As a first-generation Vietnamese American and the daughter of refugees, I grew up with a lot of internalized shame associated with our food. From a young age, I knew what my family ate was different from my friends’. I was teased for bringing in shredded pork floss over rice for lunch (yes, someone screeched “ew, cat hair!” in the cafeteria, to my embarrassment).
This shame pervaded even to our shopping routines: I vividly remember going to Asian grocers or settling for diluted products in the “ethnic” aisle in mainstream supermarkets. This aisle, usually a small one in the middle of the store, always felt sad to me and young Kim didn’t fully understand why.
It was a segregated section and often a hodgepodge of ingredients, condiments, and staples across cuisines from communities of color — from black beans and Sriracha to tortillas and coconut milk.
It’s first important to understand the historical origins of this “ethnic” aisle. The modern supermarket as we know it emerged in the 1930s — small mom ‘n pop shops and crowded city living gave way to suburban sprawl and large grocers. By the mid-20th century, “ethnic” aisles were formed to meet the newfound interest in international flavors brought home by servicemen who were abroad during World War II. And thus, the “ethnic” aisle was born to cater to a white, suburban population.
But what does “ethnic” even mean? According to NYU professor and author of The Ethnic Restaurateur, Krishnendu Ray, it became a catch-all term for foods that aren’t Black or white. The aisle is a literal manifestation of othering, separate from and not worthy to be deemed as “normal,” and indeed American.
Interestingly, Ray also notes that, “when we call food ethnic, we are signifying a difference — but also a certain kind of inferiority.” This aisle often reinforces that “ethnic” connotes cheaper, less valued foods. This stereotype extends even to restaurants, which have long faced an artificial ceiling to how much their food can be worth.
What’s most striking to me is that this entire conversation is inherently centered around the perspective of whiteness, with white consumers given the purported authority to determine what is or is not considered “ethnic.” It’s worth pointing out that even some European cuisines and communities — like Italian and Greek— have been allowed to transcend this label — a reflection of immigration patterns in the late 1880s and their perceived proximity to whiteness.
Despite ⅓ of the US population now consisting of immigrants and their children, the “ethnic” aisle in most mainstream grocery stores continues to other POC communities. But the DNA of this country is changing: in 2018, the buying power of minorities reached $16 trillion, and is expected to grow to $19 trillion in 2023, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth. Asian Americans, in particular, have a rapidly-growing buying power that is projected to increase to $1.3 trillion by 2023 (Nielsen).
It’s this growing wallet and exploding cultural resonance that we see and are most excited about. We started Omsom with this mission in mind — to reclaim and celebrate the multitudes within Asian American flavors and stories, so often diluted on the mainstream.
We do this by radically prioritizing cultural integrity and centering Asian Americans at the heart of our business. For every sauce that we build in Asian cuisine, we partner with an iconic chef of that background who is involved every step of the way — from co-creating the recipe to sourcing specialty ingredients from Asia directly. It is hugely important that they are fairly compensated — most CPG businesses would pay a one-time engagement fee, but that didn't feel like an equitable structure to us. Instead, Omsom pays our Tastemakers a royalty fee on all sales of the products we craft together, as we firmly believe that rising tides raise all boats.
As many first- and second-generation restaurateurs and entrepreneurs come to the forefront, we’re here to say: the “ethnic” aisle’s time is up. According to David Chang, it’s no longer a question of acceptance — rather, this aisle is a statement of an antiquated view of how America looks and eats.
The existence of this “ethnic” aisle sends a message about how we collectively value these cuisines and their place at the American dining table. And while this aisle continues to burst with flavor and innovation from small POC-run brands, it’s not fair to expect us to settle for scraps of representation when it comes to how our cuisines are showcased. We’re not even asking for a dramatic change: just a reframe that normalizes our food, like shelving Asian condiments next to ketchup and mustard.
Most mainstream grocery stores continue to perpetuate a diet rooted in white Americana — which is not the future of this country’s continually diversifying palate.
We are hopeful for a future where this aisle no longer exists and instead, products are classified by functional category. A future where gochujang sits next to mayonnaise and achaar, and rice noodles sits next to pasta and sweet potato noodles. Re-imagining this modern, more equitable grocery store creates room for more widespread discovery and adoption - in a fair way for both culturally voracious consumers and change-making POC makers + artisans.