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Dirty Ethnic Markets


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Those of you who know me on eGullet know that I'm an adventurous diner, love ethnic foods, have traveled widely, have good friends from other cultures, etc. etc.

Well, I'm just back from a shopping trip to Chinatown, where I stopped in a new grocery store and came away struck yet again by how filthy the market was beneath its gaudy exterior. My hands were dusty and grimy from touching merchandise in the store. I had to pick through an entire row of canned goods to find two cans that were not badly dented. I couldn't bring myself to buy one of the items I specifically sought because all the jars were encrusted with bits of the contents -- either from someone opening them to "check," from a single jar that had gotten broken during shipping, or from air pressure during transit loosening the seals. And forget the fish display, on ice, but with flies buzzing around.

I know that not ALL ethnic markets are like this, but practices like this seem to be more acceptable. I can't imagine shoppers flocking to a mainstream supermarket with the same low standards of visible cleanliness (forget about health department violations, which I won't get into).

Am I being culturally prejudiced here, or is there something I don't understand?

SuzySushi

"She sells shiso by the seashore."

My eGullet Foodblog: A Tropical Christmas in the Suburbs

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I went to a market a while back that had plucked chickens lying on a counter. No refrigeration but head and feet (and probably guts) still intact. The store didn't appear to be as dirty as some I've been in but I bought only things in cans.

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As someone who has grown up going to chinatown on the weekeends to buy groceries with my parents, i understand where you are coming from but personally I doesn't really bother me. It'sll about the experience but i guess in our society where everything in a supermarket now is dusted, sanitized, properly arranged, and methodically placed, it can be hard for some to handle the supermarkets in chinatown, heck even I get grossed out sometimes by the habits of some of the street vendors. hmmm.. not the most hygenic

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As a card-carrying leftist and communications consultant, I can assure you that you are not actually, officially "prejudiced" when you don't feel like buying food from an ethnic market with substandard (by gringon standards) hygine.

As a resident of a neighborhood where most of the grocery stores are heavily Latin and vaguely grungy, I understand your hesitance.

But I would say, trust your instincts and the local health department, not because it will make you a better person but because you will get your hands on better food. Certainly, even the most obscure market gets the occasional inspection these days. And you can tell most truly skeevy stuff from the edible just by looking and smelling.

We have a market nearby that sells fresh fish, most of which, on most days, do not look happy to be on sale. But we keep our eyes open and occasionally land something swell for half the price we'd pay in an upscale joint.

So, don't feel guilty, but maybe feel a little more adventurous.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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But that doesn't explain why grungy seems to be more acceptable in ethnic communities. Is it just that mainstream Americans have gotten further away from our roots and all markets used to be like this?

Is there no reason for merchants in these markets to bother dusting off the cans and put their best face forward?

SuzySushi

"She sells shiso by the seashore."

My eGullet Foodblog: A Tropical Christmas in the Suburbs

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As the owner of a middle class, Caucasian owned-run ethnic market, I can say that there are acceptable and unacceptable issues that you bring up. Dust is a never ending battle in our dusty little town and so we're constantly dusting over 10,000 jars and bottles (not fun work). The dented cans are a losing proposition. Remember, that your local supermarket products are coming from a plant in DesMoines. Ethnic products are travelling much greater distances, and so we often have dented cans. I just received a case of 24 British Heinz beans - all but one was dented. As an owner I can claim them and get my money back but I still won't be able to order any more for a couple of months (to justify shipping costs).

This gets at the bigger issue (often covered in Trader Joe's threads). While TJs and other super markets are great for convenience and often price, they are limited in what they can carry - your ethnic and specialty markets can get more obscure items but it comes with a variety of price.

So to respond to your initial post - no your not a bigot, and you certainly should have concerns with flies and other filth, but then you just need to draw your own line after that.

Rob

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I have found this more often in smaller, stand-alone (likely financially marginal) markets, in contrast to the larger ones, and ones that are small but appear to have growing management skill. The Asian market I shop at most often these days is one that has shown a significant improvement all around over the past two years -- better organized, fresher product, and clean floors and displays. They also now have more signage in English than they used to and more staff who speak English. Since I am usually the only non-Asian in the store, my guess is that the additional English signage and language is due to the diversity of Asian languages, and the fact that second and third generation Asian immigrants may read primarily in English, as much as it is for the benefit of potential non-Asian English speakers. Likewise the large sucessful hispanic chains are professionally managed and are serving many people who come with mainstream grocery store expectations of cleanliness and quality. And I faily regularly buy meat from a small hispanic market that I also trust.

So it all depends.

