The short explanation of why the International Institute of Buffalo happened to publish the first map of the city's ethnic groceries and restaurants goes like this: Erin St. John Kelly was hungry.
Kelly, a veteran writer and nonprofit media wrangler, moved from Brooklyn to Buffalo in 2010 with her husband, attorney Charles von Simson, and their two daughters. They had lived here in the 1990s while he clerked for a federal judge, and they thought Buffalo might offer a better quality of life. "People have lives there," was part of the discussion, she remembers. "They have yards. They have dogs."
What Buffalo didn't have was a reputation for interesting food, the sort of international flavors that Kelly had gotten hooked on during a childhood education at the United Nations International School, her adult travels and life in New York City. She's the kind of person who, upon arriving in a far-off land, goes to the supermarket.
"Wherever I go, I like to grocery shop," Kelly said. "Whether it's Hecho, Spain; Prague; La Paz; Lanai, Hawaii; or Cincinnatus, New York. I want to see what's being sold, how it's being sold, and what the people have in their carts. It's how I get a feel for a place and its people. I want to see what the local specialties are, and I want to try them."
This summer, in Spain, she got to try ham made from pigs fed only acorns. "I've had German-brewed beer in Bolivia, tuna poke in Hawaii, cinnamon buns made by the Amish in Central New York," she said. "So when we moved to Buffalo it was the same. I am getting to know the city by grocery shopping and eating."
After arriving in Buffalo, Kelly struck out in her new town, searching for the things she needed – Italian capers packed in salt, Asian fish sauce, and the like. When she saw a banner for the International Institute's Buffalo Meets Burma event, her initial reaction was: "The Burmese are here? I want to eat their food."
She went to eat, and ended up volunteering to help the refugee agency with media. Later, Institute director Eva Hassett was looking for someone to create a list to connect shoppers and diners with Buffalo's growing roster of restaurants and markets. Why not a map? said Kelly.
She's had plenty of editorial experience, as a New York Times news assistant and freelance writer. She also has an eye for detail; as an editor, Kelly's projects included the James Beard Award-winning cookbook "Saveur Cooks Authentic American."
Plus, she's nuts about food.
As it turns out, someone motivated enough to drive all over town looking for obscure ingredients is a fine candidate to make "a map for adventurous eaters," as it's labeled. "I was particularly interested in seeing what Buffalo had, because I had new eyes for it," Kelly said. "And it was like, ‘Wow, they have Burmese, and if you dig deep – Bhutanese? Who's got those communities?' It's surprising, and it's great."
The map, a glossy, four-color number, is available at the International Institute, 864 Delaware Ave.
About 4,000 copies were printed, with help from graphic designer Laura Kirkpatrick and Caboodle Printing. It premiered at the Institute's Buffalo Without Borders event in October. On the front is a map grid listing 29 restaurants and 24 stores, some of which sell ready-to-eat food.
For example, a map inset spotlights the new ethnic mix along the West Side's Grant Street, serving the new communities growing in the vicinity.
There, an eight-block area includes Peruvian and Burmese prepared food (West Side Bazaar and Global Village, 25 Grant St.), Jamaican food (Mango'z, 577 Forest Ave.) and Puerto Rican baked goods (Puerto Rico Bakery, 215 Forest Ave.), halal meat (Hatimy Market, 278 Grant St., Jubba Halal Food & Tailor, 215 Forest Ave.), groceries for Burmese (Niagara Sun Asian Market, 931 Niagara St., Golden Burma, 92 Grant St., Lin Asian Market, 113 Grant St.), Asian (Niagara Sun, Lin), Nepalese and Bhutanese (Sagarmatha, 489 Grant St.).
That doesn't even include the Italian groceries and much more at Guercio & Sons (250 Grant St.).
Drivers can get directions from the map, but flip it over for the data: addresses, phone numbers and websites for the Internet-capable.
The phone number is key for food hunters. That's because most of these smaller places are run by a family or even one person, so they may close without notice. Or they might have run out of what you're looking for, since most don't have space for a huge inventory. So a phone call is always a good idea before climbing into your car and heading to an unfamiliar store or restaurant, unless you are impervious to disappointment.
"There are so many people in Buffalo who are completely unaware, but could be going to these places," Kelly said. "[Immigrants] don't have to be just cooking for each other."
Here are some highlights of her finds:
Lebanese pussy willow water (sometimes used as flavoring in baklava), mint water and orange blossom water, Iraqi date vinegar, at Newroz (1177 Hertel Ave.); blue corn flour, chickpea flour at Guercio & Sons; pastillos and tres leches cake at Puerto Rico Bakery; banh mi Vietnamese sandwiches at Niagara Seafood (837 Niagara St.); timur, a Nepali spice, from Golden Burma; miser wat, red lentil stew, at Gatur's Ethiopian Cuisine (69 Allen St.); kya zan jyaw, or stir-fried bean noodles, and black "forbidden" rice sushi at Sun Burmese restaurant (1989 Niagara St.).
Plus Lebanese black olives and feta cheese (Family Mart, 1146 Hertel Ave.), Tunisian Harissa spice paste, Thai kaffir lime leaves, Korean dried seaweed snacks, and that's not the end of it.
So the good news for the adventurous eaters, cooks and ingredient hunters of Buffalo is: there's finally a map. The bad news: As soon as it was printed, it was outdated, as the course of human events began to erode its accuracy.
Places close and others open. B. Ferrante, an Italian bakery on Grant Street, and Shawarma Express, which sold Middle Eastern food, closed after the map was final, Kelly said.
That's why Kelly is calling the map "Version 1.0" – techspeak for a first release that's expected to be followed by an update. The map shouldn't be limited to paper and ink, but should live on the Internet, Kelly said. She is looking for technically savvy assistance in making it so.
"I'd be so great to make it an updatable online form. That's one of the goals for it," she said. "I'd love 2.0 to be a wiki or an app." A wiki is an online page that many can add to; a shopper could add a photo of a Bhutanese ingredient and ask how it's used, for example, or post news of a new grocery.
An app would be an even more powerful tool for shoppers. A piece of software for smartphones, it could combine the interactivity of a wiki plus precise mapping and other uses.
Online, the map wouldn't be limited by the size of a piece of paper. "I would also like the borders to expand," Kelly said. "I made this thing in a month, and I had to stop at Kenmore [Avenue]. I had to draw the line somewhere."
To Kelly, it's worth the effort. "My world expanded here. I have no rut, it's all new," she said. "I found my first Burmese food, and indeed the first Burmese people I've ever met."
This fall, after a day of driving around Buffalo eating and shopping – or as Kelly calls it, research – she picked up her daughter and friends from school. In the back seat, the teenagers cracked open a box of chocolate-filled Chinese cookies shaped like panda bears that Kelly had bought at An Chau Asian Market (3306 Bailey Ave.).
Have you been to China? one asked.
"Not today," Kelly said. "I was on Bailey Avenue."
Join in: Have a new place, correction or help for the Map for Adventurous Eaters? Post to the Institute's Facebook page, at facebook.com/iibuff, or send to Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org.