ArtsUnion Market Tour

The first ArtsUnion market tour, sponsored by the Somerville Arts Council and led by the ArtsUnion program coordinator Meagan O’Brien, was Wednesday, June 22 in the vibrant Union Square neighborhood of Somerville.

I had the pleasure, along with about ten others, of getting to know three of the many great ethnic markets in Union Square a little better. As a new convert to eating healthy and fresh and diverse foods on a regular basis, this was a great crash course for me. I can’t wait to visit these markets again and try some of the recipes Meagan explained to us along with the store owners. 

A cross-section of the demographics of Somerville would show you that this city is a thriving one when it comes to residents of different backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, and tastes — that makes the ‘foodie’ scene here so rich and varied. The Somerville city website can tell you the nitty gritty details, but basically, Somerville is both the most densely populated community in New England and there are 50 different languages spoken in its school system.

On the tour, we stopped in to Reliable MarketPão de Açucar, and Little India. I learned a ton about different foods and the types of goods these places carry. 

First up: Reliable Market at 45 Union Square caters to those looking to enjoy Japanese, Korean/South Korean, and Chinese cuisine, treats, or beverages. Open since 1982, this market boasts a nice produce selection including huge daikon radishes and Gobo (which was on special), a deli offering thinly sliced meat perfect for homemade shabu shabu, tons of sauces and nonperishables in its center aisles — candies, treats, and snack foods — and then there’s the fresh seafood section, which blew my mind. I am a relatively new devotee of sushi, therefore, had never even considered I could make it at home! I give you… sushi-grade seafood. 

Yum. If anyone wants to give this a whirl, send some my way. I am not yet brave or confident enough in my own abilities in the kitchen to do sushi such a disservice.

Reliable Market also has a sake section which is flanked by some other alcoholic offerings, including beer and wine. Meagan told us that a professional sake taster visited Reliable recently and said theirs was one of the most extensive selections of sake in the area.

The blue bottle with the gold top is supposed to be a good ‘beginner’s sake, FYI. And if you try the Watari Bune, careful - it’s made from pure strains of rice and is supposed to be one of those “Once you go Watari Bune, you never go back” sort of things. Which could be good. But maybe bad for your wallet (and palate).

Next we went around the corner to Pão de Açucar, a Brazilian market. Located at 57 Union Square, this place also serves a buffet on Saturdays featuring the traditional dish feijoada, which is a stew with different cuts of meat, beans, and vegetables. The clay pots in which Brazilians typically cook this dish are also sold here.

You can even buy pre-packaged feijoada ‘kits’ in the deli section here.

Pão de Açucar sells acai, which you may have heard of lately as a trendy ‘super-fruit’ with medicinal properties — some energy drinks include it as an ingredient. The Brazilian fruit comes in juice form as well as frozen cubes which you can just pop into a glass of water or milk. 

The owner Francisco showed us another popular item in the store, chimarrão, a tea you drink out of a gourd or gourd-shaped vessel, through a metal or silver straw resembling a long spoon (also sold at Pão de Açucar). He told us that Italians and Germans who had settled in southern Brazil popularized the drinking of chimarrão, which although somewhat bitter, is chock-full of vitamins, antioxidants, and helps to lower cholesterol. 

This market also bags its own spices for sale in one of the center aisles and, if you’re a futbol fan, look no further for your Team Brasil shirts.

Last we trekked over to Little India at 438 Somerville Avenue, located conveniently next to the Market Basket. Since 1983, Little India has been providing Union Square customers with the finest ingredients needed for Indian cuisine. The owner, Dipti, was glad to show us around and even recommend a few traditional Indian remedies sold at her store, such as anardana spice (which is actually made from dried pomegranate seeds and Dipti told us helps with the common cold) and fenugreek seeds (which are said to prevent arthritis when ingested in tea form as well as aid in diabetes treatment). 

Little India also has a small produce/deli section in which you can find specialty items such as Paneer - an Indian style cooking cheese, garlic naan, and bitter melon, a vegetable which you peel the skin off of to eat and that helps improve digestion as well as treats other common maladies.

The store moved to the new location, for one, to accomodate a wine and beer section. Little India has a decent selection of wines and beers both local and international, including a hutch full of different types of Indian beer.

ArtsUnion runs a program of events throughout the summer and has been catering to the tastes of Somerville residents for six years. A list of upcoming events can be found at their website, and since November, they’ve maintained a food and culture-oriented blog, Nibble. There you can find different shopping tips, recipes, and portraits of artists, business owners, and cooks in Union Square and beyond.

Is there another market in Somerville or Cambridge you swear by? Tweet me (@sahopson) or, better yet, the Arts Council (@artscouncil) themselves!