By Natalie Keng
Chinese Southern Belles
In their habits they are most depraved and vicious…they are also gross gluttons; everything that runs, walks, creeps, flies, or swims, in fact, everything that will supply the place of food, whether of the sea, or the land, and articles most disgusting to other people, are by them greedily devoured. – Edmund Roberts, American diplomat, 1832, on the Chinese people
We’ve come a long way not only in cultural attitudes, but also culinary appreciation of different ethnic cuisines. For longtime residents or natives of Atlanta like me, who have a passion for food, the changes are very welcome and refreshing.
The Asian supermarket scene in Atlanta has similarly undergone a sea change and is growing, vibrant, diverse and evolving, not to mention ultra-competitive. In USA Today, 1,000 new food items labeled “Asian” came onto the market between 2006 and 2010 with Thai and Indian products leading the way.
99 Ranch Market, the first Asian supermarket chain to open in Atlanta, apparently didn’t step up enough and closed recently. Korean supermarket chains like Super H Mart along with Buford Highway Farmers Market, Great Wall in Duluth and Hong Kong Supermarket in Norcross have revolutionized the branding, image (and infamous “odor”) of old-style Oriental shops, lowered the bamboo barriers to less adventurous shoppers and become international supermarkets with an amazing, diverse array of pan-Asian, Hispanic, even Eastern European and Caribbean products that include fresh, pre-packaged and ready-to-eat selections. To visit one of these supermarkets – large or small – is a fun, interesting and tasty multicultural fieldtrip.
As a kid, I hid my “weird” Chinese snacks out of sight (and ridicule) of schoolmates. These days, you’ll find me on Twitter tweeting about my latest food find or presenting an Asian Snack Attack workshop.
From Wonton Soup to Masala Dhosa
Chinese Southern Belle fans are familiar with my childhood stories of Mom teaching the area’s first Chinese cooking class when stores didn’t carry soy sauce. Wonton and egg drop soup were popular. Hot and sour soup was too exotic. If you wanted a wok or cleaver, you had to bring it over from Asia yourself. I brought back goodies and gifts in my suitcase from New York City’s Chinatown.
Now, in our Asian market tours and cooking classes, many participants have traveled or worked in Asia and are more adventurous in trying unfamiliar flavors and textures. It’s quite exciting to have options around town for tasty regional specialties, like Szechuan Hot Boiled Fish, Cantonese Dim Sum, Masala Dhosas, Vietnamese Pho or Shanghai soup buns.
What Is That Smell?
One of the most compelling (and repelling) complaints about Asian grocers, derived from the tiny mom-and-pop “Oriental” shops, but still applied today to older or less polished Asian grocery, is the “stinky or fishy smell.” (The other top reasons why some non-Asians don’t visit Asian markets were fear of no English spoken to unfamiliarity with products.)
There is a cultural and practical explanation for the “odor” in some stores. Food is connected to the philosophy of yin and yang and the ideal culinary goal is to achieve a balance of “she, xiang, wei” – color, aroma and flavor – with a variety of “cooling” and “hot” foods that draw from sweet, spicy, sour and bitter flavors. Due to the lack of refrigeration and the need for preservation, a wide assortment of traditional Asian foodstuffs are dried, pickled, or fermented (squid, shrimp, mushrooms, fermented beancurd, kimchi). Add to this the preference for live/fresh seafood and meats traditionally displayed open air market or butchery-style, and you’ve got an interesting mélange of “smells.” Today, improved sanitation, store design and vacuum packaging has reduced or eliminated the “odors.”
A Window to Asian American History
While I conceived this article initially as a “guide” with handy tips and lists, in the process of my research – shopping dozens of stores, taking notes on product selection, store layout; reading reviews; getting survey feedback; overhearing customers talk in different languages about what to make for dinner; visiting the customer service desk; greeting the check-out cashiers – I realized that beyond product and price comps was a poignant story about Atlanta’s immigrant history, evolution and diversity. One customer commented: I grew up coming to this place. It’s old, and it’s got that strange Asian grocery smell, but I love it anyways. If you’re not a long-time shopper, or if you can’t read Chinese, it can be rather daunting.
One little known, but interesting fact of American history involved Chinese-owned businesses and Chinese grocers, in particular. In the early 1920s, the impact of plantation slavery, Jim Crow laws and racial tension resulted in a void in the Southern retail economy that small Chinese-owned stores would fill and where both blacks and whites felt comfortable patronizing. Chinese grocers also provided social services that often did not exist elsewhere and served in an informal banking role for black sharecroppers, extending credit and loans denied them by white institutions.
Tips and Highlights: Atlanta’s Asian Supermarkets
- Your store preference will largely depend on where you live (and how far you’re willing to drive), what you are shopping for, how adventurous your taste buds are and your cultural comfort zone, in addition to price, quality, freshness, etc. It will also depend on your grocery list. For example, if you’re looking for live seafood, the best price on Korean BBQ ribs, a specific Indian spice, it may be three different stores.
- Store offerings are often influenced by the ethnicity of the storeowner or corporate management. For example, Korean-owned Super H Mart, Assi Plaza and Buford Highway Farmers Market offer more Korean brands. Great Wall Supermarket has wider Chinese and Taiwanese selections. Hong Kong Supermarket has unique offerings in Vietnamese, Filipino and Chinese brands. Many older, non-English speaking Chinese immigrants still go to Dinho.
- The larger Asian supermarkets also sell selected Hispanic and American products.
- “Farmers Market” is a loosely applied (and outdated) term used in Asian and international supermarkets.
While notably lacking in the past, most of the stores have improved customer service due to competition. All of the stores had someone on staff who spoke English, Spanish or were multilingual.
To see a map of local Asian Markets pick up our print edition or see it in our digital edition at this link.