If you’ve spent any time in Union Square lately, you’ve probably seen the blue awning on Somerville Avenue identifying “La Internacional Food Corp.” You’ve probably noticed it and passed by it on numerous occasions.
Sound about right? If so, you’ve made a big mistake.
La Internacional is much more than just a small convenience store; it represents Somerville’s recent and ever-changing demographic history. When Nora Cabrera and her late husband, Eduardo, opened up the store almost 22 years ago, they intended to serve their Spanish-speaking community. Both natives of Guatemala, they stocked the store with what they knew: rice, beans, Goya products, and other essentials of the Central American diet.
They soon noticed, however, that a lot of Haitians were coming to the store. These customers were requesting that Nora and Eduardo stock certain ingredients crucial to the Haitian diet, such as pigeon peas and cream of coconuts. As Nora noted, the Caribbean (Haitian) diet and the Central American (Guatemalan) diet are similar, but not identical. So, she elucidated, her husband would “go get everything” that their loyal Haitian customers needed.
Two decades later, La Internacional is still a hot spot for Haitians. Nora and her son, Byron, have even picked up some Creole that they practice with their customers. I was lucky enough to witness this in action in September when people kept flowing in and out of the store to wish Nora a happy birthday. There is something very humbling and comforting about a classic neighborhood store; La Internacional is just a step ahead in also providing an atmosphere of multicultural appreciation.
Claude Levi-Strauss once said, “Food is good to think with.” As it turns out, food is also good to socialize with – and not just on the dining end, but on the business end, too. Years of community and friends radiate through Nora’s smile, which in turn welcomes new communities and friends. Representing the foodie community myself, I feel it is my duty to pass along some yummy, simple recipes that Nora shared with me…
As a main dish, try making diri ak djon djon. This is a Haitian rice dish made with black mushrooms (djon djon) that grow in the northern part of the country and are very hard to find in the States; La Internacional is the only store around that stocks the dried fungi. Over the years, as customers became regulars and regulars became friends, Nora added some Haitian recipes to her culinary repertoire; diri ak djon djon is one of them. Very basically, as Nora instructed me, you boil the djon djon and use the flavored water to cook long grain rice, then mix in the strained mushrooms. I played around a bit with the recipe, and was quite satisfied with the result – but if you’re nervous about experimenting with new foods, I’d recommend sticking to a recipe like this one.
While you’re at it, get in the multicultural mood and snag some “rosa jamaica” (dried hibiscus petals) to pair your rice dish with a tasty Central and South American beverage most popular in Mexico. Again, I encourage you to play around, but if you stick to a recipe that’s somewhat similar to this one, you should end up with a tart, refreshing drink with an aftertaste akin to that of cranberry juice.
Once you’ve finished your meal, head on back to La Internacional and let Nora know how it went. Tell her Emily sent you. I’m sure she’ll have another recipe up her sleeve for you to try from one of the many countries represented by her customers. Nora’s store truly is – and celebrates – the “taste of immigrant city.”