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Erewhon: A Wellness Trap

There’s a certain pretentiousness that clings in the air when you walk into the oh-so-luxurious and exclusive Erewhon. Shelves explode with a muted color palette that only millennial and Gen-z graphic designers can achieve, a mix of warm-toned mauves and oranges with art deco influences, and a retro font to go with it. Tiny boxes of neatly packed and well-massaged kale along with pre-cut cups of fruit are begging to be picked up for an on-the-go snack of at least $15. Beside the to-go-bar, what seems like hundreds of kombucha bottles line the fridge in those same muted colors, a dizzying array of choice in a single drink form. Looking closer, each label has some kind of combination of vegan, gluten-free, immunity-boosting, non-GMO, or soy-free, as if the majority of its customers are allergic to at least one food group. This is Erewhon, the rich-people simulation of grocery shopping – but how did Erewhon make its rise to fame, and why are people like us – “the normal, everyday citizens” – so entranced by it? 

If you don’t know already, this celebrity-raved grocery store has gained much attraction over the last couple of years, particularly Los Angeles, where it now boasts six locations in the county area. As stated on their website, “Through our markets, we endeavor to provide exceptional organic products that inspire good decision-making and healthier communities.” And when they mean “exceptional”, they mean exorbitantly overpriced groceries. Yet despite the price tag, Erewhon is every clean-girl’s aesthetic dream, and has culminated in an almost-cult following on social media. 

The Making of Erewhon

Although this chain grocery store took off during the pandemic, its origins humbly began in 1966 as a natural foods store. And, surprise, it was founded in Boston by Michio and Aveline Kushi. The Japanese couple pioneered the macrobiotic diet, with Michio busy fermenting foods right in his basement. Erewhon provided exclusive organic produce and stock from Japan imported by the Kushis, focused mainly on organic and fermented foods. 

Erewhon then made its move to the West Coast, where it first opened in the early 70s. In 1975, the Kushis sold the business. Since then, the Boston location has closed, but the business kept its goal of exclusivity and niche throughout the generations of ownership. 

The celebrity magnet store we know today has blossomed under its current owners, Tony and Josephine Antoci, who oversaw the store’s California takeover since rapid expansion in 2011. Down to its business model, Erewhon strives to stock entirely organic and non-GMO products, even partnering with local businesses, such as biodynamic farms to small-shop vendors in what Tony describes as “craftsmen.” 

But more than just a grocery store, Erewhon is an experience, a community devoted to kombucha, among other things. Even the name itself is an anagram of “nowhere” from Samuel Butler’s 1872 novel of a utopian society. That elusive and otherworldly community only adds to the illusion of a high-class community, one that came together in the face of a pandemic. 

During Covid-19, Erewhon adapted quickly: opening early for senior citizens, offering a dedicated tonic bar that offers immunity-boosting shots, and even giving out chlorophyll water for free. Among other safety measures, Erewhon became a paparazzi hotspot to sneak a snapshot of A-list celebrities on their weekly grocery runs during the pandemic. 

Marketing Wellness 

Although the branding of natural foods has been at its genesis core, Erewhon’s rise into the limelight follows a growing trend, and now an entire industry, of wellness that seeps into every marketing strategy in the lifestyle realm. No longer are buzzwords like “diet” and “bikini-body” used in health marketing, as the rise in body positivity subserves the highly toxic diet culture of the early 2000s. At the same time, has wellness co-opted diet culture, remarketing it into something more sophisticated? 

The wellness industry is now worth $1.5 trillion dollars. It encompasses physical health, fitness, mental health, and even spiritual health. The wellness industry expands the old fitness world, where abs and low-carb diets were all the rage. Wellness is, supposedly, better than that. 

This switch in consumer interest from physical to holistic wellness profoundly changed the way we look at food. Clean-eating is simply the second wave of an adaptable diet culture that continuously markets off of people’s desire to lose weight. But instead of in-your-face calorie restriction, like the famed and failed Atkins diet, food now revolves around the obsession over “clean” labels like gluten-free, vegan, non-GMO – sounds familiar? 

Food is reduced to its nutritional value and gain, with little emphasis on the community food brings, or even acknowledging complex and often joyful experiences with food as human beings. Juice detoxes are to clear the mind, fermented foods alleviates gut issues linked with anxiety, organic and non-processed food helps with depression – these are the practices of marketing wellness, and it’s working. In the words of Naomi Wolf from her book The Beauty Myth, “health makes good propaganda.” 

The Wellness Trap

Erewhon is simply the pinnacle of this wellness trap. On top of following clean-eating trends, Erewhon takes it a step further by selling astronomical prices to an exclusive clientele, making wellness a brand of wealth. Other stores like WholeFoods and Trader Joe’s sell the appearance of wellness just as strategically with a broader audience. 

