Though he’s never been to the Rainbow Nation, one Azerbaijan Turk has stocked his grocery store with all the staples of a South African kitchen.
Seven years ago, an ethnic Azeri Turk from Azerbaijan walked into a grocery store. Trained as an engineer, Alex Arjmand had arrived in Toronto in 1999 and began working as a real-estate agent. He encountered the store, which sold a mix of Canadian and South African products, after showing it to a client and telling him, “If you don’t buy it, I will.” The client didn’t buy. Arjmand did.
Once he took over and began handling the orders, Arjmand realized that many of his best-selling items were the foods from South Africa. Though he knew little about the country or its cuisine, Arjmand understood that “the South Africans were enthusiastic about their products.” He decided to downsize the North York store and concentrate its focus.
In the years since, he has become an all-out South African grocer, first renaming the business Memories of Africa and then, just recently, The South African Store. (“Customers would call home to see what they should pick up, and they would always say, ‘I’m in the South African store,’” Arjmand explains.) He also relocated twice: first to Scarborough, and then, this past winter, to Bathurst north of Wilson. While that location might seem a bit random, Arjmand says that the South African population here—some 70,000 people—is divided into several sub-communities spread across the GTA. Whites with a British or Dutch background are based in Oakville, while a large community of Jewish South Africans reside in Thornhill. Black, racially mixed, and South Asian–decendant South Africans live all over the city, particularly in Scarborough and areas like Eglinton and Dufferin.
“And that’s just the South Africans,” says Arjmand, noting that half the store’s customers come from elsewhere in southern Africa, including Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana, and Swaziland. “I’m serving almost all of them,” he says with pride. “I’m kind of a hub for Africans.”
The small store has just two aisles of products, as well as a large freezer and fridge, but it carries a variety of household favourites, from condiments and candies to porridge and snacks. Two South African meats are in especially high demand: boerewors and biltong. A fixture of the barbecue (or braai), boerewors is a large, fresh, coiled farmer’s sausage made with ground beef and seasoned with coriander, cloves, nutmeg, pepper, and allspice. Biltong is South Africa’s famous beef jerky, a staple of any diet, made by curing and air-drying beef filets in a mix of salt, sugar, and spices. It’s either sold whole or sliced in the store’s special biltong chipper, which is an imposing looking engine that sits on wood blocks behind the cash register. Both items are prepared by a South African butcher in Oakville and delivered in large shipments every week.
Many of the brands here are similar to what we find in our own grocery aisles, thanks to a common British heritage and global trade. Cadbury chocolate bars and cans of Heinz baked beans line the shelves. There are also Indian-style curries, cooking sauces, and spice mixes, and their flavour profile can be found in everything from atchar (spicy pickled vegetables) to processed corn snacks called Nik Naks, infused not with orange cheese but with a fruit chutney that makes them sweet, somewhat spicy, and impossible to stop eating.
Some products are less familiar, like the cans of sweet and zingy melon-and-ginger jam by the company All Gold that boast it “tastes real good like good food should.” But arguably the most addictive offerings at The South African Store are rusks. Arjmand describes them as a sort of coarse biscotti—giant cookies that South Africans eat for breakfast. They come in a variety of flavours, like blueberry–poppy seed and pumpkin spice, but he recommends the classic buttermilk ones. Their charms aren’t immediately apparent: Imagine a firm, vaguely coconut-flavoured cross between a cookie and cracker. But once you dunk one of those puppies in a hot cup of coffee, good luck closing the box before it’s empty.
Nearly eight years into owning his store, Arjmand still hasn’t been able to travel to South Africa, though he’d like to, given all he’s heard from his loyal customers. Most who shop at The South African Store no longer notice the novelty of a Turk from Azerbaijan behind the counter, chipping biltong like he’s in Johannesburg. And while he can only say “hi” and “bye” in Afrikaans, Arjmand feels like a part of the South African community. “You see that the people are the same everywhere in the world,” he says. “You come to that conclusion when you’re interacting with the people here.”
3889 Bathurst St., 416-223-7011.