There’s a particular genre of food writing that I just love, that always gets me right in the feels: Odes to grocery stores. But not just regular, American-style supermarkets, with glaring lights, wide aisles and wild shoppers. Definitely not places Whole Foods, or Fairway, or Wegman’s, or even the Jewel-Oscos or Associateds of the world. I’m talking about international stores, once dubbed “ethnic,” a word which has since (thankfully) fallen out of favor.
Whether they’re a one-off mom-and-pop shop in a suburban strip mall, or they’re part of a larger chain — H-Mart, Seafood City, Patel Brothers — the presence of an international-focused supermarket in a community tells me so much about a place. Who lives there, what kind of food nourishes that community, the families and lives of a region, even how time and place have shaped that city or town’s economies.
On Saturdays, my family went to 99 Ranch Market in City of Industry, or Greenhills in Diamond Bar — both about 45 and 30 minutes, respectively, from our home in Orange County. 99 Ranch is this giant box of a building, with mini-shops just outside the main store; you’d find jewelry, knick-knacks, mani-pedis. At the back, once you pass by these smaller shoe-box type places, you’d enter the grocery, laid out with narrow-but-high shelves of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Filipino goods. It’s where my mom felt most comfortable — when I read my friend Khushbu Shah’s essay about her mom’s love for Patel Brothers, I instantly recognized my own mother’s reaction to being in a store that served her needs. From the fish mongers knowing exactly how she wanted her cuts prepared, to the giant bags of my mom’s favorite kind of white rice, 99 Ranch let her return however momentarily to her Filipino roots.
That’s the power of stores serving immigrant communities: Their customers feel seen, heard, accepted. While the outside world feels strange and alienating, especially during these heightened political times, these grocery stores are a bastion for their shoppers, a place to get a taste of home.
I was recently in Columbus, Ohio, and I was exposed to this idea almost immediately after my flight. I was there on a press trip, and my contact picked me up at the airport to whisk me to two stops before I could check in to my hotel.
The first, a Middle Eastern market called Salam, was one such grocery store, humble but specific. Since I was only breezing through the city, with no time to cook for myself, we skipped the dry goods and groceries themselves, making a bee-line for the back, where a bakery and butcher were housed. The butcher was at work breaking down a lamb, while the bakers came out to help us mull over the 10 or so stuffed savory pastries in the case. According to them, the pastries are almost always sold-out upon baking — they made brisk business with the stewed lamb, for instance — and for good reason. They were Palestinian pastries, goods I’m not totally familiar with — spicy and tender beef kebab redolent of cumin and peppers, gooey eggplant with spiced ground beef, tart labneh with sharp green olives — but nonetheless reminded me of very similar flavors from throughout the region. The pita itself was tender and yeasty, crusty and cloudlike — definitely one of my favorite versions of the stuff in recent memory.
After our bakery stop, we swung over to Saraga International, a grocery chain started by two Korean brothers. Again, I didn’t shop the aisles, but the produce made my heart sing: So many varieties of mangoes, fresh passion fruit, rambutan in stacks and stacks. While I could shop fruit for hours, our destination was Momo Ghar, a tiny little Tibetan/Nepalese dumpling shop owned by Phuntso Lama, a former New Yorker who wanted to create a taste of home. That’s what I enjoyed here, little parcels that spoke of place and story, especially the jhol momo, chicken-stuffed dumplings swimming in a tomatoey broth that tastes of brightness and heat. I spoke with Phuntso a little bit, and she also served me and my contact some chicken-and-ginger momo, a new variety she was adding to the menu for winter. They were pungent, aromatic and so high-toned thanks to the ginger; I’ll be thinking about them next time I’m trying to fight off a cold.
Useful but sterile, American supermarkets would never have offered me this kind of look at changing demographics or how people live; stopping into these immigrant-run shops really pulled a bit of the curtain back about who is coming to Columbus, about who moves there. I’m not claiming expertise on the diasporas that contribute to the city’s identity, but the pastries and momos allowed me to connect to the people of Columbus in an easily identifiable way, providing a moment’s insight on this major Midwestern city. Beyond “just food,” immigrant stores, in all their varieties, always show me a story about how a community and its people, far from home but by no means alone, live and thrive.