If one is truly open to all the possibilities, wondering what to have for dinner tonight may lead to a more difficult decision here in New Jersey than most anywhere else in this country. That is because a state that boasts a population with roots from all over the world also can stake claim to one of the broadest assortments of foods representing those countries and cultures.
Almost one in four New Jersey residents are foreign-born, the third-largest immigrant population in the country. One in six residents are native-born U.S. citizens with at least one immigrant parent. Our food culture is an immigration story, or millions of immigration stories, beginning today, going back hundreds of years and surely continuing well into the future. Successive waves of people have settled here and created a patchwork quilt that continues to grow larger, more colorful and more delicious to this day. With people from almost as many countries as are represented at the United Nations, it goes to follow New Jersey has as many significant representations of cuisines, if not more.
One of the many stories that exemplifies this diversity and how it all comes together can be seen in one display case where the proof is in the … sausage.
The Union Pork Store in Union says “German Butcher Shop” on the sign, and it served a then-large German population in the area when it opened in 1946. In 2006, Polish immigrant Leszek “Jabi” Jablonski and his wife, Bozena, took ownership, continuing to sell German, Polish and other Eastern European meats. In a short time, though, Jablonski showed himself to be as much a food cultural enthusiast, creating sausages inspired by his love for Mediterranean cuisines.
“My very traditional German customers were curious about the new products, and they started to try them. They liked them, so I kept making more,” Jablonksi said. “I researched and collected books in many different languages and also had customers bring me their family recipes.” When asked how many different types he has made to date, he said he lost count somewhere between 240 and 250. Any given week, customers will find options made from recipes from various countries (some dating back hundreds of years) or selections that incorporate flavors and ingredients from any and every continent. A recent glance at the store’s website and social media showed mentions of Iceland, South Africa, Turkey, the West Indies, India, Mexico, Uruguay, Morocco, Cyprus, the Philippines and, of course, Germany and Poland.
People come from all over, whether they live in-state or are visiting from elsewhere. Word of mouth has more often given way to email and social media. One French expatriate group created a run on Jablonski’s Boudin Blanc, and a similar Scandinavian group snatched up his Swedish ham after reading posts alerting members on their community message boards. Reactions to these numerous “meat and greet” personal connections range from excited to grateful, and some customers are even moved to tears. But, like his old German customers when he first started out, people also come in looking for a taste of something different, not just what is most familiar to their heritage. Word of mouth does still exist, though — between the customers in line giving in-the-moment reviews and recommendations.
A Global Melting Pot
How much of our food in New Jersey is really “American”? Our most talked about iconic Jersey foods were likely brought here in some manner from those coming from somewhere else (except Hamilton Square-born and Trenton-bred John Taylor’s famous creation, which is uniquely all ours). The eating establishment most associated with our state is the diner, typically having menus dotted with items that reflect the roots of their owners, often of Greek backgrounds.
The most debated food topic in New Jersey may revolve around pizza, undeniably Italian in its origins, but today, some of the most sought-after in the state are not made by only Italians or Italian Americans, but those with Eastern European, Latin American and Asian roots. And, by the way, is that pizza Sicilian, Neapolitan, Roman, Piemontese, Calabrian or some hybrid, and are those toppings necessarily Italian?
Southern fare, including barbecue, owes a lot of its flavor to cooking traditions and ingredients incorporated centuries ago by a different group that came here from other countries — those brought here against their will from Africa.
These decades- and centuries-old impacts on what we eat here crisscross our state with newer ones found in numerous ethnic enclaves that draw locals and visitors to their shops and restaurants. Newark’s Ironbound is home to fantastic Portuguese, Spanish and Brazilian food (and people), while Oak Tree Road, running a mile-and-a-half through Edison and Iselin, has the largest concentration of Indian Americans in the country, and the first community to bear the moniker “Little India.” There are other “Littles,” and Paterson alone is dotted with them, like Little Lima and Little Istanbul, indicating the large Latin American and Middle Eastern populations there. Take your pick of Bergen County Koreatowns in either Fort Lee or Palisades Park for a more immersive experience than the couple of blocks in midtown Manhattan. Thriving communities for local residents are also destinations for many of the rest of us.
Where specific ethnic concentrations no longer exist, some businesses that served them still do, and those with old ties to the community still trek back to patronize them. They have held onto part of their community’s past while meeting the needs of its present day. When Serrani’s Sanitary Bakery in Orange opened in the 1940s, it was not a unique business. Many communities had at least one such bakery serving their local population, and they were meeting places as much as they were food businesses. While still family run today and making many of the same Italian specialties, the neighborhood now has a large African and Latin American population. The bakery adapted and bakes more familiar items for its customers new to the area while welcoming back successive generations of original customers, creating a comfortable destination for all.
