Saturday, November 27News That Matters

Why Do Grocery Stores Still Have Ethnic Aisles? | Priya Krishna | NYT Cooking

Why do grocery stores still have ethnic aisles? In this video, Priya Krishna explores the question while visiting a Food Bazaar grocery store in Queens, N.Y.. Its aisles are full of a variety of foods from around the world, but in other grocery stores they’re often relegated to what’s labeled an ethnic aisle. This international hodgepodge in ethnic aisles strikes many shoppers and food purveyors as outdated and out of touch, but doing away with it isn’t as easy as it might sound.

Read Priya’s story here: https://nyti.ms/3lKA2BR

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22 Comments

  • faureamour

    Very intriguing. I don't know that I consciously think of the ethnic food aisles. On the one hand, I appreciate the convenience of getting my typical groceries while being able to explore a few new recipes, as I do find the thought of going into a specialized grocery store alone intimidating. On the other hand, depending on which store and which city I'm in, it can be incredibly limited. Like another commenter said, the items in the ethnic aisle are sometimes not authentic.

    As a black American, I also find it interesting that I may find canned soul food sides like greens or seasoned beans in the ethnic aisle or the canned veggie aisle. Soul food is American food, so intriguing when you think of it as ethnic, which is different than international. Then again, so is Tex Mex, which is often found in the ethnic aisles. I wonder how those items sell when placed in the veggie/sauce aisles vs the ethnic aisles.

    One thing I do think about more often are stores like Target and Walmart and the ethnic hair care aisles. Very similar but also very different. I don't always feel great about that section being tiny and separate, but hair is more specialized. Anyone can eat a different cuisine. Not everyone has hair that requires specific products. I don't have many deep thoughts. I'd just be curious to hear the perspective of maybe an African or Caribbean cook on the ethnic food aisle experience and the ethnic hair care aisle.

  • genuwine21

    I have worked in a grocery store for several years, the ethnic aisle is broken up into sections by cuisine. While it makes sense to do away with it and mix the items into the rest of the store it is often easier for current customers to find what they are looking for by having those items on one aisle. As for introducing customers to new items, it is hit or miss. The biggest selling stuff are things like noodles and sauces. There are a ton of packaged bulk spices similar to those Priya commented on, but the customers never purchase this stuff, preferring instead to go to an indian grocer to purchase the items instead. While the store does have a large indian, hispanic, and asian clientele a lot of the more exotic stuff we carry doesn't sell as there is a certain trust factor involved which I don't think this video addresses.

  • Marthe Tanghe

    I'm jealous that people who live in the US have so much access to other culture's food! I live in a town in Catalunya, Spain, and I have to drive an hour to Barcelona to go to an asian market to get sesame oil. I think it's great, it makes cultural food more widely available to people of those cultures, and might spark interest in other people who have never tried those foods. The only thing that's a bit iffy is the name, like why ethnic? It feels othering, and kinda feels like it only applies to non-white cultural foods (bc americans don't consider non-american white people ethnic), so is indian food "ethnic"? To who? Is Spanish food ethnic? Italian? Jamaican? Where's the line between ethnic and not-ethnic. I would call the aisle "Cultural foods" or better "Wordly Foods" bc that just implies foods from elsewhere than the US.

  • Adventures in Everyday Cooking

    I think it's very helpful to me to have these types of aisles for the same reason Priya said. It teaches me that "this thing" is from "that country"! And I appreciate that cultural information/learning.

  • Nicole Caputo

    It's interesting because in Brasil, where my family is from. They also have an "international/ethnic" aisle. Although it looks different than ours, some american snacks, european snacks, snacks from other latino countries. I wonder if it's like this in other countries as well.

  • mistermanager226

    The grocery store near me switched their aisle to international foods, and it seems to contain products that are imported. This includes everything from Japanese snacks, to Jamaican soda, to English style tomato baked beans in the teal can. Dinner things that people might consider "ethnic" such as spices or dried lentils or soy sauce also show up in the non international aisles as well. If you have a bigger store like the one in this segment, I like the concept of dividing up aisles by cooking region. It's difficult for me to find certain Southeast Asian ingredients (tamarind, curry pastes, panda, etc.), even at my local Asian markets.

  • qwerty

    please stop calling it an "ethnic food" aisle and instead call it an "international aisle".

    i am an american living in a foreign country. my local grocery store has an "international food" aisle. the aisle has imported foods that are not part of the regional cuisine. why is this controversial?

