Guest blogger Sarah Ashworth tells us how Bristol’s Sweet Mart took her right back to Sri Lanka.
Bristol Sweet Mart
80 Saint Mark’s Road
Bristol, BS5 6JH
t: 0117 961 0690
It’s July, and while more friends post their holiday snaps of far flung destinations, the UK gets a month’s worth of rainfall in one day to wash away any optimism of a decent summer. But if I can’t be away, trying exciting, strange, and amazing new food (surely the best part of travelling even above the weather?), then I’ll bring the sunshine to me (since writing we have had a few days of sun).
Thus, I find myself in a Bristol institution. The Bristol Sweet Mart is an Asian/Ethnic food store come deli, which epitomises all that our city is best at; an independent and multicultural Aladdin’s cave overflowing with foodie treasures. Established in 1978, the family owned Indian supermarket has similarly spilled out to encompass several shops along St. Marks Road in Easton and now sells speciality ingredients and items from all over the world. Indian, Italian, Jordanian, Syrian, Indonesian, Moroccan. The list goes on.
As Abdul Gani, one of the four sons of the late Sweet Mart founder, explains: “Cheap air travel has changed the way we eat. Customers now want food from that particular region.” Take India for example. North, south, Kerala, Rajistan. They’re all different, each with their own subtleties that can only be created with the small pinch of authentic seasonings, herbs and spices, all of which in the Sweet Mart there is a wide array.
It’s hard not to be overwhelmed when shuffling around – and a shuffle it is in order to navigate the sheer volume of items crammed onto the shelves. Which type of chilli do you go for when confronted by six different varieties? It’s ordered chaos, but it’s how shopping should be. It’s bustling with locals and city restaurateurs alike who come to stock up on some 8,000 different spices and goods that are available. I haven’t got a clue what some of the vegetables/tins/spices/bottles/packets are. I feel like I’m wondering around in a shop abroad, except here I know exactly how much I’m paying; and it’s not a lot compared to the chain supermarkets that you’ll begrudge visiting from this point forth.
Luckily the cashiers and assistants do know what you’re looking for. Armed and inspired with my Sri Lankan cookbook I finally manage to pick up the obscurest of items I thought I would never be able to find; Maldive fish flakes, ghee – clarified butter, I learn, the basis of all south Asian cuisine -, tamarind paste, fenugreek seeds. They’re friendly and helpful, as are the other customers. As the first disappears into the wholesale section of the shop to find my fish flakes, a fellow shopper offers his opinion on cooking with okra.
The adjacent deli opened in 2009 and offers a range of foods from Mediterranean olives, ready to eat curries, and homemade Indian savouries and sweetmeats. On the back of the best food I tasted in Sri Lanka – the small savouries from the street vendors – I go for three different savouries; paneer and spinach bhajiva – paneer dipped in gram flour and fried -, a mincemeat and potato patty, and a my favourite vegetable roti – a thin rolled flatbread, almost pancake like, stuffed with spiced vegetables. All are super tasty, with distinctively different curried flavours, and good value. I also try my first Indian sweetmeat, a confectionary made from sugar and condensed milk. I go for a gajar halwa, a Punjabi speciality of carrot, cardamom, almond, cashew and pistachio; a Punjabi carrot cake if you like. Its consistency is like a softer version of fudge, but thankfully the sickly sweetness of fudge is replaced with subtle spices.
Back at home and reality, I only wish the Sweet Mart Deli would have seating; not only to soak up the atmosphere of the shop, but also to enjoy its delicious savouries fresh and hot straight from the stove. As with all cold deli food, you can’t quite get the same crispiness when you reheat it at home. Later, surrounded with a Sri Lankan feast of chicken curry, lentil dahl, coconut sambol –coconut, chilli and lime salsa – and curried kale, I am almost transported back to my distant travels; thick incense laden air, a clicking fan, rickety plastic table and chairs, and a full spiced belly. I know it’s not a testament to my cooking skills, but the key ingredients I picked up and the experience of shopping at the ‘mart.
Words and pictures by Sarah Ashworth.