new to Regina and this is super helpful.
    Thanks much!!

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