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In Everett, a bit of the Balkans

Family-run market anchors immigrant community

Edin and Elma Custovic at Elma, which carries 1,500 products from Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, and other European countries including traditional breads, cream spreads, and sausages. Edin and Elma Custovic at Elma, which carries 1,500 products from Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, and other European countries including traditional breads, cream spreads, and sausages. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Omar Sacirbey
Globe Correspondent / August 31, 2011

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EVERETT - Edin Custovic knows his customers. An Albanian woman puts a long cured sausage into her shopping basket. “Do you eat pork?’’ he asks in Bosnian. “Ne jedem,’’ she replies (“I don’t eat it’’). That is a pork sausage, the proprietor tells her. She exchanges it for beef, keeping with her Islamic dietary customs.

Custovic (pronounced choos-toe-vich) owns Elma Food Market, a family-run store with some 1,500 products from Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, and other European countries. Elma has become an anchor in a community of ex-Yugoslav immigrants, many of whom came here as refugees during the violent dissolution of their country in the 1990s.

“This store means a lot for us,’’ says Hafiz Kabashi of Lynn, a native of Kosovo. He was in Elma recently buying Vinobran and Konzervans, a pair of preservative powders used for pickling vegetables, a south Slavic practice. The shop, he says, “has everything from our tradition.’’

Custovic, 41, comes from Dubrovnik, Croatia, on the Adriatic Sea coast. His wife, Elma, 36, is from Srebrenica, where her parents owned a small grocery named for her, in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina. The store closed soon after the Bosnian War began in 1992, and she and her parents went to Berlin as refugees. That’s where she met Edin, in 1996. Four years later, they came to Chelsea, and Custovic worked in construction while Elma stayed home to care for two children, now 19 and 11. They saved enough money to open Elma on New Year’s Day in 2005.

The store is plain and clean, the shelves full of products that captivate foodies and Slavophiles alike. When he and his wife were growing up, says Custovic, “We fed ourselves with these things. These are things from our land, so we know what does well.’’

The country most represented is Bosnia, whose products include a famed mineral water from the central Bosnian village of Kiseljak; jufka, a thin dough; tarhana, a grain from Sarajevo used in soups; vanilla wafers from the south Bosnian village of Capljina; and diverse teas from the country’s revered mountains. For the Islamic holiday of Eid Al-Adha today, celebrated by Bosnia’s Muslims, Custovic was expecting shipments of baklava, tulumba, and other syrupy sweets.

From Croatia and Slovenia are ajvar, a red-pepper and eggplant spread, sardine and mackerel tins, soup mixes, diverse chocolates and cookies, jams made with figs, plums, and rose hips, and Vegeta. A condiment invented in 1959 by a Bosnian Croat food scientist, Vegeta is a mixture of dried carrot, celery, onion, and parsnip, and is exported to more than 40 countries. Chocolates come from Germany, Italy, and Poland, and sausages from Hungary and Serbia.

But the main draws are two staples: meat and coffee.

The best known dish is cevapi (che-va-pee), succulent sausage that is Bosnia’s national dish, though versions are made elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Elma carries six or seven frozen varieties, some produced in Sarajevo, the epicenter of the cevapi universe, and others made by Bosnian immigrants in the United States, such as Brother and Sister brand in Harrisburg, Pa. A 32-link package from Brother and Sister, weighing just under 1 1/2 pounds, costs $10. This time of year, says Custovic, he sells about 1,000 pounds a month.

Typically cevapi are served with a side of chopped raw onion, and somun, a triple-baked round bread thicker and chewier than pita. Somun, made in Sarajevo by Klas, one of the biggest food producers in Bosnia, is hard to come by. Custovic gets three or four shipments per year, containing several hundred 2 1/2-pound packages (five breads in each), which he freezes.

In the cooler months, Bosnians switch to dried beef and smoked sausage, delicacies that Custovic imports from Visoko, a village north of Sarajevo. The meat is sliced thinly and served with bread, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and occasionally feta cheese, preferably from Travnik, a mountainous city west of Sarajevo famous for cheese.

As for coffee, which Bosnians, like many Europeans, drink late into the evening, the best seller is Zlatna Dzezva, or Golden Coffee Pot, also made in Visoko (a 2.2-pound bag costs $12). Along with imported coffees, Elma sells Minas Kava brand made by Bosnian immigrants in St. Louis, which has one of the country’s biggest Bosnian communities.

Bosnians like their coffee sweet. Not only do they add sugar, but they also enjoy dipping especially large sugar cubes into the hot liquid and sucking on them. To that end, you can find two kinds of cubes from Bosnia, the more popular being the extra-large Dedo Kucka.

The Custovics also serve as a community hub to help new immigrants, who go to Elma looking for tips about work. When someone dies, people leave donations with the couple, who get them to the bereaved family.

“You help however you can,’’ says Edin Custovic.

Elma Food Market, 44 Ferry St., Everett, 617-387-5237. Open daily except Wednesday.

Omar Sacirbey can be reached at osacirbey@hotmail.com.