Food: Ethnic grocery shopping, as Canadian as mounties

by Claudio Muñoz

issue 23

The doors open automatically, as usual. The air conditioning welcomes you into the supermarket. T&T Supermarket is not that far away but the heat of the asphalt in the summer sun makes "walking distance" seem like a trip through desert.

At a first glance, everything seems "normal". There's the bakery, the canned food aisle. Staff in the produce department shower the vegetables every once in a while to keep them fresh. A Chinese clerk smiles at you from behind a pretty big tank where fish are swimming as in a pet store...

Then you notice the music is unlike other supermarkets. Somehow, the store also smells different. A look around tells you that, definitely, something is going on here. Some vegetables look like they come from other planets. Soft drink brands are written in something that's neither English nor French. There are dozens of brands of soy sauces! The guy behind the fish tank kills a fish and gives everything (head included) to a tiny, fragile, grey-haired Chinese lady. He looks up at you and smiles.

Supermarkets like T&T —those large superstores that sell foreign goodies— are not only for Chinese people. "They [these supermarkets] want to catch the population at large. They are located at Promenade Mall or Downtown Toronto, not really areas with heavy Chinese population," explains Lucia Lo, professor at York University's Department of Geography. One of the courses she teaches is "retailing, shopping, society and space"; she also has published articles related to immigrants’ grocery shopping habits. "T&T wants to be a player in the grocery business. Their style of management is westernized; they hire people to manage the store not as a family business."

It is quite evident that the Canadian diet and grocery shopping has changed because of immigration. Products that used to be limited to certain minorities are now available to everybody. T&T are not the only ethnic stores trying to appeal to any possible customer, no matter what their race or country of origin.

Foreign food is now as Canadian as meat and potatoes.

Ethnic grocery stores: from the neighbourhood to the world

"Regular" grocery stores have changed too. Nowadays nobody even realizes that products that were until recently considered "very exotic" – products like hummus, tortillas, tofu, sushi or dumplings; just to name a few – share the aisles of North American supermarkets with more "traditional" items. Couscous and flour are side by side and why not? "The idea that ethnic stores are for ethnic people or that ethnic people would go only to ethnic stores for their groceries is probably a past concept," professor Lo says.

Some immigrant's favourite ingredients are usually available at Loblaws, Dominion or No-Frills, so there's no real need to commute or pay extra for your groceries. In the past, newcomers used to buy exclusively at ethnic stores, not only because some items weren't available anywhere else, but also because they could feel more at home, speak in their own language and get the service they were used to.

But because Canadian society is more diverse now, immigrants are more educated and globalization has expanded North American grocery shopping practices, newcomers suffer less of a shock when buying goodies at Canadian supermarkets.

The old story of immigrants amazed at the door of a “gigantic” Canadian supermarket, completely clueless about how to use carts, how to pick items from the aisle, where to pay or who’s in charge of vegetables, is less common—a complete rarity.

There are very few places on Earth where you can’t find a supermarket. Maybe the look is different – Canadian stores may seem cleaner or hypermarkets may impress some immigrants from rural areas – but the process is the same. For example, many Chinese immigrants from Beijing are well aware of Wal-Mart. They even complain that the stores here are not as modern, big and "trendy" as they are in China. According to the company's website there are 77 Wal-Mart stores distributed in 46 Chinese cities. In other countries it might not be a Wal-Mart, but local chains or stores use pretty much the same model of grocery shopping.

For all these reasons, settlement agencies don’t give much more than basic orientation about buying food at settlement agencies. Noorai Amiri, who works at the Afghan Women's Association providing referrals and helping newcomers through the government's ISAP program (Immigrant Settlement and Adaptation Program), explains that the information related to grocery shopping is more about where the closest stores are, or which ones are cheaper. If somebody requires more information about grocery shopping in Canada —a very unusual practice—they will provide more it. Good sources of information are ethnic newspapers and magazines, always packed with ads for stores and supermarkets.

Cravings will get you back home

So, does this mean that the old fashion ethnic store is disappearing?

Not really. No matter how varied the supermarket, it is just impossible for them to carry all the items consumed by the diverse population of Ontario. There's no way stores could provide all customers with whatever preparation, animal part or particular drink they could find back home.

Usually located at the heart of their communities most of the time, they still provide a great service for immigrants, especially when it comes to satisfying some cravings. 

Many people are willing to commute or drive miles to get that special kind of ham only available at some Portuguese store downtown; or cuitlacoche (known in North America as corn smut), or haggis (a Scottish dish with minced organs, oatmeal and other ingredients boiled inside a sheep’s stomach); or tiny whole crabs crusted in sesame seeds; or that special kind of bread with olives and chorizo only from Spain.

Ethnic stores are not just ethnic; they are now "specialized" stores. And Canadians are enjoying them as well.

That's why some of them walk across an endless string of parking lots under the summer heat just for green tea and Dim Sun.

CNM