Story and photo by RICH FAHEY
For the majority of Utahns, eating a traditional meal means going to the grocery store for a wide selection of American foods. For the Asian community, eating traditional cuisine requires a little more effort. While most chain grocery stores offer an ethnic aisle, it lacks in authentic Asian food. But several specialty food stores that stock a wide selection of Asian cuisine can be found throughout the valley.
These Asian-specific supermarkets not only supply tasty foods, they also help the Asian community to maintain its heritage and culture.
“Just like language is part of their culture, so is their food,” said Linda Oda, director of Asian Affairs in the Utah State Office of Ethnic Affairs.
Southeast Supermarket, located at 422 E. 900 South in Salt Lake City, is one of these stores. The family-owned and operated business is the largest Asian-specific supermarket in the downtown area. It carries Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Hmong and Thai goods, including foods, drinks, teas, medicines, decorations and kitchen supplies.
Southeast Supermarket caters to a large number of Asian students from the University of Utah. According to the University of Utah Center for Ethnic Student Affairs, more than 1,300 Asian students are enrolled at the U. This creates a sizeable customer base for the store, especially while school is in session.
“We see a lot of international students, because we have products that they identify with,” said Thanh Trang, a Southeast Market employee and son of the owner.
According to Trang, items like dumplings, pot stickers and instant noodles are popular choices for students because they are quick and easy for people on the go.
These specialty food stores can also have a large impact on Asian-American children growing up in Utah. Growing up in a primarily white city, it is easy for children to become assimilated with American culture.
“You start becoming more American by being part of the community,” Oda said.
Without being exposed to traditional Asian cuisine, a portion of Asian culture can be lost in younger generations. By being part of both communities, children are able to retain some of their heritage and keep an important part of who they are.
“Although I was raised here in the States, and in Japan, I prefer to cook Japanese food for myself because it is always a nostalgic reminder of my childhood,” said Penelope Moffett, 20, a fine-arts graphic design student at the U. “Southeast Supermarket is the only way I can go to Japan, without actually flying anywhere.”
More recently, Southeast Supermarket has seen the number of white customers rise. According to Trang, over the past several years the clientele has changed from mostly Asian, to nearly half Asian and half white. This increase in white patrons shows a larger acceptance of the Asian culture. Oda said this acceptance of Asian cuisine is great for both cultures, and can be attributed to the availability of Asian restaurants and markets throughout the valley.
“It’s a substantiation that I’m OK, and you’re OK,” Oda said.
Another reason for the diversity among customers is the staff at Southeast Supermarket. The store takes pride in its customer service, and the fact that most of the staff speaks English makes it easier for American customers who are unfamiliar with the items.
“I can’t get to this place enough. The place is packed with aisle upon aisle of ingredients to bring your cooking alive,” wrote Stuart M., a Southeast Supermarket customer who posted a review on Yelp.