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Asian Groceries Move Online

If you’re at all familiar with Asian groceries, you’d know the aching feeling of trying to find your Asian sauces, dried anchovies, or chillis at the ethnic grocery aisle in the neighborhood’s biggest supermarket. Alas, it’s not there—just some Maruchan ramen packets, Sriracha bottles, and Goya beans. 

Asian grocery stores are a safe haven. In Boston, H-Mart and Super88 carry the biggest selection of basic Asian ingredients, delicacies, and desserts. You can find thirty different soy sauce bottles, ranging from dark, light, and regular. Instead of Sriracha, there’s Sichuan peppercorn, gochugaru, and sambal. The frozen aisle is jam-packed with char siew buns, gyozas, scallion pancakes, and tang yuan. It’s a refuge of home without the label ethnic. 

But the pandemic has changed the way we shop. Empty streets, mask mandates, and remote work have all rendered us homebodies. Even as we transition back to in-store shopping, online deliveries make life so much easier, and this mode of shopping exploded during the pandemic. Large grocery retailers began online deliveries without expanding their ethnic food aisle. In the last year, Asian American foodies have taken on the online grocery market by storm. 

Andrea Xu was born in Spain to Chinese parents. She moved to New York ten years ago. Xu grew up with food from all over the world—meals mixing unconventional ingredients. New York ten years ago, and even now, lacked the depth Xu craved. Xu and her partner began creating their company, Umamicart, an online grocery platform that would deliver essential and premium Asian-owned products. 

Xu interviewed dozens of customers and suppliers to understand what the grocery industry is lacking. “The ethnic aisle at mainstream grocery stores were often filled with brands that were unfamiliar,” she says. “The Asian brands that me and many of my third-culture friends loved weren’t sold at mainstream stores but were instead substituted with American-made versions of our favorite products, many of which weren’t comparable in quality or price.”

Popular grocery stores are starting to include more cultural foods. Take for example Trader Joe’s. It’s the millennial and Gen-Z safe space for relatively affordable and accessible simple groceries. Frozen meals such as the tikka masala, fried rice, and pork soup dumplings are growing popular among young, white consumers. Not surprisingly, these meals aren’t the most authentic and upcharge on otherwise simple, staple meals for people who belong to that culture. The store has also been under fire in the past for racist labeling of international foods. 

“It’s nearly impossible for a brick-and-mortar store to incorporate all non-white cuisines into their shelves in a thoughtful or curated way,” Xu says. “With Umamicart, we want to use our digital platform to our advantage and go deeper into these cuisines by offering an expansive catalog. We’re proud to offer nearly a thousand traditional and creative Asian offerings.”

Are separate grocery platforms the answer to diversifying food rather than integrating mainstream grocery stores? It seems the latter is a far-off reality as supply chains slow down and demand remains low among the majority of white customers. Umamicart offers an accessible and curated alternative. 

“We’ve noticed that customers who are both familiar and unfamiliar with Asian cuisines are becoming increasingly more dissatisfied with the selection at mainstream grocery stores,” Xu adds. “From our market research and direct conversations with customers, more and more customers care about who and what is behind the brands they are purchasing. They want to be provided with thoughtful and personalized recommendations and not just an odd mix.”

Other online grocery platforms are popping up like Weee, Bokksu, and Omsom, offering the same level of personalization for buying every day and more fun groceries. Of course, the pandemic has accelerated the demand for online delivery businesses, but underlying the trend of online Asian grocery platforms is the growing diversification of the food industry in America. Cultural foods no longer should be boxed up in a tiny ethnic grocery aisle. It deserves more attention, love, and authenticity that can only be genuinely brought out by individual platforms. 

“At Umamicart, for example, we add dozens of new fresh and pantry products every week,” Xu says. Our selection is a mix of timeless staples in different cuisines, and new and personal takes on traditional flavors—from immigrant-led businesses, mom-and-pop suppliers, and new and inspiring brands from Asian American founders.”

Maybe one day mainstream grocery stores in America will put Chinese black vinegar next to the red wine vinegar, the tahini next to the gojuchang, the McCormick spices next to five-spice powder and furikake, or the tomato paste next to curry blocks and tamarind paste; but until then, Asian ingredients and other international foods deserve an extra spotlight.

Cover photo courtesy of Seasoned by Jin

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