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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 19.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Kien Ma
Park St. market covers the world in 80 shelves
on
Kien Ma
Kien Ma
Credit:Susan Kepecs

Occupation: Owner
Where: Yue-Wah Oriental Foods, 2328 S. Park St.
Why you should go:
It's a culinary trip. Ma has whole aisles dedicated to the world's foods. There's a huge section of prepared Mexican moles, another with Punjabi pickles and 40 kinds of ready-to-eat curry, a wall of Asian candies and cookies, and much more.

What does Yue-Wah mean?

Nothing much, to me, anyway! The name came with the store. The previous owner didn't do well. But when we bought it 23 years ago, we kept the name ' no need to do all that legal paperwork.

How's your business changed over the years?

It was just a little corner with Thai and Chinese groceries when we started. I was born in Vietnam, but my family's from China, so this was a perfect business for me. I came to Madison to study metallurgical engineering, but when I graduated, I decided I wanted to stay put. This place looked interesting, and it was for sale. After my wife and I bought it we started adding on ' Indian and Pakistani, then Mexican, Filipino, African, Caribbean, Japanese, Middle Eastern.

We try to carry a full line ' lots of choices for each section. The foreign food market's grown a lot. These days everything's exported, as long as it's legal. And imports are getting much cheaper. When I was a student I used to get rice-paper spring roll skins for eight dollars a pound, and they were terrible quality. Now I sell good ones for 99 cents a pound.

What's the weirdest item in your inventory?

Depends on how you look at it. The foods in the Hispanic aisle don't seem exotic to Americans because you're used to them. But what seems normal to me looks strange to you. In Asia, nothing goes to waste. From Thailand we carry ant eggs and an insect that looks like a giant cockroach. It lives on cinnamon trees, so it's very fragrant.

Yes, we carry shark fins. Americans get upset ' they think all the sharks are being killed for their fins. But what you call "shark fins" really come from any big fish. The thread-like fibers inside the fins are crunchy and delicious.

Tell me about your customers.

They come from all over the state, and also from Iowa, Minneapolis, even Chicago. The Chicagoans say it's worth the trip because it's one-stop shopping ' you don't have to go from one little ethnic store to the next. You don't get stuck in traffic, and our prices are competitive.

We have customers for all our lines, and a lot of our regulars are Americans. There's an American woman who loves durian, the famous stinky fruit from Southeast Asia. She comes in for it whenever she's depressed. Another American lady adores it, but her husband can't stand it, so she has to eat it on her back porch.

What's your favorite cuisine to cook at home?

I'm a lousy cook, but I make simple, fast Asian. I'm used to it. Indian food's too spicy for me, and I don't crave Mexican. But my son, who's 22, grew up in this store. He loves all kinds of food.

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