Before coming to Monterey County, I lived in a neighborhood in Israel that might be called Little Baghdad. It’s where many Iraqi Jews, including my own grandparents, congregated after the exodus of 1950. All of this is to say that I am somewhat qualified to talk about dates. Why? Because for hundreds of years of recorded history, Iraq was the date capital of the world. Before they came for oil, foreign conquerors came for that sweet and delicious commodity that grew abundantly on the palm trees lining the great rivers of Mesopotamia.
Dates are serious business, and luckily for me and the thousands of Middle Eastern expatriates living in the area, there’s a grocery store here that gets it: International Market & Deli in Monterey. They’ll sell you a box of Medjools the size of a suitcase. They also carry date molasses, a versatile dark syrup that can flavor meat or be drizzled over ice cream. If you want to make any of the hundred variations of ma’amoul cookies, you’ll need to go there to buy date paste for the filler. On a recent visit, the store even carried stocks of golden Barhi dates, which range from young and somewhat astringent to mature and butterscotch-flavored. For Iraqi Jews like my family, Barhis are an auspicious symbol and they are placed on our dinner table on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. It was a delight then that of all the magnificent products, International Market’s proprietor Gloria Altamimi held up a stock of Barhi and asked, “Do you know what these are?” Yes, I said. These are like home.
Altamimi is from Guam but her husband Adil, with whom she started the new incarnation of this store five years ago, is from the city of Basra in southern Iraq.
“We saw the community of the Defense Language Institute up here,” Altamimi says. “And the families that come here from different countries. And they’re missing home foods, the ingredients were just not readily accessible here.”
What the couple ended up opening is an epic emporium of flavors and foods: saffron pistachio ice cream sandwiches, cracked Syrian olives, Armenian lavash, Afghani bread that’s as big as a child, Persian cucumbers, and orange blossom, rose and pussy willow waters. They also prepare food behind the counter. A velvety baba ghanouj, for example, of eggplant, tahini, olive oil and topped off with paprika. The menu also features shawarma and gyros in a perfect demonstration of celebrity chef Samin Nosrat’s four pillars of good cooking: salt (seasoned lamb or chicken), fat (dripping from the meat and tzatziki), acid (tzatziki, tomatoes and raw red onions), and heat (the vertical spit off which slivers of meat are shaved and the tanur oven that brings the pita dough to fluffiness).
The logistics of running such a market are worth considering. “It’s a little bit challenging because Highway 101 and Highway 5 is where the truckers usually go from Los Angeles,” Altamimi says. “They don’t like the Central Coast, it’s too far off their track. If we do get them to deliver here, I have to pay a premium. So we just have them delivered to San Jose and my husband goes up to pick up our supplies every week. It’s challenging, but well worth it.”
A constant probing of new products is how they maintain quality. “It’s my customers who tell me, ‘bring this brand and that brand,’” Altamimi says. “And I’ll find a distributor out there who will carry it for me, or acquire it for me. So it’s kind of a win-win for everybody. It’s nice to stay connected with the community.
“We come from different parts of the world and we’re all here in this melting pot. This store, for me, is an introduction to a lot of people. Technology has opened the world up to everyone. I have folks that have not moved out of this city. But they have seen foods that they experienced some food tasting, and YouTube has been doing a great job and getting recipes. And so they come in here looking for certain ingredients, a certain spice that cannot be found just anywhere.”
I try to guess which spices people come to ask about most. Sumac or zaatar, I suggest. “Oh my gosh!” Altamimi responds. “It’s so popular. They’ll come and ask about it and I’ll say ‘Oh, you’ve never tried this.’ The sharing of food, I think, is key for connecting to people.”
INTERNATIONAL MARKET & DELI is at 580 Lighthouse Ave., Monterey. 375-9451, internationalmarketanddeli.webs.com, Monday-Saturday, 10am – 7pm; Sunday, 11am-4pm.