The Samway market in the middle of White Center began its life as a produce tent five years ago, and although it has grown threefold in size, it is still an informal enterprise.
The store is unheated, lit by long fluorescent tubes, electrical conduit exposed. The narrow maze of aisles does not accommodate grocery carts, which the store does not have anyway. Signs, spare in number, are written out by hand. Goods are often displayed in the boxes they were transported in. At the fish counter, a clear plastic bag is hung by a string to ward off flies, a Cambodian tradition that, whether science of superstition, appears to work.
Samway, owned by the Yim family (husband Sam, wife Savoun, and their son Billy) from Cambodia, stocks the kind of groceries eaten by the many immigrants who live in this neighborhood, Somalis, Vietnamese, Mexicans, Thai, El Salvadorans. Billy claims to be able to greet them all in their native language, or at least he makes it “sound like I can speak the language,” he said from his post behind the counter.
A trip to Samway is a trip to much of the Third World: leafy herbs, strange-colored fruit, Mexican white cheeses, snails, insect larvae, frogs legs, duck heads, quail, ferns, and all the parts of the pig rarely seen in American supermarkets like the ears, tongues, feet, and even pig blood.
While eating local is a commendable habit, it is an impractical challenge at Samway, whose exotic fruits, canned goods and frozen seafood are imported from Asia and Central America. Although many items can be procured from the region — the corn tortillas are made in Kent and Salem, Ore.; the prized matsutake mushrooms came from the forests of northern California and are a steal at $3.99 a pound — items like durian, sugar cane, banana leaves, and cassava will never be local products in the Pacific Northwest.
One of the most popular purchases made at Samway is coconut juice, which one of every four customers buy, said Billy Yim. The coconut is a staple of the equatorial region of the world, plentiful, and coveted not just for its juice but also for its flesh. Local restaurants buy cans of juice ($1 each) by the case; the store stocks several varieties. Samway also sells fresh coconuts ($1.69) imported from Thailand, the husks removed. Coconut juice, sweet and nutty in flavor, is as common in Asia as Pepsi and ice tea are in the West.
Coconut juice’s hydrating, nutritional, and restorative qualities are well known to people who live in the tropics, and recently have gotten the attention of Americans. In the last year or so, coconut juice made the leap from the shelves of ethnic groceries to those of upscale supermarkets like Whole Foods and the Fairway chain in New York City, where cartons of it are stacked head high.
The Fremont PCC store stocks five varieties in sexy looking cans ranging in price from $1.89 for a 12-ounce can to $5.19 for a one-liter carton, with brand names like Nature Factor, Harvest Bay, Amy & Brian, and Naked. The Roosevelt Whole Foods stocks even more varieties, including flavored coconut juice (lime, berry, and pomegranate), and, in true American fashion, even more brands like Nirvana, Zico, C2O, Real, and O.N.E. (One Natural Experience). Its best deal is a six-pack of Amy & Brian for $7.99. Melissa’s, the online retailer of gourmet produce, sells a three-pack of fresh coconuts for $25.30. Almost all the coconut juice sold in America seems to come from Thailand, less from Brazil.
The juice has been marketed as nature’s Gatorade, a more wholesome alternative to sports drinks, full of electrolytes and potassium but with far less sugar than traditional fruit juices like apple, grape, and orange. Almost all the cans have the word “isotonic” on them, an appeal to the nutrition enthusiasts who are largely behind the juice’s rise in popularity in the U.S.
The virtues of coconut juice appeal to a wide variety of affluent Americans: runners, bikers, practitioners of Bikram yoga, nutritionists, naturopaths, even college kids nursing hangovers. Juice distributors have hailed their products as remedies for a night of excessive drinking as well as the flu, repeating the widely-circulated story of World War II medics using coconut juice as a substitute for blood plasma during battlefield transfusions.
The PCC store sometimes has trouble keeping coconut juice fully in stock, one of its clerks said. To get four cases, it orders 10. The workers at the store swear by the stuff, crediting it with nearly medicinal properties.
After decades as a Third World commodity, coconuts seem to be finally becoming a First World luxury.
Coconuts, which are fruits not nuts, thrive in the salt air and humidity of the tropics. Coconut palm trees grow like weeds, sprouting in the sand. Their fruit is considered community property along the shores where they grow.
Young coconuts that are 6 to 9 months old are green in color, their husks still relatively soft. The hard seed contains tender milky flesh and plenty of juice. Allowed to age, coconuts lose their juice; their husks turn brown and fibrous and the flesh hardens.
The fresh coconuts sold at Samway are young coconuts, their green husks mostly removed. (Whole Foods sells them too, but for an extra $1.30, at $2.99.) Opening them requires a heavy meat cleaver or at least a large chef’s knife. The hard seed can be punctured and eventually cracked open after repeated strikes and careful prying. Samway orders plenty and has yet to run out.
The brands of coconut juice Samway stocks have names like Chaokoh, Foco, and El Mexicano, a Mexican brand canned in Thailand. The word “isotonic” is noticeably missing from these cans. You can buy plain coconut juice, juice with pulp or juice with tapioca jelly. Billy Yim’s favorite is roasted coconut juice; it has a slightly deeper, toasted flavor.
While his parents were born in Cambodia, Billy Yim was born and raised in Shreveport, La., and speaks with the drawl of that region. He is the store’s cashier, greeter, and ringleader, answering questions from behind the counter, flirting with the grandmothers, making the kids laugh.
“Hey baby how is it going,” Yim begins a typical exchange.
“Now that I see you, it’s wonderful,” the customer answers.
The checkout line is a constant conversation, the likes of which speak to a different time and place. That is what Samway is, a point of departure in this city, where coconuts are common and prices are substantially lower and still a relative secret. Tri-athletes and yoga instructors have not yet discovered the place, it seems.
“I love coconut juice,” Yim said. “I think people like to drink it because it makes them feel like they’re on a tropical island.”
If you go: Samway market, corner of SW 98th Street Street and 15th Avenue SW in White Center (9831 15th Ave. SW). Open daily 7 a.m.-10 p.m.
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