Amis Boussad, the Algerian owner of Chez Amis, a Mediterranean/Oriental specialty-food shop, has a vision––one that would bring to central Prague a thriving multicultural district ala Chinatown in New York, of which his planned new store would be the center. “There’s nothing like that in Prague,” he told us on a recent visit. “And why not? It’s not only Czechs here. We’ll eventually move to a bigger space where we can offer things like a butcher and maybe someday events and cooking classes.” Until the time his plans for an “exotic supermarket” get underway, Boussad continues stocking the shelves of his Spálená Street store with such a variety of hard-to-find specialty items, you’ll think you’d died and gone to Mott Street.
Opened since 2003, it was initially a challenge for Boussad, who came to the Czech Republic in 1994 and settled here with his Czech wife, to keep Chez Amis afloat. On our recent visit a regular customer volunteered her thoughts: “It wasn’t easy for him in the beginning, people weren’t welcoming to him as a foreigner. But he’s a genius, with such an open heart.” She named a couple of her favorite Chez Amis buys: “I get the black sesame oil from Saudi Arabia and almond juice here.” (Black sesame oil, says Boussad, is not to be cooked with; rather it’s for nourishing the skin or as a restorative when taken in small doses.)
Boussad agrees that in the beginning business was slow. “It was difficult because of our location. There wasn’t a lot of foot traffic.” His approach, however, was to speak directly to his homesick clientele’s nostalgia for food from their own country. “You know the Czech saying – láska prochází žaludkem, or love comes through the tummy – I talked to customers personally, tried to offer things according to people’s taste and it began to get better.”
It hasn’t hurt that Prague has grown and changed right along with his business, he says. “Gastronomy has come to Prague. Before, people couldn’t afford so much. The quality of life is better now, you can find just about everything here.” Along with Tunisian drinks you’ll also find black carrot juice and Ayran, a frothy and salty Turkish yogurt drink, in the cooler. The tea selection lining the upper shelves is overwhelming and includes South American yerba mate. You can also pick up a sheet of apricot paste for making a hot fruit drink that’s popular during Ramadan.
Engaging his customers comes naturally to Boussad, whose enthusiasm for introducing people to new things fills up his two-room shop. Even as we sat chatting at Chez Amis’s little bar with its view onto the street, Boussad regularly got up to meet with clientele and offer his assistance. “I’m always willing to make recommendations or give advice on how to cook something,” he says. “Czech customers especially were intimidated in the early days, but then they would see others come in and traffic started to multiply.” As we spoke a customer came in for a can of Tunisian soda. “He’s a regular; you can’t get this drink anywhere else in Prague,” said Boussad after the man left. Adding to Boussad’s appeal as friendly local proprietor is the fact that he speaks Czech, French, and English. He also encourages visitors to sample, and on our visit extended a platter of sweet dates.
From suppliers in France, Germany, and beyond, Boussad’s wares include Arab, Turkish and Indian food stuffs as well as Greek and French goods. The most popular sellers? “Red lentils, rice, tahini for making hummus, spices, and pistachio halva,” he says. Indeed the bulk sacks of basmati rice (60 CZK/1 kg) and red lentils (59 CZK/900 g) go for a nice price and the lentils in particular make for an easy, quick-cooking dinner or side dish. Boussad says that when people aren’t sure what to buy he recommends a harissa, a Tunisian hot chili paste used in North African cuisine that adds fire to noodle dishes, scrambled eggs, soups, pizzas, and can even be mixed with a little white yogurt and used as a marinade. Chez Amis sells a numerous varieties of the potent sauce including Le Phare Du Cap Bon in a tube from Tunisia. He also recommends (as do we!) a slice of the delicious house baklava.
The spice section is worth a mention; a variety of unique spice blends as well as curry leaves, curry grains, black cardamom, and all manner of nuts and seeds including black onion seeds are available.
One spice that particularly stood out for its deep purple-red color was sumac, widely used in Lebanese cuisine to rub on kebabs before grilling and also to flavor yogurt. Aside from bulk bags of rice and lentils, you’ll also find polenta and a wide selection of couscous, including wholegrain couscous, and Arabian beans.
Bottled curry sauces and cans of artichoke hearts and hearts of palm add variety as do the health and beauty aids—the boxes of henna dye in the glass case near the hot table are a steal at 60 CZK, and the jasmine-scented hair oil is a fragrant find.
Groceries are only half of the draw at Chez Amis, which serves hot meals and operates a take-away counter. There’s a fixed menu with Middle Eastern standards like falafel, gyros, and samosas bolstered by specials every 2–3 days. “I don’t focus on just one kind of cuisine. I cook mainly things I like. If I see a Moroccan recipe I borrow it. If I see a recipe from Syria I take it.” At the time of our visit some crispy orange fritters, glistening with syrup, beckoned. Prepared especially by Boussad for Ramadan they were zalabia, deep-fried dough soaked in orange- and rose-water and finished off with sugar and cinnamon.
We also enjoyed a vegetarian sampler platter (79 CZK), piled high with tabbouleh, dolmades, and hummus, and a pot of tea in the shop’s two-table dining area. The food was incredibly fresh and flavorful, especially the hummus which had a nice tang and smooth texture that seems to elude me when I prepare it at home. When I asked Boussad for his secret he happily obliged: “You have to cook the chickpeas a long time. Don’t be stingy with the tahini paste. And mix it by hand, it’s the best way.”
Boussad’s approach to business is like his hummus – no room for shortcuts. Little by little and with great patience his efforts have yielded results. When asked if the store is a success today, he joked, “I’m still open, to me that means I’ve been successful.”
Spálená 15 110 00 Praha 1
Photos by Daniel Zahradníček
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