Take an A to Z grocery store tour with chef Winston Lewis and food columnist Andrew Coppolino
'Figure out what you like and don’t like. But don’t knock it before you try it,' chef says
As we wander the aisles at Kitchener's A to Z Variety African and Caribbean Grocery, chef Winston Lewis stops to point out the thick stems of a succulent plant in the produce section.
"You call this aloe vera, but I call it sinkle bible," says Lewis who then picks up an avocado. "And this is what we refer to simply as a pear on the island."
The names might be different but the flavours are similar, according to Lewis as he describes the produce and foods of the West Indies and Jamaica, where he was born.
Recently, new Caribbean food stores have opened in Waterloo Region, including The Yam Seller on Victoria Street Kitchener and Jamstyle in Preston Towne Centre, to name just two.
As for Caribbean restaurants, established anchors such as Rainbow Caribbean and Ellison's Bistro along with Big Jerk Catering have led the way historically and provided some inspiration for newer venues such as Kitchener's J&K Cuisine Caribbean Grill and Bar and Irie Myrie's and All Good Things Caribbean Food, Cafe and Catering in Cambridge.
At the corner of Water and Victoria streets in Kitchener, A to Z has seemed to fly under the radar, but the store has been flying the Guyanese flag for 16 years.
Owner-operator Stan Hardayal says the store is stocked with Guyanese ingredients from a country that is culturally close to many Caribbean nations and their foods.
"We have hundreds of Caribbean foods including HTB bread, yellow yams, sweet yams, dried pigeon peas and guaymus fish," Hardayal says. "We serve a wide range of people who shop here, but now it's mostly Africans."
Near the front of the store is a small warming oven loaded with popular Michedean Jamaican patties; one shopper is queued at the cashier with a large box of the frozen versions tucked under his arm.
It's for these reasons that A to Z is a favourite shopping destination for Lewis who has cooked in the region for many years and is currently with Bella Vista Catering.
When it comes to the variety of foods we have access to, it's just a matter of trying out what you're not familiar with, Lewis says.
"A lot of African products here and primarily a lot of Caribbean products and from the island of Jamaica itself," says Lewis, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica.
"Everyone has different flavour profiles they like, but you can find the basics you need in order to produce what you want from your country of origin."
It's more than just raw ingredients like spices, Irish moss and Scotch Bonnet hot peppers, meats, grains and breads for his cooking: for Lewis, A to Z also feeds his imagination and stirs memories — even a common herb such as thyme has a certain weightiness beyond the fragrance we all recognize.
"I remember as a kid walking around on a Saturday, and you knew people were in their homes cooking with fresh thyme, parsley and lemongrass all over the island. It reminds me of my grandparents when you walked up to their property and they had a pot of soup cooking," Lewis said.
Elsewhere in the store, he points to a variety of fruits and vegetables that would stock a Caribbean kitchen such as eddoes, cassava, yams and plantains with varying degrees of ripeness from firm and green to mottled deep-brown and soft: frying them can release their sugars and they brown beautifully, he says.
While many people eat bananas within a relatively short range of ripeness, Lewis described how he uses green bananas.
"We steam or boil them. I can shave them, fry them or dry them in the oven and make a banana chip for an amuse-bouche," he says.
A less familiar fruit for me was the soursop, a popular tropical fruit. It's about the size of a small melon, though it can weigh up to three kilograms and has a spiky, leathery skin. It can taste like apple and strawberry with a hint of citrus and has a creamy texture similar to a banana.
"We usually juice it and it's very tasty," Lewis says. "I remember having soursop juice on Sundays. It was a family tradition."
Thanks to West Indian food purveyors in the community, Caribbean jerk, including jerk chicken, has become a popular dish at area Caribbean restaurants. But Lewis says on the island, it would include goat, a protein source that is eaten by more than half the world's population, though it is less familiar in North America.
"In the Caribbean, we prefer goat to lamb. It's indigenous. There is also oxtail, and on the island we use everything, from tip to tail," Lewis says of Jamaican cookery. "The oxtail is a tasty meat, but it takes a long, slow process to cook it. It's a stew process."
A to Z has shelves of rices, flours, legumes and other grains, notes Lewis, as well as gourds and squashes that might be intimidating to stock in your larder.
"Fresh pumpkin and chayote are also here. People don't know that you can eat many of these things raw in a salad," says Lewis adding a cook's culinary advice that encourages experimentation and an open mind.
"Give all these things a try," he says. "Mix and match flavours and figure out what you like and don't like. But don't knock it before you try it."
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