Making Change: Eating Ethnic in Cleveland

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Forget the stereotypes of Chinese food: no egg-fu-young or sweet and sour anything. Instead, think eggplant in spicy garlic sauce or honey-walnut beef. Those are some of the specialties Annie Chiu offers at the Sun Luck Garden in University Heights.

There are some old standards on the menu for the less adventurous types, but Chiu says the daily specials are what make owning her own restaurant so much fun; which was not something she would have pictured herself saying 30 years when she came to the U.S. to pursue a degree in library sciences.

Annie Chiu: I'm kind of solely responsible for the place. So if people want to call and complain, they should talk to me. OK.

Not that many people do complain. Chiu's customers often become regulars, so much so that she'll call her devoted fan-base to alert them when she prepares particularly popular dishes. Sun Luck Garden's reputation for inventive dishes and gourmet desserts is mostly the result of word-of mouth, Chiu says. She says even though she has good employees, there are always times when she has to roll up her sleeves and do the work.

Annie Chiu: I have several occasions... I have to do from serving to busing to washing dishes and cooking. I can laugh about it now, but when I was working, it's not funny. It's very hard.

Despite the 18-hour days, Chiu says she wouldn't change a thing about her life. It's a fairly typical attitude of many immigrants who go into business for themselves, and even more so for those who open their own restaurant.

Laura Taxel: The ethnic restaurants, such a fascinating story.

Food writer Laura Taxel is author of the annual guidebook Cleveland Ethnic Eats.

Laura Taxel: People have a real passion for their food. They're very proud to be able to share their culture as it's expressed in the kitchen with the American pubic. They take tremendous personal pleasure in finding people like what they consider home cooking.

It's like a double-bonus for immigrant restaurateurs: they share their culture and are their own boss. Sanda Kaufman, professor of planning and public administration at Cleveland State University, is co-author of a study on immigration and urban development in the Cleveland area. She says in general, immigrants who come to the U.S. to escape adverse conditions at home tend to be more adventurous-types in the first place. Add to that other factors - like not knowing enough English to work for someone else or not being qualified by American standards to work in their trained profession - it then becomes logical that they would go into business for themselves.

Sanda Kaufman: I can't tell you that I'm not wise about it, I'm just thinking like an immigrant because I am one. And I'm thinking what do I know how to do that other people don't know how to do? And that might be food from my country or something that's specific to my country that is unlikely to be found here but that might be in demand.

And no one can tell them that they're doing it wrong. Kaufman says studies indicate that cities with large immigrant populations tend to have stronger economies. Although it's impossible to prove that immigration is the only reason for this, Kaufman says that the entrepreneurial spirit of many foreign-born residents does have an impact. Kaufman says Northeast Ohio could benefit from encouraging immigrants to settle here.

Sanda Kaufman: When an immigrant comes to the United States they may not have heard of Cleveland and they may not know that it's a nice place to live and it will be welcoming and so on. So just putting Cleveland on the immigrant's mental map will help. And then helping with small things that will not require major public investment but may just require public coordination of services.

And it is possible to win over immigrants. Prashant Patel chose Cleveland as his new home, even though his parents and siblings all settled in Michigan. Patel says once he discovered the city, the support of his community enabled him to open an Indian market in Parma Heights and then a restaurant, called Mughal, right next door.

Prashant Patel: The first thing is, our community they help us a lot. They help us a lot like at temple and other activities. If we want to open a business they will help us.

While the Indian community may have helped Patel and his co-owners start out, Americans are sustaining it: 80% of his clientele is American. He says Clevelanders are remarkably savvy about Indian food. Aside from some of the vegetables, he doesn't have to significantly alter the recipes to suit the American palate.

Prashant Patel: They know from the books, from the Internet. Internet makes life very easy for everybody. They know our culture better than us, yeah.

In discussing his plans for the future - which include opening an Indian mega-market - Patel mentions something that also explains the important role immigrants play in the economy. He says while he never finished high school, his children will be educated, and he wants them to work in the service and professional sectors. In Cleveland, Shula Neuman, 90.3.

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