Sunday’s second Berkeley International Food Festival Sunday will celebrate the story of how a West Berkeley neighborhood overcame ethnic, racial and economic boundaries through food.
Faiza Ayyad, Shahid Salimi, Luis Arango and Jesus Mendes all came to West Berkeley in the 1980s and set up food shops there in search of a better life. Theirs is a story of survival; one of pride, but not prejudice. And it will be shared with festival goers on Sunday.
“West Berkeley is an undiscovered and underappreciated gem,” said Sally Douglas Arce, event coordinator. “It has been called the International Marketplace District and has banners touting this designation. Yet, many of us drive through to other Berkeley destinations, seldom, if ever, stopping to appreciate the wonderful specialty stores and restaurants.”
“It would definitely help if we got more foot traffic,” said Faiza’s son, Ramzy, who manages Halal Foods on San Pablo Ave. with his mother and two brothers, Sammy and Amir. “Some more housing would also bring in a diverse crowd. If you look around, it’s really just businesses down here.”
Long known for its smokestack industries, West Berkeley has gradually transformed into a gateway for new immigrants as more and more foreigners have begun to settle here.
Faiza, who is half Palestinian and half Moroccan, came to Berkeley from Palestine to join her husband 27 years ago. “I was 18 when I came here,” she said. “I didn’t like the idea of selling beer and wine. So we set up a halal meat shop.”
Today Halal Foods claims to sell the best lamb sausages in town. Spices, perfumes and dates from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Turkey, Syria and Palestine neatly line its shelves.
During the festival Faiza will be handing out homemade falafel and setting up a barbecue pit outside the door. She also promises Middle Eastern music.
It was the late Esther Bernal, former boardmember of the West Berkeley Development Corporation (WBNDC), who came up with the idea of an international food festival.
“Esther grew up in Mexico, where there were a lot of open mercados or markets,” said Bruce Williams, chair of WBNDC. “That’s where we got the concept of an open-air market. The festival strives to spread the word about the uniqueness of this West Berkeley neighborhood with many of its stores being family owned and operated.”
Next door to Halal, Shahid Salimi of Indus Foods is busy inspecting the range-free certified meat that his store is so famous for. A graduate of UC Berkeley, Salimi took over his dad’s business.
“When we came down from Pakistan, in 1984, it was hard to get goat meat,” he said. “This prompted my dad to set up a small butcher store at the bottom of the UC Hotel at University Ave. I grew up taking the fat off the halal chicken, goat and lamb meat.”
Salimi said that business in the West Berkeley neighborhood has improved since 1985.
“Lots of prostitution and drug dealing. It was a no-good area,” he said. “Now the biggest problem is parking. Eighty percent of our clients come from outside Berkeley and they can’t find a place to park. The city also needs to give a tax break to people who are working hard to bring in profit to the city. They need to stop haggling with you for permits.”
Lynn Berling-Manuel, president of the West Berkeley Foundation, the sponsor of the festival, said that parking was an challenge in every community.
“The festival will give us an opportunity to spotlight the different needs of this neighborhood. We want to encourage people to shop there,” she said.
The West Berkeley Foundation, which works with at-risk youth and women in the neighborhood, has so far given out $1.3 million in grants to nonprofit organizations that serve West Berkeley children, seniors and disabled families.
Michael Caplan, Berkeley’s economic development director, said, “The city came up with a San Pablo Public Improvement Plan that envisions better crosswalks and lights in the district. The MTC and AC Transit are also working to upgrade the Rapid Bus Transit system on San Pablo Ave. There is a budget and funds for it. I just don’t know why it’s taking so long to implement.”
Luis Arango, owner of the brand new Shaan’s Deli at San Pablo, wants better lights and better crosswalks. He also wants the city to take care of the paper and the garbage bags flying around.
Arango, who came to California from Calexico 16 years ago, is busy practicing his grilling skills for Sunday. “I want to clear the misconception people have about Mexican food. We don’t even have burritos in Mexico. It’s an American thing.”
Chef Mike C will be on the Kitchens of Fire cooking stage Sunday to clear up confusion about different cuisines. Samosas from India top his list.
“This festival is absolutely necessary for the area,” he said while picking up organic cheese and peppers from Mi Tierra Foods on Wednesday. “California is full of people like Jesus, who worked hard to establish Mi Tierra. They bring so much cultural diversity to a place. I will be using a lot of ingredients from this store, simply because the nicer specialty chains don’t carry even half of them.”
Berkeley International Food Festival
June 24 from noon to 5 p.m.
Several blocks in each direction from the intersection of University and San Pablo Avenues
• The Kitchen on Fire cooking stage
• Mi Tierra Foods' Kiosko (San Pablo and Addison) with Aztec dancers, Ballet Folklorico and live music (salsa and cumbia)
• Karma Korner (Ninth and University) with Indian food, belly dancing, Indian films, cardamom ice cream
• The Spanish Table (San Pablo between Hearst and Delaware) with paella demonstrations and samples all day