Exploring the ethnic markets of San Diego County is a great way to get to know the wonderfully diverse county we call home.

This week we bring you highlights from the Persian specialty store, Balboa International Market in Clairemont Mesa East.  

The Market: Balboa International Market

Location: 905 Balboa Avenue, Clairemont Mesa East, San Diego

Hours: Daily, 8am-9pm

Specialties: Persian (some Russian and Middle Eastern)

Opened by the Javdani family almost 15 years ago, this market is filled with Persian specialities, including flatbreads like sangak and barberi, which are made to order at the inhouse traditional bakery. The shop also features a Turkish delight counter, a great prepared foods deli, and specialty ingredients not only from Iran, but also from Russia and the Middle East. The produce section has all the usual suspects, at incredibly low prices, along with locally grown Persian favorites, like sour plums and fresh in-the-pod almonds, when they are in season.

For those familiar with Persian cooking, this is a one-stop-shop for essentials like dried limes, zaresh (barberries), and kashk (whey). And those looking for culinary inspiration with have a field day with their range of hard to find ingredients the likes of orange blossom water, cracked wheat freekeh, saffron sugar sticks, and an enitre case of differrent feta cheeses. The bread bakery is reason enough to visit, but also be sure to stop by the prepared foods counter for excellent kubideh beef kabobs and Persian stews, available to eat in their small cafeteria, or for takeaway.

What to Look for at Balboa International Market

Fresh Iranian Breads

Tucked in the back corner of the produce section you'll find a traditional Persian bakery turning out meter-long ovals of thin, chewy sangak bread and pillowy, sesame-seed-studded barberi bread. The barberi is baked and set out on the rack next to the counter, though if you ask, they will wrap a loaf, straight from the oven in paper for you. The sangak is another story. It is so popular that they limit two per customer. During busy times, you will need to place your name on a waiting list while they bake more, so make the bakery your first stop, and spend the wait time shopping for other ingredients. (Yes, it is worth the wait. This is life-changing bread.)

Pantry Staples: Tahini, Pomegranate, Kashk, and More

Tahini is a staple of the Middle Eastern pantry. This sesame butter is one of the key ingredients in hummus and can be whisked together with lemon juice, garlic, and a little water for a luscious dressing for roast vegetables and salads. Find this along with Persian essentials like pomegranate juice, molasses, and paste, all used for different purposes.

Pomegranate is a key ingredient in fesenjan, a chicken, walnut, and pomegranate stew, and it is also wonderful  from adding tang to meat marinades or in baking.

Kashk is perhaps the least common essential. It is a dehydrated yogurt that is rehydrated and added to Persian ash soup and a mashed eggplant dish called kashk bademjan, as well as in Jordanian cooking as a marinade for the celebratory lamb dish, mansaf. At Balboa you will find it in dried form, rehydrated in shelf-stable jars, and in the refrigerated section.

Spend time exploring the aisle for other finds, like date syrup, which can be spread on bread with tahini for an Iraqi-style PB and J. They also have an entire wall of different waters, including common ones like rose and orange water, and far more unusual types like fenugreek and mint waters.

Turkish Delight and Other Sweets

Balboa is home to a Turkish delight counter, where you can choose from a rainbow of flavors, like rose and honey or pistachio. The beautiful, chewy candies make incredible gifts. The counter also sells Arabian sweets like the Palestinian cheese and simple syrup dessert, knafe, and several different types of baklava.

The Persian sweets are located on the front wall of the main grocery store where you'll find chickpea flour cookies, saffron pistachio brittle, and all kinds of tea cookies.

Garlic Like You've Never Know it Before

Find pickled garlic among the rows of pickled peppers, pickled cauliflower, and all manner of other pickled items. In Iran they called tangy foods torshe, which is also the name for pickles, which are present at most meals. Pickles are incredibly popular in the Middle East as well, where they can be found stuffed in sandwiches and plunked on tables filled with mezze appetizers. The standout pickle has to be the pickled garlic, which is slightly sweet, tart, and pungently garlicky.

Over in the refrigerated section, look for garlic sauce, also known as toum in Lebanon. This is basically a vegan garlic mayonnaise, which is perfect for dunking your fries in or smothering on a chicken sandwich. The brand sold at Balboa is pungent and a little sharp. You will stink after eating this, but it will be worth it.

All the Middle Eastern Cheese

The cheese is not confined to one section of the store at Balboa. In the refrigerator near the produce you'll find farmers cheeses and a variety of fetas along with the highly processed and immensely popular puck cheese (think salty cream cheese in spreadable form).

In the packaged cheese case near the meat shop, you'll find a huge selection cheeses including "Syrian string cheese", known in Arabic as jibneh shelal or jibneh mshallaleh, available studded with nigela seeds, marinated in herbs, or plain.

Over near the prepared foods deli counter you'll find an entire case dedicated to different types of fresh feta sold by weight. Order a little of each and eat them the tradition Persian way: slices of feta wrapped with handfuls of fresh mint and other herbs in fresh, nutty sangak bread.

Dried Limes and Other Spices

Dried limes, black limes, Omani limes, Persian limes; this ingredient goes by many names. The shriveled orbs add a signature tang and muskiness to stews in Iran, are boiled into lip-smackingly tart teas in Iraq, and are ground and added to soups in Oman. This hard-to-find ingredient is available at Balboa along with bags of cardamom pods, curry leaves, tart sumac, and pretty much every other spice you could want or need.

Canned Middle Eastern

Canned dolma? The shelf-stable canned version of these tangy stuffed grape leaves are actually great. And ful, a traditional Levantine breakfast staple of fava beans simmered with cumin, tomato, chili and other spices are also available in a can in Palestinian, Yemeni, Lebanese, Egyptian, and spicy variations. I like to saute onion, red chili, and garlic in olive oil before tossing in a can of these bad boys along with some fresh diced tomato for an easy dinner served with fresh flatbread.

Bulk Bins

Find dried fruit, nuts, and legumes in the bulk bin section of the store, just in front of the halal meat counter. We were especially excited to find white mulberries, which are an essential in the celebratory nut mix eaten for Shab-e-yalda and the Persian New Year.

Specialty Produce

Along with basics like onions, tomato, garlic, cucumbers, eggplants, and fresh herbs, Balboa stocks specialty Persian fruits and veggies that grow here locally.

On a recent visit we found fresh chickpeas still in their pods, bright green sour plums, and a pile of fresh almonds, still in their fuzzy pods.

In the springtime in Iran, people eat bowls of the tender, fresh almonds whole, skin and all, and the sour plums sprinkled with salt.

Persian Tea Essentials

Persian tea is made using a double boiler, with the tea steeping atop the second pot until it is strong and dark. The tea is mixed in each individual glass with water from the lower pot for a perfect amber color. The tea is enjoyed with sugar cubes, which can be placed in the mouth while sipping the black tea. Another popular option is to serve tea with saffron infused sugar stir sticks.

Even if you don't have a double boiler, you can buy Persian tea bags to go with your saffron sugar sticks.

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