  • xodrea

    As a POC, I've always hated the ethnic aisle as being like a half to full aisle and it basically has mexican products, asian products, english and jewish products here. It is NOT diverse enough. The store you showed with the multiple aisles of different countries' products is amazing. I think for the area I live, I understand why it's so limited as it's mostly a white population, however we are here too. I'm Puerto Rican and Chilean. I can find Goya, but I'm not a fan of it and it's super limited. I can't find any Chilean products. The asian section has a lot of white washed brands/products, so it's hard to get an authentic product or find a spice needed. Some stores allow you to request products, but it usually has to be in demand by more than one person. The idea of an ethnic aisle is horrible, but again, I understand the demographics. I do think, just as you said, our country is a melting pot and our stores should be reflecting that and opening people's minds to other cuisines and ideas. I tend to shop more at stores that have authentic products even if that's a little further out or a little more expensive.

  • Steven King

    I live in Santa Cruz, CA. The Safeway on the east side carries token variety of ethnic foodstuffs, sorted by ethnicity. The Safeway on the west side serves UCSC, and has significant choice in ethnic foodstuffs, some of which are grouped, but others integrated. I make a special trip to shop at Patel Brothers Indian grocery store in Santa Clara when i'm in Silicon Valley. Instead of being an aisle, it's a whole store.

  • Jessica Kaufman

    I live in a medium sized city in Western NC… the “ethnic aisle” is ok for a quick trip to the big box grocery, and I’m glad we have it, because otherwise I’m not sure how I’d find things like rice noodles or fish sauce. We do have a few “Asian grocery stores” which are, of course, way way better in terms of selection & authenticity, but it’s an additional trip to make. I wish I lived somewhere with a Food Bazaar type store!

  • Christina Docenko

    I like having that ethnic aisle for the same reason Jolene mentioned. It's good to have all these diverse foods in one spot, so I can explore different options in one place 🙂 It's so inspiring!

  • Denee McKim

    One thing that struck me is that it is not as simple as having it on the shelves of a grocery store. If people don't know how to use something or how it's inclusion would enhance a dish they are not likely to buy it.

  • mmessi72

    I like that it offers more options within a mainstream setting (a perfect example is hot sauces), but I also find that there are a lot of shortcomings within the "ethnic aisle." For example, overall homogeneity where there would normally be larger contrast in flavors/options.
    The foods offered are also usually not the most needed of a specific regional cuisine. The food products in this aisle in the midwest are the American "accessable" options.

    Like you said, it always comes down to the money. I find specialty stores and farmers markets the best options for depth and diversity in my diet.

  • krschn

    we call it international section in the philippines. or it's segregated by continent. asian aisle, european, american aisle etc.

  • Marcus Chan

    Even in Malaysia, we have an “international foods” aisle (usually Korean / Japanese)… When I was in Switzerland, there would be an “Asian foods” section – but there were Asian grocers scattered around where I would get more familiar ingredients.

  • Adele Wilson

    Please, do we now have to carry as an additional burden the weight of the “ethnic aisle”? I don’t need my grocery store to educate me, I look after that myself. I like a very diverse range of food and have had the opportunity to learn from actual every day practitioners how to cook these dishes. This makes my dietary intake interesting. When I shop for groceries, I am mostly looking to find the items I am after quickly and efficiently. The ethnic aisle, regardless of it’s size, is helpful in this respect. Either they have what I’m looking for or they don’t. If not I will choose to make a particular dish after I have time to do a specialty store run. if you’re not preparing the same type of food every day, you will not want large supplies of things you can’t get through. Another benefit of the ethnic aisle. Small sizes.

  • Susie R

    Because it's best to have the ethnic foods together instead of all over the store. Please don't turn this thing into a racial thing.

  • Dead Internal

    The aisles are owned by the big brands. That's how it is at most grocery stores. I'm surprised the aisles aren't called Nabisco, Frito Lay, Kraft, etc. When I want Indian products I go to my local Indian store. Same if I want Asian products or Latin or Middle Eastern. The variety at your typical "American" grocery store for ethnic foods is laughable. But yet, you can find 57 varieties of Oreos, or an entire aisle dedicated to soda where only 2 brands are in competition (Coke vs Pepsi).

  • Lullayable

    I live in Belgium and my family originates from Algeria. We cook a lot of different foods with ingredients not often found in nearby supermarkets. Their ethnic aisle is ridiculous, there's almost nothing that we use and the brands we do use have a ~40% markup in price.
    The way I see it, ethnic aisles are not meant for minorities who actually use the ingredients available there on the daily. They're more useful to the people who want to add something "exotic" to their cooking. When I was discovering Asian food, I was happy to have access to that one brand of soy sauce because I didn't know about Asian supermarkets. I'd love to see more diversity of ingredient and brand, but I know it won't happen because the people who use this aisle here feel like it's diverse enough.

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