When Jim C. Lawson talked to some local publishers about doing an ethnic food guide, they told him the idea was "too parochial" and "too limited to a geographic area."
But now the 54-year-old free-lance writer is showing them his instinct was right on target.
Last year, he self-published "The Washington Ethnic Food Store Guide" and, with only a minimal marketing effort, sold out the first printing of 1,000 copies in five months. Now, he's on the second printing of the Washington guide and is trying the local market with "The Baltimore Ethnic Food Store Guide," a 118-page paperback that can tell you where to find everything from Greek Easter bread to Indian canned ghee and Korean kimchee. The book lists basic information on 93 ethnic stores -- their hours, addresses, phone numbers, specialties and whether or not they speak English.
Mr. Lawson, who has traveled throughout theworld from Latin America to the Soviet Union and the South Pacific, first became interested in ethnic food while he was stationed with the U.S. Air Force in Turkey in the '50s. Ever since, every time he went overseas he would visit local markets as well as the traditional tourist attractions.
But when he came home, he had to search to satisfy his cravings for the foods of his travels like the thick coffee he drank in Turkey or the dark purple mulato chile peppers he consumed with chicken in Mexico. So, he started his search in the ethnic stores of Washington.
"I started discovering ethnic markets and began keeping track of them because I thought other people would be just as interested as I was in what I found," he says.
A Washington resident, he wasn't sure what he would find in the Baltimore markets. Armed with a list from the Yellow Pages and information on the ethnic neighborhoods from a librarian in the Maryland section at the Pratt Library, he began his store visits. Once he was in the neighborhoods, other sources opened up -- from additional stores nearby to helpful people who directed him to their favorite stores in other neighborhoods.
Although Baltimore and Washington are only 40 miles apart, the ethnic food stores are quite different, says Mr. Lawson. And those who want well-rounded shopping should develop a list of favorite shops in each city. What's missing in one city, he says, can be found in the other.
"Baltimore has more European markets from Italy, Poland, Germany and Russia," he says. "For example, you can find Italian markets in Washington, but they are nothing like Mastellone's or Trinacria's. There are three German food stores in Washington, but they tend to be more the gourmet, sort of upscale places.
"I located only one Latin American and one Middle Eastern market worth mentioning in Baltimore, but there are many in Washington. Baltimore's Asian markets are usually a combination of Korean, Chinese and Japanese products and are typically Korean owned. In Washington, they are more likely to have separate markets selling Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, Philippine or Chinese food. Both cities share the Indian population so there is no reason to go to
Washington for an Indian market."
Besides providing specialties that cannot be found elsewhere, he says ethnic markets can save a good shopper money on other products. Look for low prices on rice in bulk in Asian stores, bargains on saffron and cashew nuts in Indian stores, and occasional lower-than-supermarket prices on fresh produce.
One caveat: Communicating with the shopkeeper may be a problem in some of Baltimore's Korean stores.
He suggests taking along a cookbook with pictures of the food and the dish names in Korean so you get your message across to the shopkeeper.
"The Baltimore Ethnic Food Store Guide" is available locally at Kitchen Bazaar stores, Books for Cooks at Harborplace, Greetings & Readings in Towson and Morton's in Baltimore. Or you can send $9.95 plus $1.50 shipping and handling to: Ardmore Publications, Box 21051, Washington 20009-0551.