The Comox Valley is known for its abundance of fresh seafood and farm produce. At the right time of year, shoppers can fill their totes with salmon, tuna, and prawns straight off the boat, and farm stands overflow with shiitake mushrooms, fiddleheads, and crisp asparagus. Despite this bounty, it used to be hard to find fixings for international fare on local shelves, so those who wanted to whip up an authentic gyoza, enchilada, or vindaloo in their own kitchens were just out of luck.
Happily, for folks with an adventurous palate, this is no longer the case. As more people from around the world claim the Comox Valley as their home, the appetite for foods from across the globe grows, and local vendors are here to answer the call.
140 HEADQUARTERS ROAD
Goods Grocery used to be known for selling cigarettes and lottery tickets—until owner Mark Turner began stocking foods from the Philippines, where his wife is from. Turner saw the demand for Filipino pork rinds and other such snacks, and now fills his shelves with Asian and Latin American items, like Mexican hot sauces and tortilla chips, banana sauce, several varieties of fish sauce, canned jackfruit, pickled papaya, sauteed shrimp paste, Korean hot pepper paste, corn nuts, fish crackers, mochi (a Japanese cookie), and tapioca balls for bubble tea.
Turner credits the pandemic, which grounded local travellers, for the uptick in interest in international goods. “So many people got used to jumping on a plane and going to Mexico direct from Comox,” he says. When that was no longer an option, “people came in for Mexican products.” At the same time, home chefs became more creative in their own kitchens. “All the restaurants were closed, and people were wanting Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai food,” he says. “They started asking if we could bring more of that in.” Turner is always looking for the next hot international food item, and if he doesn’t have what you’re looking for, he might be persuaded to make a special order. “If someone comes in with a recipe, we try to fill their shopping list,” he says.
SABZI MANDI SUPERMARKET
2885 CLIFFE AVE
Sabzi Mandi means “vegetable market” in Hindi and the store carries ample fresh produce such as curry leaves, daikon, okra, yucca root, and banana flower. Their prepared foods (veggie samosas, ready-to-eat eggplant, chickpea and okra curries), along with tandoori and butter chicken pastes, are among their best sellers and hardest to keep in stock.
Store manager Rajwinder Kaur is surprised by the number of non-Indian customers who come in with questions about cooking South Asian food. “People want to know about spices and curries and how we cook with them,” she says. “I try my best to explain how to use these spices and the curries so customers get an education when they come in.”
It’s a one-stop shop: you can pick up rice, red lentils for masoor dahl, coconut chutney, white chickpeas for chana masala, and all manner of spices including turmeric, green pepper powder, garam masala (a blend of spice that enhances the taste of curry), chili, and mango powder.
“If you want a curry, we have all the ingredients here,” Kaur says.
GOLD PHOENIX ASIAN FOODS
Gold Phoenix Asian Foods was started by Tania Ly, who first immigrated to Alberta as part of a Vietnamese refugee family in the 1970s and made her way to the Comox Valley in 1995. “My mom was a cook at heart, and food was the main thing she missed when they moved here. She made it a commitment to cook traditional food for my brother and [me],” says Ly’s daughter and business partner, Hollie Ha.
This Valley-based online store sells spices, peanut, soy and oyster sauces, fish powder, dried mushrooms—all ingredients necessary to make the authentic Vietnamese dishes Ly’s family loves. Ly and Ha also teach wonton-making classes and carry frozen prepared dim sum, spring rolls, and shrimp dumplings called ha gao.
“When we were first here, there were few Asian restaurants. Exposing people to Vietnamese spring rolls would have been unheard of,” Ha reflects. Now, with more immigrants and students from many countries coming to the Valley every year, she says, “people are looking for more international flavours.”
5908 BATES ROAD
Blink and you might drive right by the house with a storefront on the ground floor—the one giveaway is the flashing neon “open” sign. In addition to being the home of the Miller family, it’s also the source of the Valley’s famous Mexican tortillas.
After the Millers moved to the Comox Valley from Guadalajara 15 years ago, they were homesick for good Mexican food.
“We tried all the tortillas here, but they had a weird aftertaste and consistency,” the founder’s daughter, Eliza Miller, says. Her mom, Alondra, who had never made tortillas when she lived in Mexico, watched instructional YouTube videos and started making authentic tortillas. Word got out and a business was born.
Now their customers come from afar for their house-made traditional hand-pressed and rolled tortillas (in nine different flavours!), Mexican mango and green salsas, and fresh corn chips. Their imported foods like mole sauce, pepper paste, chimichurri, and cans of Mexican-style refried beans are also in demand.
When people come in looking for a specific pepper, nacho paste, or hominy corn (a starchy white corn popular in Mexico), it makes Miller happy. “It tells me that our world is getting smaller, we are able to share more and learn more from each other,” she says. “It brings us closer as a community if we are open to trying new things.”