Read time: 4 minutes
Trips to ethnic grocery stores and markets started early for me. The second time I went to the Chinese store with my parents, I knew to brace my lungs for the heavy stench of fresh saltwater fish and dried goods. I walked down the aisles, frustrated that everything was written in characters. Thick accented employees equally struggled with our horrible pronunciation of “Thai basil leaves”. I grew up with my mom saying “thigh” food, very into the “h” in Thai. She didn’t correct herself until she made a Thai friend.
And therein lies the point I’m trying to make: sometimes you just need a Thai friend to recondition yourself when you’ve gone astray.
These markets are far from the usual corporate pretense of your neighborhood Target. When you’re here, you’re an explorer.
Every ingredient I manage to find is a sketchy street worth driving to, a battle worth winning. Recipes might only call for a tablespoon or two of Fish Sauce but there’s a reason its there. That stuff is a game changer if you’re a kitchen novice.
The visits to the Hispanic food stores were welcomed when I knew warm conchas and savory tamarind candies would be on the agenda. I stopped eating hard shelled tacos after the first time I had a real taco on the street. I’m sad if there’s never a language struggle when I order tacos from a truck.
Indian grocery stores are also a lot of mental preparation. The aisles are stacked with pre-packaged spices that make bold promises of you making the perfect Chicken Tikka Masala. And why do the butchers there always seem overworked and grumpy?
Time and time again, these moments made me. Let the foods you love help you understand more about the people around you. I find it reckless to not consider where the foods you love originated. By now, we trust that Americans can handle authentic. Not everything has to suffer the same fate as Chinese food.
I read somewhere that the best way to counter racism, prejudice and hate would be for all of us to travel to other places. I agree. Worldly vacations could do nothing but help create a more tolerant society but it is impractical. Visiting other countries may have shaped me but I also know that what I do in my own city has played an equal part in my understanding of the world I share with billions of others.
When we don’t understand something, we should immerse ourselves into it. It can start at the local markets. American’s live in the best country to do this in because enough diversity is everywhere. Very soon, ignorance and prejudice will be a choice - and that choice will taste the nastiest.