Tucson Citizen, AZ 06-21-06 Tucson's palate for ethnic cuisine By C.J. KARAMARGIN Whether a conversation like that has ever taken place in Tucson can't be confirmed. But the thing is, it wouldn't be surprising if it did. All the food mentioned by our imaginary couple really exists. And all of it was spotted recently on the shelves of those very real, but probably little-known homegrown specialty markets. Needless to say, we're not talking conventional grocery stores here. The 17th Street Market and Roma Imports of America are among Tucson's diverse collection of ethnic food emporiums - the places you go to when you want to travel around the world without ever leaving home. Granted, shopping for ready-to-eat curries at a tiny shop such as India Dukaan on North Campbell Avenue is a far cry from what you see in the exotic Travel Channel adventures of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. But India Dukaan owner Sukanya Bhat is filling a basic need. "There was a big demand for Indian food in Tucson," she says of opening the shop about 18 months ago. And it's not just Indian food. A study last year by Iowa State University found the ethnic-food market in the United States racks up about $75 billion in sales annually. That's the equivalent of $1 out of every $7 spent on groceries. Of course, ethnic food is a lot like beauty. It's in the eye of the beholder. An enchilada might be a rare treat in, say, rural Vermont. Not here. Still, ethnic-market owners in Tucson say the local trend is being driven by a combination of factors. Among them: new residents from bigger cities or other countries, the regular influx of international students at the University of Arizona, and curiosity heightened by - don't laugh - the Food Network. "Every day, people come in saying they want something they've seen on (shows by) Rachel Ray or Emeril," says Roma Imports owner Lilian Spieth. Despite its somewhat hard-to-get-to location, Roma Imports has grown tremendously in the 6 1/2 years Spieth and her husband, Volker, have owned it. "Our customers do a great PR job for us," she says. Amir Karimi has also experienced a surge in customers at Jasmine's Market, his eight-month-old North Campbell Avenue store specializing in Middle Eastern food. "A lot of people just like to taste different things," he says, and Tucson is good place to do just that. Honey, we're out of salted seaweed knots, so I'm gonna run down to the 17th Street Market. Do you need anything? Yeah. Pick up a package of dried squid and grab a pound of pork belly for dinner tomorrow. And get me a few cans of that coconut soda I like. OK, I'll be right back. No, wait. Since you're headed in that direction maybe you could swing by Roma Imports. Get a half pound of the feta cheese marinated in chili oil and some olives - the green ones stuffed with gorgonzola. Oh, and some of their vanilla biscotti. We're out of that, too.