By Tin Terashima
I love Asian supermarkets.
I could spend all day wandering those aisles, content to marvel at the bottles of tsuyu, the bins of fried tofu skins, and the tanks of fish lazily swimming to and fro. To me, a cart full of Pocky and Pepero, a cart full of soba and senbei … That is happiness.
And yet, in each of these stores lies an aisle that seems a bit…off. A bit different.
An aisle we all pass. An aisle we never dare venture into. An aisle where the shelves are full of products we all recognize immediately but still feel foreign and out of place.
That aisle is the American aisle.
Yeah, go figure–it’s the aisle full of Heinz ketchup and baked beans that always sticks out to me in an Asian market. These products are dreadfully mundane; if you were to pass them in a Ralph’s, they wouldn’t even register as special among the millions of calories and carbs on the shelves.
Even in an enclave carved out specifically to offer products that the dominant culture doesn’t support, space has to be dedicated to that dominant culture’s goods. Just like the totality of the world’s cuisine has to be shoved into Safeway’s “International” section, Hmart needs an entire aisle dedicated to creamed corn and Ritz crackers.
That’s a cynical way of looking at it. But it’s ultimately not the way I choose to look at it.
I love the American Aisle. I love what it represents. I like the reality that it conveys. Because, of course, Asians are buying this stuff. We eat this stuff. We love stuffing our pie holes with processed food just as much as any Midwesterner would.
Growing up, I ate a lot of phở . But I also ate a lot of corned beef hash with soy sauce. I vividly recall visiting a friend’s house and partaking in his family’s dinner of chicken nuggets and rice. Sometimes I ate bánh mì full of char siu pork, and sometimes I ate ones full of Spam. Those dishes were all tasty and filling–but more importantly, were manifestations of who I was: Asian American and a blend of both worlds.
These days, there are a lot of discussions and debates in the food world about authenticity, about what does and does not belong in a certain culture’s dish. While I think there is a time and place to care about authenticity, I find that in an overall sense, food has always been a representation of how cultures intersect with one another.
So it doesn’t surprise me to see things like Sriracha burgers at Jack in the Box, or gochujang being featured in the pages of Bon Appetit. Immigrants to this country have always adapted their tastes and diets to reflect the new place they call home. It only makes sense for home to start reflecting some of it back.
I’ve often heard people say that “food acts as a culture’s ambassador”. In that regard, stores like Mitsuwa, Hmart, and Ranch 99 (or is it 99 Ranch?) can be thought of as embassies. They represent not only a valuable resource for the immigrant population’s daily needs but also as an open and friendly invitation to curious cooks looking to expand their culinary horizons.
So I wouldn’t think of the American Aisle as some sore thumb sticking out, but rather just another aisle in a market that sells products that people like–in the same sense Asian supermarkets aren’t some isolated enclave purely for insiders. They’re one of the many wonderful things that make up the mixed salad that is American culture. They’re not alien or foreign. They’re American.
So, if you want to check one out yourself, head on over to an Asian supermarket. I’m sure they have an American aisle. Maybe pick up a thing or two there. Just don’t put ketchup in your ramen.
That’s just weird.