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Hello, I am an Indian, born and raised in London, and I can offer some thoughts on your situation.

I noticed during my yearly travels to America that American supermarkets (Giant, Safeways et al) put a different sort of emphasis on the look of the produce than do English markets (altho we are also certainly guilty of the "every apple looks exactly the same colour size and shape" crimes). And really its no wonder that 'ethnic' markets seem grimy compared to the almost clinical nature of big name supermarkets.

You must forgive me for not knowing where you've travelled to, but I also travel yearly to India amongst other places. And the smells and sounds of a busy market in Kolkata, West Bengal, are more exhilirating an experience in many ways than the first 20mins of Saving Private Ryan (forgive the hyperbole, I hope you know what I mean!). Flies buzzing around and carcasses all over the place, not to mention the dust/dirt on fruit and veg not just from the fields they were plucked/dug out from, but also from the receptacles they were transported to market in. But I never get sick eating ANY of the food, be it the food cooked at home, or the street food (knock wood).

My point is, that ethnic markets "back home" are indeed very different places from the (I would argue) overly sanitised markets that I am used to frequenting. The whole world lives differently, and I dont swear by the Health Department as much as I do by my own common sense. People do indeed have different standards of cleanliness, and different standards of acceptability. Dented cans certainly wouldnt bother me as much as bad fish, but here again, I am reliant on my own judgement, freed from as much prejudice as I can muster.

But if it doesnt feel/look/smell right, then that doesnt make you prejudiced for thinking so, as long as you are being fair to the market, the produce, and yourself. At the end of the day, business is business, and ppl have to sell what they can, within reason.

Thanks, apologies for the overly long response.

Raj

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As for me, I've come to actually distrust the super-hygenic-looking shopping experience provided by the modern American mainstream supermarket. To my mind, it's all too reminiscent of the kind of tomatoes those supermarkets sell--they look real purty and clean as a whistle, but the actual quality of the goods inside all that super-clean packaging is all too often substandard at best and utter crap at worst. Whereas a funky ethnic market tends to be bursting at the seams with flavors and food-quality I've seldom been able to wring out of a mainstream supermarket without a lot of careful shopping (and a lot more dinero).

Now obviously I'm not going to put up with spoiled or rotten food regardless of where it's being sold, but given the choice between empty cleanliness and funkified quality, I'm very cheerful to brave some dust and funk for the quality I crave, at prices I can actually afford for everyday consumption.

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But that doesn't explain why grungy seems to be more acceptable in ethnic communities. Is it just that mainstream Americans have gotten further away from our roots and all markets used to be like this?

Is there no reason for merchants in these markets to bother dusting off the cans and put their best face forward?

Odd construct, implying that less (apparently) sanitary markets reflect a passionate and desireable embrace of roots.

I suspect that we're dealing instead with affluence, distance from the farm, bureaucracy and a certain Northern European passion for order. To wit, "Americanized" markets have the cash flow to support can-dusting operations and we are detached enough from the places our food comes from to forget that dirt and manure are often involved in food production.

We have a health bureaucracy that does many important things -- it's much safer to eat food in America than in many places in the world -- but they also have time on their hands to craft ridiculously specific and demanding regulations. Note that cheesemakers in the EU are under threat from the bureaucrats in Brussels, who have taken their mandate to make food production sanitary to the point where traditional and delicious production methods are in jeapardy.

And, let's face it...the dominant culture in the U.S. is still largely Northern European and we/they tend to be relatively ordered. Plus...not the best food region, so imposing strict hygine standards, regardless of the culinary side effects, makes sense. :wink:

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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  To wit, "Americanized" markets have the cash flow to support can-dusting operations and we are detached enough from the places our food comes from to forget that dirt and manure are often involved in food production. 

An important point. Sanitation and cleanliness are expensive in both time and money.

We fail to appreciate that standards generally adhered to in our modern supermarkets are actually a luxury.

Cleanliness may be next to Godliness, but it's a lot more expensive. :wink:

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Even in the more modern supermarkets in Korea, the produce is more in its natural state, which Americans would call "dirty." Carrots are caked with mud, potatoes are gnarly -- few of the foods would be candidates for model shoots. Yet they are tastier than what I remember American produce tasting.

My girlfriend and I have a reverse argument when we go out to eat. She is of the younger generation (34 years old) and prefers what she calls "clean restaurants." To me, these restaurants are super-sanitized hospitals with clinical flourescent lighting. The food may be clean to her standards, but I find more flavor in the grungier holes-in-the-wall.

So, to a certain extent, I prefer the grungy places over the hyper-clinical places within reason. The clinical places put value on the image of their wares. The less-than-clinical ones are more honest.

