Take a grocery store tour from A to Z with chef Winston Lewis and food columnist Andrew Coppolino

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As we stroll the aisles of Kitchener’s A to Z Variety African and Caribbean Grocery, Executive Chef Winston Lewis pauses to point out the thick stems of a succulent in the produce aisle.

“You call that aloe vera, but I call it the Sinkle Bible,” says Lewis, who then takes an avocado. “And we simply call that a pear on the island.”

The names may be different, but the flavors are similar, Lewis says as he describes the produce and foods of the West Indies and Jamaica, where he was born.

New Caribbean grocery stores have recently opened in the Waterloo area including The Yam Seller on Victoria Street Kitchener and Jamstyle in Preston Towne Centre, to name just two.

As for Caribbean dining, established anchors like Rainbow Caribbean and Ellison’s Bistro along with Big Jerk Catering have historically led the way and provided some inspiration for newer venues like Kitchener’s J&K Cuisine Caribbean Grill and Bar and Irie Myrie’s and All Good Things Caribbean Food. Cafe and catering in Cambridge.

On the corner of Water and Victoria Streets in Kitchener, A to Z may seem to fly under the radar, but the business has flown the Guyanese flag for 16 years.

Owner-operator Stan Hardayal says the shop is stocked with Guyanese ingredients from a country culturally close to many Caribbean nations and their foods.

“We have hundreds of Caribbean foods, including HTB bread, yellow yams, sweet yams, dried pigeon peas and guaymus fish,” says Hardayal. “We serve a wide range of people who shop here, but now it’s mostly Africans.”

Jamaican patties provide the welcome and first image of Caribbean food as you enter the A to Z store. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Near the front of the store is a small warming oven filled with popular Michedean Jamaican patties. A shopper stands at the checkout with a large box of frozen food under his arm.

For these reasons, A to Z is a favorite shopping destination for Lewis, who has been cooking in the area for many years and currently works at Bella Vista Catering.

When it comes to the variety of foods we have access to, it’s just a matter of trying what you’re unfamiliar with, says Lewis.

Scotch Bonnet peppers add a twist to Caribbean cuisine. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

“A lot of African produce here and especially a lot of Caribbean produce and from the island of Jamaica itself,” says Lewis, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica.

“Everyone has different flavor profiles they like, but you can find the basics you need to produce what you want from your country of origin.”

It’s more than just raw ingredients like spices, Irish Mos and Scotch Bonnet pepperoni, meats, grains and breads to his kitchen: For Lewis, A to Z also stimulates his imagination and brings back memories – even a common herb like thyme has a special heaviness beyond the scent we all know.

Kitchener, Ont. Chef Winston Lewis with thyme on his hands. (Bella Vista Catering)

“I remember walking around on a Saturday as a kid and you knew people were cooking with fresh thyme, parsley and lemongrass in their homes across the island. It reminds me of my grandparents when they would go to their property and they would have pot soup cooking,” Lewis said.

Elsewhere in the store, he points to a variety of fruits and vegetables that a Caribbean cuisine would have like eddos, cassava, yams, and plantains, with varying degrees of ripeness from firm and green to mottled deep brown and soft: frying can release their sugars and they tan nicely, he says.

While many people eat bananas within a relatively short ripening range, Lewis described using green bananas.

“We steam or boil them. I can shave them, fry them, or dry them in the oven and make a banana chip for an amuse-bouche,” he says.

Plantains with varying degrees of ripeness from firm and green to deep brown and soft mottled: which dish you choose depends on what dish they are intended for. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

A lesser-known fruit to me was the sorrel, a popular tropical fruit. It’s about the size of a small melon but can weigh up to three kilograms and has prickly, leathery skin. It can taste like apple and strawberry with hints of citrus and has a creamy texture resembling a banana.

“We usually juice it and it’s very tasty,” says Lewis. “I remember drinking soursop juice on Sundays. It was a family tradition.”

Thanks to West Indian caterers in the community, Caribbean jerk, including jerk chicken, has become a popular dish in area Caribbean restaurants. But Lewis says on the island it would include goat, a protein source eaten by more than half the world’s population, though less well known in North America.

“In the Caribbean, we prefer goat to lamb. It’s native. There’s also oxtail, and on the island we use everything from tip to tail,” says Lewis of Jamaican cuisine. “Oxtail is a tasty meat, but it takes a long, slow process to cook. It’s a one-pot process.”

A world, or at least a few hemispheres’ worth, of packaged condiments sits on the shelves and racks of the A-to-Z grocery store in Kitchener, Ontario. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

A to Z has shelves of rice, flour, legumes, and other grains, Lewis notes, as well as pumpkins and squashes, which could be intimidating in your pantry.

“Fresh squash and chayote are here too. People don’t realize that you can eat a lot of these things raw in a salad,” says Lewis, adding culinary advice from a chef that encourages experimentation and open-mindedness.

“Try all these things,” he says. “Mix and match flavors and find out what you like and don’t like. But don’t knock on it until you’ve tasted it.”

For more stories about Black Canadians’ experiences—from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community—see Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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