If you love food and art, there are few places better to be than Somerville. So eight years ago when the Somerville Arts Council received a grant for a cultural economic program in Union Square, the organization decided to tap into the connection between food and culture. The resulting initiative, ArtsUnion, puts on festivals, markets and tours highlighting the cultural richness of the Square, which is home to several international markets.
Those shops are the focus of the International Market Tours, which take place throughout the next two months on several occasions. The tours visit three markets during each session and are free, though attendees are encouraged to shop.
“There are these little markets that many people walk by,” said Rachel Strutt, the Somerville Arts Council’s program manager. “The tours are good for a number of reasons. People start shopping there. It encourages intercultural exchange. It supports these businesses.”
Strutt and I took a spin around Union Square recently with stops at Pao de Acucar Market & Brazilian Cafe, Reliable Market, La Internacional Foods and New Bombay Market. In the span of an hour we went from Brazil to various parts of Asia to Guatamala, Haiti, El Salvador, Nepal, India and many places in between without ever leaving the square.
At Pao de Acucar Market & Brazilian Cafe (57 Union Square), support for the World Cup team was on full display, along with dozens of foods native to the owner’s country. From Guarana Brazilia (the Coke of Brazil) to açaí pulp and dozens of dried herbs imported from Brazil, Pao de Acucar has an incredible variety of products.
The shop also stocks the ingredients to make Brazil’s national dish, feijoada. This rich stew was traditionally made by peasants using meat that was tossed aside, like pig’s feet and ears, and beans.
“There’s such a connection between food and culture,” Strutt said.
The labyrinthian Reliable Market (45 Union Square) sells an incredible variety of foods from all over Asia. The shelves are lined with bundles of dried noodles, juices from fruits exotic to the U.S. and an impressive collection of vinegars.
“They have one of the best sake collections in the whole Boston area,” Strutt said.
Next up on our tour was La Internacional Foods (318 Somerville Ave.), whose owners are from Guatamala. One of La Internacional’s owners, Nora Cabrera, told Strutt that she estimates the shop sells 1,000 10-pound bags of rice each week.
“Every time we do a tour we learn something new,” Strutt said. “I’ve learned a lot from people on the tour. It’s a really fun conversation.”
In addition to products from Guatamala, La Internacional supplies the local Haitian population as well as those from Central and South America with products from back home.
“This reflects the changing immigration patterns in Somerville,” Strutt said. She added that La Internacional’s other owner and Nora’s son, Byron Cabrera has learned Haitian creole so he can better communicate with the market’s customers.
Across the street from La Internacional is the New Bombay Market (359 Somerville Ave.), whose owners hail from Nepal. While in the shop we learned about the many varieties of pickled foods Nepalis consume in addition to some of the differences between Nepali and Indian cuisine.
We also spotted some dates at New Bombay, which the owner stocks for his muslim customers participating in Ramadan who use the fruit to break their fast.
“It’s not only about the food, but also the cultural connection,” Strutt said of the tours. “The flavor of Union Square is these markets.”
Saturday, July 12, 1 p.m.-2:30 p.m.
Wednesday, July 30, 6:30 p.m.-8 p.m.
Thursday, August 7, 6:30 p.m.-8 p.m.
Tuesday, August 12, 6:30 p.m.-8 p.m.
Tuesday, August 26, 6:30 p.m.-8 p.m.
Saturday, September 13, 1 p.m.-2:30 p.m.
Thursday, September 18, 6:30 p.m.-8 p.m.
Free; sign up by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
P.S. The Somerville Arts Council’s Nibble cookbook is a great place to find recipes using ingredients you’ll find at the markets in Union. And be sure to check out the Art Council’s Nibble cooking classes and other upcoming events.