Edited by ZenKimchi (log)

<a href='http://www.zenkimchi.com/FoodJournal' target='_blank'>ZenKimchi Korean Food Journal</a> - The longest running Korean food blog

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I frequent a large variety of ethnic markets in Chicago, and I agree that they are by-and-large less spic-and-span than non-ethnic grocery stores.

Nonetheless, any produce is going to be washed at home, and often the dirty stuff keeps better without being cleaned off (potatoes, carrots and the like), and I also wash the tops of cans before opening them (no matter where they are purchased).

In addition, I do think part of it is cultural conceptions of whether or not food is largely sanitary - particularly before it's prepared - I think American grocery stores sell an image that's not true. Meat in asceptic packaging may not disgust us, but that's not the natural state of meat. Food, is, by and large, messy, and it takes a lot of effort to make it seem like it's not.

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I think the "unamerican" level of hygiene in ethnic markets really reflects the way most of the unwesternized world views and purchases food. I travelled through Latin America last year and had my eyes opened wide to how clinically sanitized our supermarkets are.

Even the large commercial supermarkets in major cities like Cancun and Mexico City lack some of the standards that we have become used to, particularly with regards to their meat. I distinctly remember going to what would have been the equivalent of a Safeway or Loblaws in Cancun and being shocked when I came upon an open refrigerated bin where you could scoop chicken hearts into a plastic bag as if you were choosing cherries!

My feeling is that you should look at both these markets, as well American supermarket standards with a critical eye. In the end, if you are that uncomfortable with the condition of a certain food, don't buy it or eat it. You won't be able to enjoy it if all you can think of is how sick it's going to make you.

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Okay, to reiterate, I'm not talking about produce here, where "dirt" -- otherwise known as "earth" -- is to be expected. The produce in the Chinatown markets is fresher and cheaper than what's in conventional markets, and I have no qualms about buying it.

What I'm referring to is dented and rusty cans, bottles and jars that are weeping their contents, and other signs that the integrity of previously manufactured products has been breached.

Some interesting points have been brought out in this discussion about imported products not always faring well in transit, and larger markets being able to afford more staff to dust and arrange the merchandise.

But I still get the impression that general grunginess of shelf-stable areas of the store is more acceptable in ethnic markets, and I'm still curious as to why.

SuzySushi

"She sells shiso by the seashore."

My eGullet Foodblog: A Tropical Christmas in the Suburbs

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I shop a lot in Asian markets/grocery stores, and I definitely know what you're talking about. For me, it's just a matter of getting over the fear of dented cans and dusty tops in order to get harder to find (and often better) ingredients. There may be the occasional imperfection in a container, but I can never think of a time when I've gotten sick or eaten something bad tasting from an ethnic market. After a while, I just realized that aesthetics don't really matter, you just have to ignore them.

One thing I do tend to stay away from in Asian markets is fresh mushrooms. I've never had good experiences... they always look really old and shriveled up. Once I bought some shiitakes that smelled like a musty, expired Italian spice blend. :wacko:

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Heh, another "over here in Korea" reply coming...

If you think that's bad, you don't want to see the "ethnic" western food black market in Seoul. There's little to no refrigeration there, so the vendors freeze meat and cheese and have it sitting out in room temperature all day.

And it's sad what some Americans would pay for a dented jar of Cheez Whiz.

<a href='http://www.zenkimchi.com/FoodJournal' target='_blank'>ZenKimchi Korean Food Journal</a> - The longest running Korean food blog

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What I'm referring to is dented and rusty cans, bottles and jars that are weeping their contents, and other signs that the integrity of previously manufactured products has been breached.

I've seen a lot of this type of thing in rural (and sometimes not so rural) New England in small markets owned by white people. I'd hit some random place looking for a snack, grab a bag of potato chips and it would be dirty. Looking around the store you would see food that was dirty and/or not safe, broken packages and a general lack of professionalism with regard to stocking, rotating, etc. At my nearest market, they were making an effort to clean up their act but anything that required handling would often be spoiled.

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I can handle dirty produce and dusty cans, but when I smell sour dairy, fishy smelling fish or insects flying around, I high tail it out of there.

What she said :smile:

Also: I take comfort from the research showing (sort of)

that kids raised in a slightly dirtier environment end up

with healthier immune systems, less asthma, etc. than

those in super sterile surroundings (except those who have

some immune disorder or some such).

And those who obsessively clean their surroundings with

"antibacterial" products etc. contribute to longer term

problems with resistant germs etc....

Like others have said, somehow the less obsessively

standardized and hygenic surroundings have tastier food

for some reason.

