Saturday mornings find Seema Patel of Desi Swaad at the Heritage Sandy Springs Farmers Market, spreading rounds of rice flour and chickpea flour batter on a griddle, turning them just as the edges become crisp and brown. The smell of turmeric, ginger, garlic and fenugreek perfumes the air as the crepes, called "pulla," cook. Topped with coconut cilantro chutney, shredded lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes, they'll become someone's hot breakfast, perfect to eat by hand while wandering the market booths.
Back in western India, Patel was a corporate secretary, with a job similar to those of CPAs here in the U.S. When she immigrated to America in 2007, she couldn’t find a job in her field, so she worked at what she calls “odd jobs.” At home, she cooked. Her family loved her cooking, her childrens’ friends loved her cooking, and they all persuaded her to try her hand at making food for others.
She began by selling her food at events like Atlanta International Night Market. Now, she has a booth at the market. In addition to serving crepes fresh from the griddle, she sells homemade gaajar ka halwa (a carrot-based pudding), mango murabba (spiced mango jam) and other dishes she prepares at home.
Lori Coombs, the Sandy Springs market’s manager, was introduced to Patel’s food last year. “Seema came to the market last season for a chef demo, and was very well received,” she said. “Her vegan and gluten-free Indian food is unique, and we love that she cooks on-site and provides food for customers to eat at the market.”
Patel is part of a growing trend of ethnic chefs building food-related businesses by starting at local farmers markets. Most of these cooks have cottage food licenses, a designation from the Georgia Department of Agriculture allowing them to sell food directly to consumers at farmers markets, other events and over the internet. They can’t wholesale their products or ship them across state lines.
Djeneba Fields, of C'est Djen's, came to the U.S. 23 years ago, from Côte d'Ivoire. As with Patel, her family and friends loved her food, and encouraged her to start selling it. A year ago, she launched her business, selling grilled chicken wings and a vegetable-based marinade at Alpharetta Farmers Market. Also like Patel, those wings are being cooked on-site, and the smell of grilling draws customers in. She is most proud of her marinade, prepared with ingredients that remind her of the way her mother cooked at home in West Africa.
Jennifer Joyner, marketing manager for Avondale Estates Farmers Market, said this year brought a record number of vendor applications. One reason Lesly Sobel of Sweet Rossy stood out was that she offered handmade Bolivian pastries, such as cuñapes, salteñas and sweet breads, that were perfect for enjoying at the market, or to take home for a snack, lunch or dinner.
“We love offering culturally authentic foods and things that are unlike what we’ve ever offered,” Joyner said. “It’s also great to have premade foods, things people can grab and go. It’s food that’s recognizable, but delicious and different.”
Sobel launched her business when she moved to the U.S. from Sucre, Bolivia. Living in Atlanta with her American husband, and pregnant and craving the comfort of the food she loved back home, she started baking for herself. “There are really no Bolivian bakeries or restaurants here,” she said. “My mother has a bakery back home, so … I found that everything I made carried the memory of my mother and her baking.” Her mother-in-law was one of the fans who persuaded her she should carry on the tradition of baking for others, and Sweet Rossy was born.
Very elaborate cakes are her specialty. “We Bolivians love our cake,” she said with a smile. But, it’s generally hand-held and savory treats that she brings to market.
At Brookhaven Farmers Market, there's one booth with a flock of customers who speak Italian. They're gathered at Cateri' Authentic Italian Food, where Caterina Scarano sells focaccia, grissini, crostata filled with homemade chocolate-hazelnut paste or strawberry jam, and other foods from her home in Puglia, Italy.
Scarano is new to the farmers market scene, having just opened her business in April. In the U.S. for five years, she worked in food businesses, including on the staff of Storico Fresco. When she decided it was time to become her own boss, she chose to sell at the Brookhaven market. “I live nearby, so Brookhaven is my home market,” she said. “The customers here have been wonderful, and so many come back week after week.” One day, she hopes to have a store front.
A little further down the row, Liliane Chick of Yellow Blossom sells Brazilian tamales called pamonha. Unlike Mexican tamales, with their shells of corn masa, Brazilian tamales are lined with a fresh corn paste wrapped around a sweet or savory filling. "This is food that is traditional for family gatherings at home," said Chick, who immigrated here five years ago, from Goiania, Goiás, in Brazil.
She launched her business in June 2018, and works out of a commercial kitchen, with a license that allows her to wholesale her pamonha to Brazilian restaurants and bakeries.
Rounding out this international corner of the Brookhaven market is Anglo Celtic Bakes. Peter Halpin is the baker, turning out British-Irish specialties, like hobnob biscuits, three varieties of soda bread, and more. He makes clotted cream and homemade strawberry jam, which sells out almost as quickly as his scones. Halpin landed in the U.S. on Thanksgiving Day, 2015. This is his third season selling at the Brookhaven market.
“We have a following,” said his wife, Alison. “And, Pete enjoys the banter at the market.”
Unlike many of his peers, Halpin is content to keep his cottage business just as it is. “I have no intention of growing beyond this one booth at this one market,” Halpin said. “I do it for the satisfaction of people tasting and enjoying my food.”
Not every chef is at their market every week, so, if you’re interested in a particular specialty, be certain to check with the vendor or the market before venturing out. Many markets offer a newsletter with a weekly update of who will be attending.
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