Take Harlem: Having lived here temporarily for about a week-and-a-half, I have done enough grocery shopping to discover that the foods that they stock in surplus here are, indeed, significantly different from those I would find in a suburban Pittsburgh Giant Eagle or Shop’n Save store. As I perused the condiments aisle in one grocery store for peanut butter, I discovered that Harlem residents must like their food quite spicy—there were not one, not two, but three shelves of every brand of hot sauce imaginable. Likewise, in the canned goods aisle, I discovered several versions of a food I have only ever heard by name: collard greens. (Needless to say, I did not buy a can; the name alone does not sound very appetizing—“greens” is such a general term, as if someone wasn’t able to determine exactly what kind of vegetable this is, and “collard” sounds a little like beginning of the word “cauliflower” combined with the end of “turd.” If I am going to try this new, strange-sounding food, I’d rather be introduced by a native eater. If it’s a real vegetable, it’s probably better fresh, and I would have no idea how to find—much less prepare—it properly.)
Then, there is my new place of residence: Woodside. Having only perused a few stores during my apartment-scouting days, I cannot comment extensively on what food is sold in Woodside. However, I did note a variety of tremendously large bags of rice showcased at the front of several stores, along with an extensive variety of dried beans sold not only at the grocery stores, but at the discount marts, as well. Judging by the appearance of the population, Woodside seems to be a predominantly Indian community, but even if I were to walk around the area blind, the smells alone would tip me off. Harlem smells like cigarette smoke, rotting trash, incense sticks, and grease (think fried chicken). Woodside smells like hot pavement, car exhaust, construction dust, and spice (kebabs, curry, and other roadside vendor Halal cuisine).
My last area of comparison is the Upper West Side. I found grocery shopping quite frustrating during my time at Columbia, but not for cultural reasons. There was no predominant ethnic population that grocery seemed to cater to in the Upper West Side. Instead, the stores catered to a certain socio-economic population: the boutique shoppers. Grocery stores tended to sell fruit by the piece instead of the pound (e.g. 3 oranges for $5), and the produce was buffed to shine before being carefully arranged on display. Beans, if they were to be found, were always canned and Goya-brand—the “designer” brand of canned beans, for all of you non-bean eaters. I, of course, was frustrated by all this shopping glitz and glamour. I don’t need designer beans and sparkling oranges; I need simple, affordable, basic food. For that, it seemed, I needed to peruse other areas of the city and lug my findings all the way back to Columbia. At least, however, my thriftiness served as motivation to explore.
And now that I have explored a little more, I am ecstatic to find that there is an Asian community exactly one subway stop away from my new Queens residence. It’s certainly not Chinatown, and the population still seems to appear mixed, at least from my observations as I strolled down the street. So how do I know it is Asian community? The grocery store! My friend Tao and I ate lunch in the area, and then he took me to a nearby grocery store. The very front of the store was teeming with live and recently-butchered fish as well as fruits that I recognized from my recent trip to Singapore (longan and dragon fruit in particular)! We found soba in the noodles aisle and any number of ten-pound bags of rice in the back of the store. Plus, there was an entire aisle of chili sauce! I am so relieved that when my two bottles from Singapore run out, I will be able to find replacements. However, picking a brand will undoubtedly prove tricky….