Each annual trip to India I "inoculate" myself with street food

(again paying attention to more subtle cues e.g. dirt vs decay)

and it's been great. Looking fwd to when my kids are old enough

to appreciate such things....

Milagai

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Also:  I take comfort from the research showing (sort of)

that kids raised in a slightly dirtier environment end up

with healthier immune systems, less asthma, etc. than

those in super sterile surroundings (except those who have

some immune disorder or some such).

And those who obsessively clean their surroundings with

"antibacterial" products etc. contribute to longer term

problems with resistant germs etc....

Oh, yeah. What she said. :biggrin: Mine were traveling on planes before they were a month old, among many other things. Grandmas made dire predictions that never came true. :biggrin::biggrin:

Anyway. What I've learned from working with people from different cultures, is that the people in their countries don't get sick from doing things a certain way, so they aren't nearly as concerned about neatness, sanitation, handwashing, keeping dirt off stuff, etc. It doesn't affect the way I shop or buy, in the least. If the product is good, and not spoiled, I buy it.

"Oh, tuna. Tuna, tuna, tuna." -Andy Bernard, The Office
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Heh, another "over here in Korea" reply coming...

If you think that's bad, you don't want to see the "ethnic" western food black market in Seoul. There's little to no refrigeration there, so the vendors freeze meat and cheese and have it sitting out in room temperature all day.

And it's sad what some Americans would pay for a dented jar of Cheez Whiz™.

Yeah, I remember blocks of frozen hot dogs, slowly defrosting in the aisles. I also got the impression that at the end of the day, they just chucked the unsold back into the freezer!

Why do ethnic markets seem less concerned with cleanliness? I think Zenkimchi partially answered that. Because people will buy it anyway, if they're desperate enough for the product. So why bother? I remember buying cottage cheese from the western markets in Seoul; keeping it in my backpack all night; taking it home on the bus and eating the next morning for breakfast. Would I have treated cottage cheese that way in Canada? No way! I would've assumed it would kill me. In fact, I just finished off a plate of lovely fried Halloumi that I got at a western market here in Hanoi. It also sat out of a fridge for hours, as the place I bought it from was far from my house. I don't care, because if I didn't take the products like that, I'd never get them. I hardly care that the store I bought it in was also full of dusty and dented cans - of Hunt's tomatoes!

So ultimately I think it's a combination of the distance the products have to travel, and the relative desperation of the consumers buying the products. If they can't get it anywhere else, they'll take it like that! So management doesn't really care about the state of things. I've lived in both Korea and Vietnam, and I can say that regular stores in both these countries and clean and neatly stocked. So I don't think it's that people from those countries don't care about that.

Hmm. I'm not sure if that's as coherent as I think it is.

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What I'm referring to is dented and rusty cans, bottles and jars that are weeping their contents, and other signs that the integrity of previously manufactured products has been breached.

........

But I still get the impression that general grunginess of shelf-stable areas of the store is more acceptable in ethnic markets, and I'm still curious as to why.

This is a really interesting topic.

I frequent a bunch of ethnic markets in my city, all but two of them are mom-and-pop operations, and none are in the state you describe. In fact, all of them seem to be hyper-tidy, though not as hyper-sanitized as the local Albertson's is. This might be due in part to an awareness that Americans expect squeaky cleanliness, plus Las Vegas has become the Mall of America of restaurants, or some other factor. (In fact, I think I'll ask them...) Not only that, but the produce is ALWAYS in better condition than the non-ethnic groceries, where shriveled mushrooms with a dubious sheen are pretty common.

Still, leaky containers (unless it's kimchi) and dented rusty cans are a deal-breaker for me. Dust? Not a problem.--but then, I live in the desert.

Would you consider initiating a conversation with the owner(s) about what they think of the "American" grocery stores in the area? That might provide you with some really interesting info.

...or....maybe ask the department of health/sanitation? They might provide you with some insight, too.

Edited by Philanthrophobe (log)

"She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."

--Flannery O'Connor, "A Good Man is Hard to Find"

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Okay, to reiterate, I'm not talking about produce here, where "dirt" -- otherwise known as "earth" -- is to be expected. The produce in the Chinatown markets is fresher and cheaper than what's in conventional markets, and I have no qualms about buying it.

What I'm referring to is dented and rusty cans, bottles and jars that are weeping their contents, and other signs that the integrity of previously manufactured products has been breached.

Some interesting points have been brought out in this discussion about imported products not always faring well in transit, and larger markets being able to afford more staff to dust and arrange the merchandise.

