“Can I help you with anything, sister?” utters a man who I’ve never laid eyes on. There is an extra melodic cadence to this Welsh man’s accent, as it is overlaid with the twang of a first, maybe second-generation South Asian immigrant. His age and skin tone give these presumptions away. A few years more jaded, and a few shades deeper than my own mixed tones. I have never seen this man before, never stepped foot in his grocery store, never visited his city nor his home country, yet somehow, a part of me feels as if I am home. He knew it too. This is my ode to the ethnic grocery store – the connections, identity and culinary discoveries that they provide me with, things one cannot find in the World Food Aisle of Tesco.
I’m strolling the aisles of Asia Halal Food Store on Commercial Road, in Pill. The heart of Newport – Pill is a postcard for multicultural Britain. The 2011 census “shows an ethnic minority population of 44.8% in Pillgwenlly (Pill) which is highest ward in Newport and much higher than the Wales and Newport average. This does not take in to account the changes that have taken place since 2011,” but take a stroll down Commercial Road and you’ll soon see that Pill is the definition of “mixing pot” with it’s pick-and-mix collection of shop fronts from across the globe. The man that greets me I later discover is part of the Khan family, who run both this store, and a second store at the other end of the road. His family stores, like so many similar ethic grocery markets, have given me a sense of place, even purpose in times where I’ve felt out of sorts. I want to inspire you to visit your nearest Asian supermarket, to start conversations that might feel clunky to begin with, to enquire about ingredients you’ve never seen before, then buy a few and cook up something new with them. Some of my favourite interactions with strangers have started this way, and in turn, some of the best dishes I’ve created have ended as a result.
I’m not a fan of the term “ethnic” (what is ethnic?) but I use it here as I don’t know how else to define these kinds of grocery stores that I adore so much. Although the contents of an Indian, Chinese, Turkish, Vietnamese, Caribbean, Polish, anything-that-isn’t-British store is entirely different; the genetic makeup of these supermarkets themselves feel akin to each other. The subtle heat of a jar of Laoganma chilli oil is continents away from the scorch of a bottle of scotch bonnet sauce, or the kick of a chilli and garlic kebab sauce; but they sit on the shelves of their respected stores as a reminder of the taste of home. These grocery stores are Pandora’s boxes, offering an insight into the lives of the minorities of society, whilst allowing these minorities to maintain their cultural identities. Vast seas may separate newfound homes from ancestral homes, but Ramen ingredients can serve as a temporary connection.
My loyalty to these stores started young, whilst accompanying my mum in often daily trips to Motala & Sons. The big green sign of this store symbolised the same thing as the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock in The Great Gatsby – a symbol of hope in inner-city, multicultural Gloucester. Although my very English Mum – the cook of the household, hadn’t been brought up with the tradition of Friday biriyani and Eid feasts like my Dad had, she knew her way around these Asian grocery stores as good as any Aunty (who isn’t actually your Aunty if you’re Asian) did. The reason that I know the proper names for Indian spices is not because my Dad raised us with an Urdu or Gujarati tongue, but because I followed my mum down the aisles of Motala & Sons. When she needed turmeric, jeera and cumin, she would ask for haldi, jeera and methi. I often wonder if my Mum, a white woman in an Asian community, gained a greater sense of belonging from these shops than my Gujarati Dad did. Through immersing herself in the community, my Mum was truly accepted. The ethnic grocery store was a sanctuary for the “other” – whatever your “other” was, and continues to be my sanctuary when I’m lost at sea.
In years of ambling my way around these stores, I’ve noticed some dependably consistent traits. These stores are family owned, so it isn’t uncommon to find grandad perched on a stool in the corner, or a gaggle of children playing hopscotch down an aisle. Conversations get picked up as they were left off in between repeated visits, like the craft of a patchwork quilt that takes years to complete. These conversations serve as my own unique square in the patchwork of these extended shop families.
Another recurrence I notice are the sounds. Though not the same as each other, the sounds of these stores place you slap-bang in the shop owners culture. Whether you’re surrounded by the gentle singsong of prayers in Arabic, the radio in an unknown language, the thud of a Chinese cleaver on a board, the squeal of a bandsaw from the butchers at the back, the white-noise of a TV playing an unrecognisable cartoon, or the patter of a mystery dialect – these noises are a reminder that you are the guest in their territory, not them to yours.
I can almost (boastfully) guarantee now that I will come away from a shopping spree in these stores with some sort of foodie gift – a can of coconut water for the drive home, a jar of something I’ve never tried before, a hot samosa if I get lucky at lunch time, or my favourite to date – a chopstick adorned with a plastic orchid that I wear in my hair-bun when I’m cooking. Generosity. Another trait and another reason to visit these shops. Knowing Asian culture, I believe that these gifts are given as tokens of esteem or gratitude for my continued support and splurges in these shop. This is your cue to make friends with the shop owner of your local grocery store. Ok, gifts are a bonus, but what is more rewarding is the surprise conversations you might have, the recipes you can gather and the foodie knowledge you might gain.
The final recurrence that I notice with these stores and my favourite, is the acceptance of others. Just as my Mum was welcomed to Motala’s, so I am accepted to the Polski Sklep for my mutual appreciation of sauerkraut and those delicious wafer biscuit things, or a Nigerian family into the Indian store for the crossover of home spices, or the Cypriot man in the Turkish shop, searching for haloumi and vine leaves. Wars and prejudices between both parties dropped just in that moment, as food is what matters in the immediate. These shops serve as crossroads for cultures. In these interactions I have scribbled down recipes for Jamaican chicken liver and gizzard stew whilst stood in line at the butchers, Jiaun Dui – a Chinese sesame seed dessert ball that I devoured before leaving the shop, how best to stir-fry Vietnamese Rau Muong (grown in Wales!) and many other recipes that were shared in an unwritten contract of respect for each other and our love of food.
So, as I sip from my free carton of Rubicon (lychee, in case you were wondering), I implore your to ditch the sterile “world isle” in your huge supermarket and to take a trip to your local ethnic store instead. What you’re likely to find is a giant bag of cumin seeds at half the price of a tiny jar from the supermarket, but what you may also find is an acceptance into a family that you didn’t know existed. Tesco just doesn’t quite cut the mustard – or the wasabi.