International food court - The Buffalo News

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International food court

Feel like going around the world without suffering from jet lag, currency exchange headaches
and long Customs lines?

You’re in luck.

A potpourri of palate-pleasing cuisine from exotic locales such as Burma, Ethiopia, Sudan, Thailand and China, to name a few, is served from a true international food court inside the West Side Bazaar at 25 Grant Street on Buffalo’s West Side. The food is prepared and served by newly-minted Buffalonians: many of them resettled refugees from Africa and the Middle East. The Bazaar provides a first step into U.S. entrepreneurism, where they can learn how to operate their own business in a non-competitive environment.

Zelalem Gemmeda is the force behind Abyssinia Ethiopian Cuisine.

Zelalem Gemmeda is the force behind Abyssinia Ethiopian Cuisine.

Open since March 2011, the Bazaar is a cross between a business incubator and a town square, offering built-in socializing for business owners and local patrons.

The food choices are as varied as the countries of origin; everything from soup to Nutella crepes can be enjoyed for modest prices, generally topping out at $10 or $15 for a generous meal.

Burmese vendors ladle out Mohinga — rice noodle and fish soup — the national dish of the country. Other popular choices include curry pork with noodles and and Owno Koksware, a chicken coconut soup. A Sunday brunch featuring Ethiopian food is available, while combo platters — meats, vegetables, poultry — presented atop Ethiopian injera, a spongy
flatbread base, are a menu staple.

Vendors from Japan dish up both savory and sweet crepes. The fillings range from ground chicken, eggs and spices to fruit, Nutella or jam. Dosas, which are similar to crepes except made with a batter of lentils and rice, are made to order for a lighter meal.

Pad Thai and variations of the classic Thai dish are available at the market, as are sushi, Laotian sesame cookies, bubble tea and authentic African coffee. And a lot more, especially if you like to experiment.

As they serve signature dishes from their countries of origin, learning the ropes of running a successful venture is also on the menu for these business owners. “Each vendor here is paired with a mentor to help grow their business,” explained Elise Roberts, assistant manager at the Bazaar.

“The background of the mentors runs the gamut from corporate individuals who have been in the business world for 30 years to people who are entrepreneurs themselves. They share a passion for helping others; they are willing and patient,” said Ben Bissel, executive director of Westminster Economic Development Initiative (WEDI), an agency that helps operate the Bazaar. “The goal is to help people make a sustainable living.”

A combination plate at Abyssinia is served atop Ethiopian injera, a spongy flatbread.

A combination plate at Abyssinia is served atop Ethiopian injera, a spongy flatbread.

Roberts experienced a different culture when she worked for a short time in Rwanda. Bissel, too, has traveled extensively, giving him an understanding of the challenges inherent in a Bazaar that includes people from countries that aren’t necessarily friendly. “It’s really exciting to see different cultures interacting with one another,” said Roberts.

“We’ve had vendors that came from rival tribes who end up running their businesses in adjacent stalls. They have learned how to co-exist and develop friendships,” Roberts said.

In the short time that this unique marketplace has been open, Bissel said that 17 vendors have graduated from the Bazaar and launched their own separate businesses. These also include clothing, jewelry and gift item retailers who share Bazaar space with the food purveyors.

Soe Maung Maung prepares Burmese cuisine at Kyel Sein Hein at West Side Bazaar.

Soe Maung Maung prepares Burmese cuisine at Kyel Sein Hein at West Side Bazaar.

Global Villages and Global Chic, owned by Louise Sano, a Rwandan native, opened on Grant Street. Martha Sosa started a catering business, Pure Peru, after learning the necessary business skills at the Bazaar. Jolie’s Traditional Chinese Food relocated to the Horsefeathers Market.

Bissel said the next step in the evolution of the Bazaar is to create a catering business, which WEDI will help promote through the use of social media. “What could be better than having a variety of food from so many countries in your own backyard?”

Brenda Alesii is a freelance writer and host of “Brenda’s Bites” radio show, which airs at 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning on ESPN 1520.

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