Get to know your food suppliers

00:20, Aug 18 2011

Directly over the road from my work, (at Slow Boat Records in Cuba Street), is a place that I would describe as an institution, if that didn't sound like a bland, colourless, lifeless place, which it most certainly is not.

Cuba Fruit Mart has been selling the best fresh produce in that same spot in Wellington for about 40 years. Brother and sister duo Sanjay and Joshna Dayal are proper Cuba Street royalty - the third generation of their family to run the store. They are characters who define the neighbourhood, who know all the neighbourhood goss (you obviously see all sorts of things when you are out and about at 4.30am), who supply a great number of the capital's finest restaurants and cafes, and who, in the process of getting to know them, have significantly changed and improved the way that I eat. Chances are, if you have enjoyed food at Logan Brown, Floriditas, Capital, or Fidels, you have eaten some of Cuba Fruit's produce.

When I first came to Wellington, a decade ago, we did all our food shopping at the supermarket, like most people do, I guess. It's convenient, for sure - a massive range of every type of product imaginable, at discounted prices. I used to get the odd bit of fruit or things we'd run out of from Cuba Fruit, and then, when we decided to buy all our fruit and veg from them, I carried over the weekly shopping habit, to Sanjay's disgust - "why don't you just buy what you need for tonight - you only work over the road, you can come in every day!" he would say to me.

So that's what I started to do. I could buy exactly what I wanted to cook that night, and I could make up my mind during the day. It makes for significantly less waste; I can get just a handful of herbs or a single red chili, I can ask what's good and bad, and what's cheap (at the moment, pumpkin and kumara) and expensive (tomatoes, capsicums), and what's coming up on the seasonal calendar, and everything we eat is just that much fresher. I can keep stocked up with kitchen basics that I panic if I run out of like garlic, lemons, onions, potatoes. If I need any special ingredients - cheap berries to make jam, or cheffy, pretentious things like blood oranges, pomegranates, or pea tendrils - I can ask Sanjay and he'll get them from the market for me next day.

I think it is really important to deal directly, if you can, with the people who your dollar goes to; to develop a relationship with your food suppliers, so they can get to know what you like (and introduce you to new things!), and to support local businesses. It is usually worth paying a little more (though Cuba Fruit compared favourably to supermarket prices in a recent survey) to have expert advice and a bigger and better range of choices. They... know things. And if you are confused about anything, just ask them.

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So who are your "local" food faves - people or stores that have shaped the way you eat, and the way you think about food?

Picture of Sanjay Dayal by Kent Blechynden/The Dominion Post

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