But I still get the impression that general grunginess of shelf-stable areas of the store is more acceptable in ethnic markets, and I'm still curious as to why.

This thread touches on a lot of very interesting issues. I'd like to return to the question of "cultural prejudice," because I think it is both important and in need of clarification. It strikes me that a number of responses to this question interpret the idea of cultural prejudice as straightforwardly pejorative, and I take issue with this. If one holds an evaluative stance (either positive or negative) towards a type of state of affairs and associates that type of state of affairs primarily with certain cultures that are identified as "ethnic" or "not generic", then it seems pretty obvious that cultural bias is involved. The conventional Western terms "ethnic" and "generic" are culturally biased, because they are meant to distinguish between things that are "not white" and things that are "white."

HOWEVER, this does not mean that anyone who uses these terms is a bad person. My opinion is that we would be better off if Westerners didn't divide the world up into "ethnic" things and "generic" things. But I am no less guilty of doing this than most people (and I am not white). Moreoever, I don't think that experiencing aversion to the conditions of some "ethnic" markets makes one guilty of racism or some other equally horrible moral crime. The really important question seems to be whether the aversion is unwarranted.

One way to approach the question is to try to discern whether or not "our" standards of cleanliness are better or worse than "their's." I think this is a mistake. A person may be able to change his or her current standards to some extent. But if that person has tried to be open minded by is still really disgusted by things like bottles leaking their contents, and continues to be enculturated in a society in which bottles leaking their contents is typically deemed unacceptable, changing one's own (or possibly someone else's) standards is going to be a pretty frustrating task.

Another way to approach the question is to try to discern how the aversion affects one's attitudes and behaviour towards the people associated with the aversion. Does the seemingly dirty market make the people associated with it seem dirty, less civilised, backwards, etc.? I think this is a more fruitful approach.

I really hope that this post does not offend anyone, because that is not my intention. I think the question of cultural prejudice is extremely important and difficult, and I also think that it is extremely relevant to those of us who want to discuss food culture thoughtfully.

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Okay, to reiterate, I'm not talking about produce here, where "dirt" -- otherwise known as "earth" -- is to be expected. The produce in the Chinatown markets is fresher and cheaper than what's in conventional markets, and I have no qualms about buying it.

What I'm referring to is dented and rusty cans, bottles and jars that are weeping their contents, and other signs that the integrity of previously manufactured products has been breached.

Some interesting points have been brought out in this discussion about imported products not always faring well in transit, and larger markets being able to afford more staff to dust and arrange the merchandise.

But I still get the impression that general grunginess of shelf-stable areas of the store is more acceptable in ethnic markets, and I'm still curious as to why.

This thread touches on a lot of very interesting issues. I'd like to return to the question of "cultural prejudice," because I think it is both important and in need of clarification. It strikes me that a number of responses to this question interpret the idea of cultural prejudice as straightforwardly pejorative, and I take issue with this. If one holds an evaluative stance (either positive or negative) towards a type of state of affairs and associates that type of state of affairs primarily with certain cultures that are identified as "ethnic" or "not generic", then it seems pretty obvious that cultural bias is involved. The conventional Western terms "ethnic" and "generic" are culturally biased, because they are meant to distinguish between things that are "not white" and things that are "white."

HOWEVER, this does not mean that anyone who uses these terms is a bad person. My opinion is that we would be better off if Westerners didn't divide the world up into "ethnic" things and "generic" things. But I am no less guilty of doing this than most people (and I am not white). Moreoever, I don't think that experiencing aversion to the conditions of some "ethnic" markets makes one guilty of racism or some other equally horrible moral crime. The really important question seems to be whether the aversion is unwarranted.

One way to approach the question is to try to discern whether or not "our" standards of cleanliness are better or worse than "their's." I think this is a mistake. A person may be able to change his or her current standards to some extent. But if that person has tried to be open minded by is still really disgusted by things like bottles leaking their contents, and continues to be enculturated in a society in which bottles leaking their contents is typically deemed unacceptable, changing one's own (or possibly someone else's) standards is going to be a pretty frustrating task.

Another way to approach the question is to try to discern how the aversion affects one's attitudes and behaviour towards the people associated with the aversion. Does the seemingly dirty market make the people associated with it seem dirty, less civilised, backwards, etc.? I think this is a more fruitful approach.

I really hope that this post does not offend anyone, because that is not my intention. I think the question of cultural prejudice is extremely important and difficult, and I also think that it is extremely relevant to those of us who want to discuss food culture thoughtfully.

Whoa. Awesome post!!

"She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."

--Flannery O'Connor, "A Good Man is Hard to Find"

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