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Elat: The Culture Club : You can stock a Persian or Israeli kosker kitchen with thefish and produce at this Middle Easter market--but go for the yogurt.

August 10, 1995|LINDA BURUM

At Elat Middle Eastern Market, people jockey their way through the crowded aisles, pushing carts overflowing with mounds of produce. Some shoppers have half a dozen heads of cabbage in their baskets or several flats of fresh figs perched on the carts' baby seats. You get the impression that nearly everyone is stocking up for several months. "They'll be back in a day or two to buy just as much," says Ingrid Paredes, the store's administrative assistant.

Shoppers at Elat take food buying seriously and go about it with great zeal. Some phone ahead to check on the arrival of the store's huge produce truck, wanting first crack at the fresh herbs that Elat grows near San Diego. They're also eager to inspect the produce that buyer Ray Golbar chooses at the downtown produce market, looking for things they will inevitably buy in large quantities.

"We're inundated with calls around 10 a.m.," Paredes says with a sigh.

Their enthusiasm for quantity buying stems from the Near Eastern esteem for an abundant table. Lavish spreads of food are a symbol of good hospitality and a family's well-being. Plenitude is equated with family honor and status, so food shopping takes a high priority. Elat caters specifically to customers from Iran and Israel. So, unlike some Near Eastern stores that specialize in the Turkish-influenced goods of the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Greece and Armenia), Elat supplies ingredients for the quite different Iranian larder. Along with the pomegranate syrup and basmati rice used in Persian dishes, you'll find European-style kosher cold cuts, kosher cheeses and Israeli butter. Next to the Near Eastern-style flat breads are the challah and Russian-style breads favored by European Ashkenazi Jews who come from Eastern Europe via Israel. The disparate elements reflect the multinational nature of modern Israeli cooking.

The store is kosher: You won't find shrimp or pork in the fish and meat department, but Elat is known for marvelously fresh whitefish, which Persians love. And in the pastry department, at the middle of the store, are French-style cakes and tarts made with the dairy-free ingredients suitable for a kosher table when meat is served.

The spirit of an old-fashioned Middle Eastern public marketplace still prevails at Elat even though it has modern electronic door openers and bar-coded merchandise and accepts Visa and MasterCard. Several departments within the store are like individually staffed boutiques, providing the sort of personalized service typical of specialty shopkeepers.

At the cheese and pastry counter, I overheard a clerk explain the differences between Israeli, Danish, Bulgarian and French feta. And at the dried fruit and nut corner--in the time-honored fashion of Near Eastern merchants--the clerk offered his customer a few nuts and a large date to sample while they were deep in a discussion about the quality of Iranian pistachios. She munched on them while perusing the store's half-a-dozen styles of raisins.

Customers elsewhere in the store get this same sort of attention. If they have questions, they flag down Keyvan Novinbakht or Farhad Kamani, who attend to customer service as they rove the store. They, along with Golbar and grocery buyer Faramarz Rabikashi, are co-owners of Elat.

Golbar's parents started the business in 1982 in a tiny store up the street, but they soon outgrew the place. The four men bought them out in 1985 and moved to a larger store. After a fire in '92, it took about two years to rebuild; in the process, the space was more than doubled.

Elat is much larger now, but on Thursday and Friday afternoons when crowds are shopping for Friday night Seders, it's almost impossible to find space in the parking lot. Breads are snapped up, dollies loaded with vegetable boxes bring on fresh supplies and cooks brave the crowds to collect the fish heads they've ordered for gefilte fish or soup. It adds up to a bazaar-like atmosphere. But the shoppers here don't seem to mind. They are intent on supplying their abundant tables.

SHOPPING LIST

Not to be missed at Elat are the Israeli-style salads. The deli counter near the front window displays about 20 varieties, including many made with eggplant. The popular baba ghannouj is one, and there is eggplant sauteed with peppers and onions or finely minced with garlic-mayonnaise or chopped and cooked in a tomato sauce. Commercially packaged brands of similar salads, many of them very good, are found in the cooler across from the dried fruit section.

Pickle lovers will want to investigate the pickled vegetable mixtures and pickled shallots and pickled garlic cloves. The fresh herbs are definitely worth exploring. The big bushy bunches are well priced and include rarely found fresh fenugreek and summer savory.

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