From The Ground Up
Back to statistics for a moment. Immigrants make up 30% of the entire workforce here, and immigrant business owners account for one-third of all self-employed workers in the state. Many of those entities, large and small, are, of course, food-related, but not all are storefronts.
There are immigrant-owned farms in the Garden State, growing produce in demand with Asian, African, Latin American and Caribbean populations. Evergreen Farm in Hamilton gets thousands of visitors every autumn to pick its Asian pears. The gongura grown at TIKSmart Farms in Pemberton and the kittley grown at World Crops Farm in Vineland may sound exotic and even undefinable to most New Jerseyans, but they are important to Indian and West African communities. Remember, though, next time you are in a supermarket or farmers market and see something that seems strange, at one time, our most famous crop — the tomato — was thought to be poisonous, and those same tomatoes were also at another point in time considered not good to eat raw. Despite being the largest producer of eggplant, a lot of Jersey residents still would not touch them. Chain supermarkets all seem to now carry bok choy. Someday, more specialty produce will be less an oddity and in more widespread use, and with our thriving network of farmers markets, will be Jersey Fresh, too.
Other food businesses worth mentioning are the suppliers that originated as specialty purveyors for specific populations but have grown in customer base and stature beyond those groups and well beyond the state’s borders.
More people know of Goya Foods than know details about the company. Its logo is easily imagined, or at least recognizable, having been seen on over 2,500 cans, boxes and bags of food products from the Caribbean, Mexico, Spain, Central and South America, but found in shopping carts of more than just Spanish-speaking New Jersey. The largest Hispanic-owned company in the United States is still privately held and run by the family’s third generation. The company name is so synonymous with Latin American cuisine and community that, in 2018, it was ranked No. 2 in the country for its social impact and community support as a food brand.
While Goya was founded in 1936 in New York, it moved to New Jersey in the mid-1970s, around the same time another prominent, multigenerational, ethnic food manufacturer was just getting started. Deep Foods is not the household name Goya is, but you will know you are near its Union facility as the air is redolent with wonderful spices.
Bhagwati Amin went from cooking traditional dishes from her native India for family and friends to supplying small Indian shops with her wares. Urged to open a restaurant, she did not think the time commitment would fit with her family and existing work schedule, but, eventually, she and her husband set out to start a frozen prepared food business. Over time, their sons and other family members joined the business to expand her original vision. The company has diversified into a range of fresh, dry and frozen Indian food products, as well as some Thai, Chinese and Halal-certified products under the Deep Indian Kitchen name. They also launched a fast-casual restaurant concept now known as Deep Indian Kitchen.
Adding More Cultures Into The Mix
Whether or not we are actually a melting pot of a society has often been debated, but our population here has blended together in many ways, with any individual’s makeup more likely than ever coming from parents of different backgrounds. While those numerous ethnic enclaves will exist and continue to be foodie destinations for those seeking authentic cuisines, the next wave will surely see more melding of food styles and spillover of influences.
One such example is the joint venture launched last year by two of the most heralded Jersey restaurant professionals in recent years: Robbie Felice, chef/partner of Viaggio in Wayne, and Osteria Crescendo in Westwood and restaurateur Luck Sarabhayavanija of Ani Ramen (in seemingly every other town you drive through in northern New Jersey). Felice, of Italian descent, and Sarabhayavanija, of Thai descent, both come from restaurant families but chose not to replicate those formats. They have created Pasta Ramen, an impressive Italian-Japanese fusion that takes their respective food successes and elevates it with a multicourse food adventure bringing together the best Japanese and Italian ingredients and techniques centered around noodles — hence the name. While the first year saw a series of secret pop-up locations, a permanent location is planned to open this spring in Montclair.
If anyone new to our shores from nearby cities complains that there are no ethnic food options “in the burbs,” they just ought to get in the car and do some exploring. Within the time it took them to take the subway or hop on a Citi Bike, they can truly find worldwide eating options here.
Despite the toll the pandemic has taken on the food industry, it is still an industry known for its work ethic and stick-to-itiveness. It is something shared, something in the blood of thousands of people in New Jersey, regardless of where they came from. The future looks bright for continued variety and innovation. The state saw an increase in the immigrant population over the past decade, which will only benefit the continued diversity. Deciding what to have for dinner will likely be a more difficult decision for even mildly adventurous eaters.
The happily hardworking Leszek Jablonski concluded by saying, “My wife and I realized many years ago that it is not easy for a business to survive unless you are different. I’ve met so many great people from so many great nations, but I still have lots of new ideas and lots of new people to meet.” That seems to sum it up best to us.
Hank Zona writes regularly about wine, spirits and a range of other topics such as food and culture. He also has been running wine and spirits events of all sorts for over a decade.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Jersey’s Best. Subscribe here for in-depth access to everything that makes the Garden State great.
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