Friday, April 13, 2007

Balboa International Market & Deli: Globetrotting in Clairemont

We all know what armchair travelers are. Well, I think I’m turning into a grocery store traveler. In just the last couple of months I’ve traveled to Japan, China, India and Israel without having left San Diego. This week, in just one stop, I was able to globe trot once again, journeying through the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

Balboa International Market & Deli is one of those places someone has to tell you about because its location, in a row of storefronts behind another row of storefronts on Balboa in Clairemont, is not something you’ll just happen upon serendipitously. But, it’s worth the minor effort to find it. My friends Paula and Armando, who introduced me the market, are regulars here, even bringing a large cooler to fill up with perishables for the trip back down to their home in Rosarito.

Owned by the Javdani family, Balboa International Market & Deli is in its third year of business. Manager Elie Raad emphasizes that it is truly international; indeed, a look at the labels on cans, jars and packages whisks you from Armenia, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey east to Iran, Israel and India.

Before getting to the business of shopping, the best start is with lunch at their deli. With half a dozen tables set up inside and nine outside, diners can enjoy a variety of Middle Eastern dishes, like chicken and beef kabobs or tender lamb shanks, accompanied by a salad, rice fragrant with saffron and dill and a traditional grilled whole tomato. They also have tabbouleh, spanikopita, tomato and cucumber salad, hummus and falafel. Just put in your order at the deli in the back of the store, take a number, pay for your meal at the register and then find a table. Someone from the deli will bring your lunch to you when it’s ready.

Once fortified, make your way past the pastries and refrigerated section behind the check out lines to the produce. The selection isn’t large, but the quality is good, with gorgeous smooth Persian cucumbers, robust fava beans and a variety of herbs a stand out. Most intriguing were the fuzzy young green almonds. These are a traditional Middle Eastern snack with a very limited period of availability during the year, perhaps three weeks. Perfect with a beer, they need only a quick rinse. Then dip them in salt (or not) and pop them in your mouth. They’re crunchy on the outside with a slightly bitter, herb taste. Inside, the seed is a translucent jelly, kind of like a lychee. Green almonds are not only eaten raw; they are frequently brined or pickled.

You should also check the front of the store to see if bread making is in progress. The store produces fresh Barbari bread, a Persian flat loaf topped with sesame and caraway seeds. It’s very similar to Italian foccacia—crusty on the outside and soft inside. I watched as one of their employees worked the giant dough mixer before shaping the loaves into large flat ovals about an inch and a half high and, after letting them rest, put them in the oven.In the two hours I spent poking around, fresh loaves were regularly brought out in stacks to be placed next to a big basket of plump green raisins. These loaves are best enjoyed hot out of the oven, but can be frozen and reheated. Top a slice with fresh feta cheese or perhaps fig jam.

The market also sells baklava, walnut cookies, Afghani sweet bread and other pastries, as well as chocolates from Russia, Halvah from Israel, real licorice and Turkish Delight. I bought a small package of pistachio nougat. It’s not as sweet a candy as Hershey's would make—probably a good thing—but it's compelling, with a distinctive rose water flavor.

Balboa International Market & Deli is a wonderful place to stock up on herbs and spices. They have a vast selection and very good prices. And, if you’ve found recipes calling for unusual ingredients like dried lime, lemon omani, fenugreek leaves or rose buds, you can pick them up here.

Also in amazing abundance are the oils. Most of one aisle is filled with huge cans of olive,
grapeseed and other oils from different parts of the world, all sporting
delightful labels. I particularly enjoyed the Socrates oil from Greece. You’ll also find both bottled and canned ghee and a good choice of vinegars.




Condiments and relishes are big here. Pickled turnips, both yellow and bright fushia from an infusion of raw beets, are in ample supply, as are pickled mango, lemon, eggplant and cauliflower. There are jars of ajvar (a puree of peppers, eggplant, garlic and hot peppers) and lutenica (a puree of red peppers, tomatoes, carrots and hot peppers). There’s zuccini spread, marinated garlic and shallots and jams in flavors I didn’t know existed—slivered Pergamot, barberry, rose, cedrate, carrot, watermelon peel and pumpkin.


Then there are the cans of stuffed grape leaves, stuffed eggplant and stuffed cabbage leaves, some as large as four pounds. They’re worth picking up to serve at parties, when unexpected guests drop by or as easy appetizers for a dinner party. Or, in the case of the jams, a delightful addition to brunch or tea.

The selection of flavored waters on the shelves was baffling, to be honest. I could understand peppermint water and certainly rose blossom, but oregano leaves, borage, cumin seeds, sweet briar and hedysarum threw me until I learned that they are traditional waters used for medicinal purposes.

Finally, there’s the deli. I love the smooth creaminess of French feta, which they have, along with five other types of feta. You can pick up sausages and olives, prepared foods, fresh beef and chicken, and almost every part of the lamb—from the tongue to the kidney, the heart, shank and feet.

There’s plenty more to explore—like the Turkish and Armenian coffees and wide choice of teas, the rows and rows of dried beans and grains. And, if you’re looking for a movie to watch, there’s a video rental corner up front.

Balboa International Market & Deli is located at 5907 Balboa Ave. across the street from the mall with Target, Ralphs and The Home Depot in Clairemont. Look for the strip mall with See’s Candies and pull into the driveway between the two banks. The market is straight ahead.

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