Southeast Supermarket – helping to maintain culture and diversify Utah

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.

Aisle

A wide range of items, both in bulk and individual portions, can be purchased at Southeast Supermarket.

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.

Coffee Shop in Salt Lake City’s Little America Hotel strives for authenticity with Asian cuisines

Story and photos by CHLOE NGUYEN

Asian seafood salad; beef tournedos with Asian-style salmon steak; vegetable stir fry; grilled chicken breast marinated with a ginger plum sauce — all food you would typically find in an Asian restaurant, right? Not quite.

You can actually find these dishes at the Coffee Shop, located inside the Little America Hotel, a three-star hotel in downtown Salt Lake City. The Coffee Shop is ranked 7th out of the 104 restaurants in the Salt Lake area, according to Virtual Tourist. It has always been known for its traditional “comfort food,” as Ashley Bollinger, 26, the hotel’s community relations manager, calls it. Its menus have had limited changes over the years because they have been well received by customers. But this does not mean there haven’t been accommodations.

“Most of the guests are very vocal with the dishes they like and what they would like to see added,” Bollinger said. “We feel the best way to review or make changes on our menu is to listen to them firsthand.”

Customers want diverse dishes, including those from Asian cultures, such as seafood salad and marinated ginger plum chicken. And while these dishes are only available through the hotel’s banquet menu, the hotel’s Coffee Shop is always serving their customers Asian vegetable stir fry. And if a dish is requested often enough, the decision to include it in the regular menu is considered.

Besides the customers, the people who make the dishes also contribute to what is on the menu. The hotel’s kitchen staff consists of a diverse group of individuals, including Caucasians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans and Hispanics. “[Because of this,] over the years I have incorporated many different dishes from all around the world in our daily cooking techniques and final products,” said Bernhard Götz, Little America’s executive chef.

Those final products are something to be proud of. Unlike some Americanized Asian dishes served at chain restaurants such as Panda Express or P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, the Coffee Shop is different. The chefs value the authenticity of a dish and the culture behind it.

“The traditional Asian dishes are prepared by my Asian cooks,” Götz said. “They are cooked in the traditional way with authentic ingredients.”

Ingredients native to Southeast Asia are included in the making of the dishes. Soy sauce, pineapple juice and ginger are some of the ingredients that go into the ginger plum sauce. Tofu, Napa cabbage, Bok Choy cabbage and Chinese mushroom are among the native vegetables of Southeastern Asian countries that are included in the vegetable stir fry. And like any authentic Asian dish, rice is always included.

If you ask people of Asian ethnicity, many will tell you that rice is a critical part of their culture. In most Asian cultures, “to eat” is often synonymous with the phrase “eat rice.” This can suggest that rice is of high importance to the people of Asia. Rice can be said to be an identification of the Asian community. “It’s important to keep the ingredients the way they would be as if in Asia,” Götz said. “You can’t get more authentic than that.”

But in America, it’s not always easy to keep the ingredients authentic. Chinese restaurant owners developed American Chinese cuisine when they modified their dishes to suit a more Western appetite. According to China Insight, these restaurants adapted by using local ingredients that were familiar to their customers, like flour. Rice was often replaced with noodles, made from flour. As a result, American Chinese cuisine is usually less pungent than authentic cuisine.

Many of these new dishes were quickly and easily prepared. According to an article by Yao-Wen Huang at Flavor & Fortune, they tend to be cooked with a lot of oil, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and sugar, which authentic cuisines do not commonly use.

It is rare to find an Asian American restaurant that serves Asian dishes with authentic ingredients and cooking methods. But the Little America Hotel recognizes and values the importance of diversity and culture in food. Just like language is a part of culture, so is food. “If we serve Asian food, we want it to be real, not fake,” Götz said. “That’s the whole point of why people come looking for authentic food.”

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