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The Dish

A basket of silvery fish sat ready for the picking, as if washed up from a distant shore. Entire schools seemed to swim in the glass case – silver ones, bright pink ones and the showoff of them all, the luminescent parrot fish.

And that’s just one corner of Sun Supermarket.Fayetteville’s ethnic markets offer a world tour, Asia to Europe. With the city’s great diversity come Asian, African, Middle Eastern and Latin groceries, bakeries and delis that nourish natives and newcomers alike. Beginners eager to try their hand at exotic recipes are encouraged here, inside bright, shiny and surprisingly large stores.

Sun Supermarket

When Victor and Mi Kyoung Rojas opened Sun market, Victor went to the city’s Asian-American associations for one grand grocery list. Now, the store caters to 10 different nationalities. It sits just off busy Yadkin Road and from the outside, the store appears small. Step inside and you’ll find full-size grocery aisles stocked with an overwhelming array of spices and sauces, even kitchen appliances and clothing. One entire aisle is devoted to nothing but noodles. Pallets of 40-pound bags of rice are stacked head high. Jars of bright-red kim chi are bottled in-house.

Rojas grew up in Puerto Rico, served in the U.S. military and married a television reporter from Korea. It explains his proficiency in three languages: English, Spanish and Korean. When he and Mi Kyoung decided to open a market, they knew it would an all-consuming, seven-day-a-week flow of customers, suppliers and deliveries, not to mention constant cooking. Starting in the early hours, women prepare bowl after bowl of homemade kim chi, roll their own sushi and wrap up endless packages of beautiful and exotic foods: raw squid, jerky squid, seaweed salad and marinated turnips, bean sprouts, black beans and anchovies.

Catch the cooks at the right time, and you might even be invited for an impromptu cooking lesson.

Pan’s Thai Market

Visitors to Pan’s market are greeted by a stand of neatly-arranged exotic fruits and vegetables plus a few items unfamiliar to most like duck eggs and black frogs. Round the corner to find sights more familiar, rice of all shapes and sizes and coconut in every form, fashion and container. Staples such as sesame oil, sesame seeds or soy sauce can be found at many Asian markets for lower prices than mainstream grocery stores and Pan’s is no exception.

Vatsady Champasakwong took over the shop from her mother after she retired. Originally from Thailand, Champasakwong carries products for her many Thai customers, but she carries a variety of foods, even chicory coffee reminiscent of New Orleans. Meandering down the aisles, comparing the many varieties of mushrooms and musing over the endless types of tea – jasmine in gold tins to green tea imported from China – it’s easy to become mesmerized by the soft instrumental music of Champasakwong’s native land. What better way to soak up a new culture?

Mediterranean Mart

For the Mediterranean cook, the shelves of the market at 104 Cliffdale Road hold the key to keeping culinary history alive. The shelves are filled with African pounded yam, Basmati rice, yellow noodles, and garam masala of India, and grapes leaves and olive oil from Greece. An entire row of shelves is devoted to cooks in need of gluten-free foods and another full of all kinds of wheat, seeds and dried beans. A favorite of many is the huge assortment of whole spices. Bags of crushed spices such as curry powder and cumin come cheaper than any chain.

Said Odeh runs the market with help from his family, including his mother who makes the homemade hummus and tahini sauce regulars rave about. Odeh offers a visitor a sample from a vat of fresh and delicious kalamata olives, a staple in many a Greek salad.

But the store serves a religious purpose as well. It carries Halal meats for Muslims, in addition to many kosher foods.

Odeh said he hopes to eventually add a small café, where customers could one day sample the dishes that the store’s sights and smells already conjure in the imagination.

African American/West Indian Market

One of the gems of this store is the traditional Nigerian dress. And for those who want to make their own, the shelves are rich with material made out of deep shades of blue and green, red and orange, purple and yellow, all alive with symbols.

And of course, there’s food: cassava yams, flour and seeds may be found here. Cassava flour is made into dumplings to eat with soup. Shito, a seasoning for rice, is sold in jars.

Owner Edith Agbele is happy to assist those who want to learn more about African cooking.

It’s the thread these markets share: an eagerness to share the culture and food of their home countries.

The famous chef, James Beard, summed it up best when he said, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”