Naureen Ahmad and Sandra Siller opted to name their store “Gee Mart” because the word “grocery” starts with the letter “G,” and groceries are what they sell, though not the kind you’d find at Lopez or H-E-B.
“G” also is the first letter in “gamble” — a word small entrepreneurs the world round are acquainted with, including the Brownsville business partners, who launched Gee Mart, an international food store, in February at 2045 E. Price Rd.
The store stuffed with exotic goods is located in the space formerly occupied by Spices & Grains, which went through three owners during the past few years before Ahmad and Siller took it over.
On a recent tour of Gee Mart, which carries an extensive inventory of food products from Southeast Asia plus offerings from Africa and the Middle East, Ahmad said casting off the old name was in keeping with a fresh business strategy aimed at getting people to try food that’s delicious but that they might not have been exposed to before.
While some of Gee Mart’s customers are foreign nationals looking for foods from their homelands unavailable elsewhere in the city, most are locals looking to break the routine or explore healthier eating options. Gee Mart even gets customers from Matamoros who come to stock up on certain items — Turkish coffee for instance.
“Our main motto is to bring cultures together, and we always advertise ‘embrace diversity,’” Ahmad said.
Starting with the basics, Gee Mart has rice for nearly every application. That includes basmati rice — short-grain, long-grain, extra-long-grain and “sela,” a very old type of basmati popular with Middle Eastern communities. Basmati is very aromatic compared to jasmine rice, which the store also carries, Ahmad said.
“If you make jasmine rice and a basmati, you will see the texture and the flavor is totally different,” she said. “Long grains are the ones that people prefer in restaurants and all that. They make biryani, a very popular dish that goes only with extra-long-grain rice.”
There are lentils: red and black, mung beans, plus multiple flour varieties such as multigrain and chickpea. There’s semolina, used for pasta and puddings, and buckwheat, a Russian staple eaten as a side dish in that country.
“A lot of people are getting into healthy food items, so we carry that, too,” Ahmad said.
There are packages of “pari puri,” a wildly popular snack in India and Pakistan resembling fried bread-balloons. They’re filled with boiled potatoes and chick peas and then dipped in a spicy sauce, Ahmad explained.
In the Middle Eastern section you’ll find grape leaves, stuffed grape leaves, beans, olives, hummus, baba ganoush (an eggplant-based dip) and falafel mix. On the sweet side are delicacies such as “Turkish delight” and baklava, an ancient, nutty dessert that has conquered palates around the world.
Besides bulk ingredients, a number of Gee Mart’s items are premixed combinations of spices for specific recipes. The store carries a full line of ready-made spice mixes from Shan Foods, a Pakistani company that exports to more than 65 countries across five continents.
“If someone wants to eat like a restaurant-style butter chicken, this has the spice ready, and all it needs is chicken,” Ahmad said. “You can easily make it at home.”
She also recommended Shan’s Chicken Tikka, a char-grilled barbecue recipe. All Shan’s mixes, many of which are fish, come with instructions. Also, Ahmad is more than happy to walk customers through recipes and said she’s elated when the reviews come back positive. Gee Mart also posts recipes on its Facebook page.
Ahmad noted that, although they contain spices, not all recipes are spicy and many are actually very mild.
In addition to heat-and-serve meals, the freezer section is home to pita bread, naan (regular and garlic, both from India), Middle Eastern-style vegetables, and goat, lamb, beef and chicken, all of it halal, which means prepared as prescribed by Muslim law. Green Valley Meat Distributors in Houston is the supplier.
The store’s non-edible wares include handmade jewelry and textiles from Ahmad’s home country of Pakistan, plus there’s a section featuring health and beauty items, including things like organic henna and Indian sandlewood soap. Gee Mart also carries a comprehensive collection of incense.
Ahmad and Siller have wrapped up the store’s “Tasting Tuesdays” but are seeking other ways to get their business and products in front of the public, perhaps through the Brownsville Farmers’ Market.
Although Siller, a registered nurse from Brownsville, and Ahmad, who moved to the Rio Grande Valley from Toronto a little more than one year ago, both lack business experience, they’re united by a “passion for bringing cultures together” and are determined to make a go of it, Siller said.
“It’ll take a little time, but we’re not going to give up,” Ahmad said. “If they’re going to eat it, they’re going to love it.”