In many Southeast Asian countries, the durian, an enormous husk-covered fruit that looks something like a pineapple, is banned in hotels, subway systems and even taxis because of its unique, pungent odor, described by some as something akin to rancid onions.
So if you want a conversation starter at your next potluck, head to East Lansing’s Oriental Mart and purchase one of the foot-long frozen fruits (frozen because they are shipped from Thailand,) and crack it in half for an eye-opening aroma.
"It smells very, very good to some people," says store manager Christopher Lien. "But for most people, they can’t stand it."
A freezer case full of durians sits near the end of the produce aisle at Oriental Mart, on the north side of Grand River Avenue between Hagadorn and Park Lake roads, and is easily the largest pan- Asian store in the area.
Want basil seed and honey soda? Shrimp snack chips? Chicken, cow or pig feet? All are found at the eclectic grocery store, which opened nearly 30 years ago before Lien's parents took over in 1984.
Lien’s Chinese family migrated to the United States via Vietnam, and he says the store provides just about any native Asian — whether they are from the Philippines, India or anywhere between — with the sights, smells and tastes of home.
In addition to groceries, Oriental Mart stocks kitchen tools and merchandise, such as tea cups and table sets, decorative statues and even a small outdoor grill that looks like two gas stove burners mounted to a chrome cafeteria cart.
"In Asia, nobody has a kitchen inside their house," Lien says. "It's not happening because a lot of the food they cook is — the odor is just very strong, and they would have an outdoor kitchen year round because (in many places) it's not going to get cold."
Rice, a staple in nearly all Asian cuisine, is the most abundant foodstuff at the shop. Along with smaller-sized packages, 50-pound bags of rice line an aisle that parallels fresh produce. From long and dry to squat and sticky to nutritionally superior mixtures that combine multiple grains, varieties of rice abound. Lien says the store used to carry 100-pound bags of rice, but he got tired of schlepping them to customers' cars.
"Fifty pounds is the biggest we have now, until I get too old and tired, then we'll go 25 pounds,” he says.The
ramen noodle aisle is the equivalent of a cereal aisle in a typical
American grocery store; brand after brand in glossy, colorful packages
stand at the edge of shelves as if ready to jump into your basket on
their own. Oodles of noodles, indeed.
feature or combine various ethnicities. The Indian and Central Asian
aisle is seemingly filled with more curries and spices than anywhere
this side of the Ganges. Row after row of bottled sauces populate the
Japanese and Korean aisle. Chinese cuisine dominates its own aisle and
less demand shaped the Philippine/Thai/Vietnamese aisle.
of dried fish, mostly anchovies, fills the void beef jerky might take
in a more Western diet. Fresh seafood — tilapia, salmon, whole shrimp
and more — rest their stiff bodies on ice after being delivered on
Friday for the weekend.
A frozen food section stocks meats, vegetables, desserts and lots of prepackaged,
microwavable meals popular with students and professionals on tight
"Cooking wise, we got most of it covered," Lien says.
"When you flip to something in a cookbook and you come here, chances
are you'll find something . And if not, I can help you find
Oriental Mart, 2800 E. Grand River Ave., Suite 1, East Lansing.
10 a. m.-8 p.m. Monday- Sunday. (517) Joe Torok/City Pulse 337-2519.
Fresh fat Looking
for the perfect vessel to cram some serious calories on Fat Tuesday?
You may want to check out the Paczki selection at some local shops that
make the calorific confections onsite. Goodrich’s Shop-rite in East
Lansing’s Trowbridge Plaza boasts nine flavors of store-baked Packzkis,
including apple, cherry, apricot and custard. Special orders can be
placed by calling (517) 351-5111. L&L Food Centers, which claims to
be the only grocery chain in mid-Michigan to bake the pastries onsite,
offers eight flavors, all of which can be glazed or served with
powdered sugar. “We use Grandma Bobcia Levandowski’s recipe right from
Poland," says Steve Earley, L&L’s Bakery Director. Roma Bakery, 428
N. Cedar St., Lansing, offers 11 flavors, including a special,
terra-cotta filled variety.
- Eric Gallippo