The ethnic restaurants that dot the multicultural Southern California landscape are perhaps the most prominent ways that people can either introduce themselves to a certain culture, or for others to maintain their own cultural ties. But just as visible on the streets, though overlooked and relatively uncelebrated in a way, are the presence of ethnic supermarkets.
Across the Southland, from Chatsworth to Panorama City, from Koreatown to Monterey Park, from West Covina to Westminster's Little Saigon, and even places in between, you will find them: Asian American supermarkets.
Though individual stores may cater to a specific Asian group -- usually the ethnic origin of their owner -- they have more in common with each other than the Ralphs, Vons, or Albertsons of the world.
Asian American supermarkets share the same DNA, in both physical makeup and overall cultural importance to their respective ethnic communities. Inside, you're likely to find an entire aisle dedicated to rice, another to noodles, another to spices and sauces (from fish to plum to a nearly infinite variety of soy), another to imported snack foods, along with a meat section, a very well-stocked seafood section, an array of produce with both common and not-so-common fruits and vegetables, and you may also find sections dedicated to teas and herbs.
I specify Asian American, because though the inventory is largely imported from across the Pacific, the layout of the shopping space, particularly the spacious and well-organized supermarket format, is uniquely American in design and origin. In Asian cities, locals still prefer the traditional open-air marketplace, and western-style supermarkets are usually relegated to the more affluent areas. Even still, with densely packed-cities being the norm in Asia, the western-style supermarkets there tend to follow the more compact, utilitarian European design as opposed to the large real estate footprint and ample parking of an American grocery.
The Asian American supermarket evolved much like mainstream American supermarkets: Whereas the early Chinatowns of U.S. port cities were established with decentralized and specialized food shops, the suburbanization of America in the post-World War II years and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 paved the way to creating ethnic Asian communities in the suburbs, and provided the people to live in them. The economics of selling mass quantities, and availability of relatively inexpensive large tracts of suburban land attracted not just the supermarkets, but their respective ethnic consumer bases.
Today, in the region that holds the largest Asian population in the United States, Asian American supermarket chains are almost as visible as their mainstream counterparts, and even rake in up to tens of millions of dollars in revenue annually -- establishments like the Taiwanese-owned 99 Ranch Market, the Korean-run HK and Galleria markets, the Filipino-owned Island Pacific and Seafood City chains, the Japanese-centric Mitsuwa and Nijiya stores, the Chinese-owned Hong Kong Supermarket, and the Vietnamese-Chinese Shun Fat market chains dot the landscape of Asian Southern California -- and beyond.
It's also only in America where the imported foods of various national origins sit side by side in the same aisle.
The requisite noodle aisle, stocked deep with plastic bags bearing the names "Rice Vermicelli," "Bihon," "Udon," "Egg Noodles," and the like can be an educational experience in itself. Grab each bag and read for ingredients, country of origin, and languages printed on the package. Noodles, coming in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and densities, can be made from rice, wheat, bean flour, or even tapioca starch, and can be amended with other ingredients such as eggs, seafood, or vegetables. The noodles themselves came from far and wide: China, Taiwan, Japan, The Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and somehow ended up on the very same shelf, thousands of miles away from home. Being the perfect example of global trade, it's not at all unusual to see a package of "Chinese Noodles" that were made in Thailand, and packed in Commerce, California.
Asian American supermarkets are also well-aware of their overlapping pan-Asian demographics, and reflect them perfectly in their product stock. Inevitably, you can find Japanese shrimp chips at the Filipino market, Filipino banana ketchup at the Chinese grocery, Chinese ginseng at the Korean marketplace, Korean kimchi at the Vietnamese store, Vietnamese shrimp paste at the Thai market, and Thai coconut water at the Japanese chain. And, of course, Sriracha sauce at all of the above.
It's also where cross-cultural shopping habits come into play. At the Vietnamese-owned A-Grocery Warehouse in Los Angeles' Echo Park district (a neighborhood with a majority Latino population and a relatively new young white demographic), half of the customers on the day that I last shopped there were non-Asian, though they were there to find ingredients for Asian dishes they were cooking. "We're making stir-fry tonight, right?" asked one member of a non-Asian couple shopping at the market. A good market also knows its local demographics, and here in diverse Southern California, it's not unusual at all to see an aisle devoted to tortillas, such as the case with A-Grocery Warehouse.
Nothing is more cross-cultural than the produce section. Though uniquely Asian fruits like longan, soursop, Asian pears, jujubes, and even the notorious durian are found in the Asian American market, so are mangos, whether imported from Asia or Latin America. Likewise, vegetables like jalapeño or serrano chili peppers are staples for both Thai and Mexican cuisines alike.
Food matters aside, the Asian American supermarket provides a sense of place. For every enclave and designated community, the Asian American supermarkets are the anchors in the community, in both cultural and real-estate terms. They are places where those in the culture can connect to their homeland, or to their fellow community members. Ethnic newspaper racks stacked with free weekly issues are always placed near the entrance, and posters announcing ethnic community events such as cultural festivals/expos, beauty pageants, movie screenings and concerts from familiar pop stars from the motherland are always found taped to the markets' windows and walls. Even in the age of the web and digital social media, the Asian American supermarkets are still important nexuses of news and information. In real estate terms, they are also anchors of business development: complementary restaurants, music/video stores, nail salons, massage spas, clothing stores, and coffee/tea shops tend to be spring up around the supermarkets.
For those outside the culture, the markets are open gateways of culture and commerce that allow one to discover, observe, and learn. During my first visit to Long Beach's Cambodia Town, the first place I visited was a supermarket, and though I hadn't yet been well acquainted with Cambodian food, a trip up and down the aisles of that market gave me a better idea as to Cambodian culinary leanings. I also quickly learned that many of the selections at that particular market looked very familiar. The advantage of the large, impersonal, American supermarket space is that there's no purchase pressure for the uninitiated customer, with lots of time to browse, and the lesser likelihood of feeling out of place. Customers are too occupied shopping for themselves anyway, and the staff are too busy stocking shelves or ringing up purchases. And for those who have traveled abroad, markets are even a place to re-live some travel nostalgia. Remember the sweet corn snack chips from that trip to Seoul? Chances are it'll be at your favorite K-Town supermarket.
The other day, I found myself driving down Huntington Drive in the San Gabriel Valley, during a particularly warm day. Feeling parched, I caught sight of a recently-opened Hong Kong Supermarket in the Arcadia-Monrovia area. Instead of grabbing a HFCS-laden soft drink at a 7-Eleven, I opted to visit the supermarket to perhaps grab a cold can of sweet chrysanthemum tea. I also grabbed some canned Thai iced tea, a bag of dried tropical fruit snacks, and some snow pea crisps. Everything cost me six dollars and some change.
Though I had never stepped into this particular market before in my life, it didn't take me very long at all to find exactly what I was looking for. The Asian American supermarket never fails.