By Monica Eng, Tribune Newspapers
March 20, 2013
If you had to buy some bittermelon, kvass, lutefisk or achiote for dinner tonight, would you know where to go?
If you can't think of which ethnic grocery stores you'd have to hit for those ingredients right off the top of your head, you're not alone. Researchers at DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development recently noted that "although there has been a lot of focus on ethnic restaurants and festivals in Chicago, few have studied ethnic grocery stores," according to director Joseph Schwieterman.
So institute program manager Paige Largent cataloged the city's ethnic grocery stores for location, number, types of offerings and how they are viewed by the population. What she found, somewhat unsurprisingly, was that many of the European stores were on the city's Northwest Side, while Asian groceries tended to operate in the north and northeast. Middle Eastern grocery stores clustered in Austin, Albany Park and Chicago Lawn, while Mexican groceries have sprouted up all over, in neighborhoods from West Rogers Park to South Deering.
In the 19-page graphic-heavy paper, Largent discusses a relatively new store category (for researchers) dubbed the "hybrid," which includes large produce-heavy markets such as Fresh Farms, Andy's Fruit Ranch and Harvest Time.
"Here you can find your American staples but also culturally appropriate foods for people in the neighborhood," Largent says. "The owners have to be aware every time the community changes its demographic because they need to start stocking foods for that group.
"In some way I think it's the best kind of grocery store to have in your neighborhood if it's not made up of only one group," said Largent, who lives in Albany Park, a neighborhood with the greatest concentration of ethnic grocery stores in the city. "This way you can get all of your staples, but you can also find and try these other types of foods."
To veteran shoppers at ethnic grocery stores, one of Largent's biggest findings is no secret: These stores often offer a better and cheaper selection of produce than traditional stores.
"I was surprised to find that you can find so much great fresh produce, and not all of it is overpriced," she says. "It may not be organic, but it is fresh and relatively inexpensive."
Offerings, she noted, included chikoo, jackfruit, chayote, banana flower, pomelo and more.
Mapping ethnic groceries can, of course, be helpful to curious cooks and consumers. But it also offers an interesting guide to population clusters and true food preferences — much more so than, say, restaurants. If you went by Chicago's Thai or sushi restaurant locations, for example, you'd assume that the city has huge Japanese and Thai populations in all the trendy parts of town.
"Ethnic restaurants tend to be where consumers want them and are more likely to reflect what nonethnic customers want rather than reflecting the cultures themselves," Schwieterman says. "But ethnic groceries are often where people live, and they have not been greatly modified to appeal to a mainstream audience. Plus, certain ethnic immigrant cultures don't always lend themselves to opening restaurants."
The report called "The Store Next Door" can be found at tinyurl.com/storestudy
Test your ethnic grocery knowledge: match the ingredient to the type of grocery store where you're likely to find it.
3. Cassava fufu
A. Polish grocery stores; a traditional Polish head cheese
B. Mexican, Puerto Rican or Caribbean stores; a seed and spice also called annatto that imparts an orange color and slight flavor
C. Persian grocery store; a fizzy yogurty drink popular in Iran
D. Russian grocery stores; a fizzy fermented drink often made using black or regular rye bread
E. South Asian grocery stores; from India and Pakistan also known as the sapodilla plum or sapota in Mexico
F. East Asian stores that cater to Chinese; this long stubbly cucumber-shaped melon is exceedingly bitter and often served braised or boiled with salty condiments and meat.
G. Southeast Asian grocery stores; a large spiky fruit with sweet and smelly flesh
H. West and Central African grocery stores; a soft doughlike starch derived from tubers and eaten dipped in stews and soups
Answers: 1 F; 2 E; 3 H; 4 A; 5 D; 6 B; 7 C; 8 G
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