As much as wellness has reversed the more severe damages of diet culture, with its emphasis over holistic health rather than physical appearance, wellness remains a marketing strategy to sell to us: the consumers. Yet still, in a world where food remains restrained with restrictive labels disguised as health, we are still miles away from approaching food with sheer joy without the whispers of punishment.

Ask yourself these questions: Am I guided by health regulations that aren’t related to my own physical needs? Is my relationship with food transactional? Do I think eating a certain dish makes or breaks my wellbeing? Am I listening to myself or the industry? 

Taking a deeper look at Erewhon’s massive following provides a lens to understand the inner workings of the consumerist mind toward wellness. After all, health is priceless, or rather you can’t put a price tag on health – so why not pay for a $17 blue smoothie  in exchange for glowing skin?

Cover photo courtesy of Erewhon

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I Communicate Through Food

It’s been three years since I’ve been back in stuffy Jakarta, Indonesia. Motorbikes swarm your vision as you inch and inch down choking traffic. Along the pavements are warung stalls selling some seriously slurp-worthy and fragrant bakmie ayam (chicken noodles) or bubur ayam (chicken porridge), all with a healthy dose of sambal chili and an attractive cheap price tag. How I missed the taste of sambal burning my tongue, and tempeh doused in a sweet sauce of kecap manis (not how trendy white vegans make their tempeh). How I missed the springiness of the noodles in mie goreng with a perfectly fried and crispy egg to grace the top. I missed the creaminess of spicy peanut sauce mixed together with a salad and rice cakes – gado gado is pretty much the only source of vegetables I have in this chaotic city. Now that I am back working for a dream internship in Jakarta, I took it all in, devoured every dish I’ve been craving over the years because God knows you can’t find even the slightest depth of flavor like this in Boston. 

Yet Jakarta isn’t my home. I’m Indonesian, yes, but I grew up in Singapore almost my entire life. Indonesian cuisine stood hand in hand with my childhood, but the capital city itself remains a stranger, a stubborn cousin at best. 

Apart from my apparent separation anxiety from Indonesian food, I was also separated from my extended family for three years. As I walked into my Oma’s home after work, a home littered with memorabilia, or simply pure junk collecting dusk (we never ask), I was immediately greeted with an array of dishes set on the dining table covered by a mosquito basket. 

“Halo halo,” my Oma would say, and kissed me firmly on both cheeks. “Sit sit, eat, what you want to eat, Bel?” 

Oma doesn’t speak great English, and I don’t speak great Bahasa. She tries for me, and I try for her. 

“Iya Oma, saya laper bangat. (Yes Oma, I’m so hungry)” I’d reply back. It’s not often my Oma and I get to spend time one on one. Often the adults, my parents, uncle, and aunt, fill up the conversation and translate what I say to Oma. This time, the kitchen fell quiet as Oma lifted the mosquito cover revealing about 10 dishes sprawled before me. Otak otak (fish cakes – my childhood), sayur lodeh (vegetable soup – my favorite, she knows), siu mai dumplings, har gow dumplings, eggplants cooked with sambal, and a bowl of freshly picked mangoes from her garden already waiting on the side when it comes to dessert. 

Oma asked me about school, the food in Boston, whether I will stay in America after graduation, and I answered swiftly with her cooking unashamedly stuffed in my mouth. But apart from the usual grandma catch-up questions, we ate in silence. It wasn’t the awkward, loud silence that sounded like a broken speaker reverberating between us. I like my Oma enough where silence is welcomed. 

I knew from years of experience that complimenting Oma’s cooking is the way to her heart. Our silence would only break from my incessant “mmms” as I sample each dish with my bed of white rice, and everytime Oma would smile and continue eating her food. 

I told her it’s been so long since I had good Indonesian food, every bite I took tasted better than what I had imagined all this time. Immediately, we had this understanding. We don’t say I’ve missed you, even though it’s been three years. It’s not in the Asian family lingo. But we do enjoy each other’s cooking and appreciate our culture’s cuisine together. My “mmms” to the otak otak is an extension to an “I miss you” to Oma, and all the memories associated with this neatly packed chewy fish cake wrapped in flaky and fragrant banana leaves, how Oma used to peel them for me when I was younger and stack otak otak on my plate, how it would always be the first dish I’m greeted with whenever I’m back. Food isn’t just sustenance. It isn’t even just culture. It’s a way of communicating that encompasses memories and emotions more than words can describe. In the same way Americans give chicken noodle soup to their sick children, my parents gave me the Indonesian rendition, soto ayam (chicken soup with vermicelli noodles). Each dish has meaning not only on a personal level, but symbolizes a family or societal tradition as a whole. Even though I can’t speak fluent Bahasa, my Oma and I still had a conversation of sorts. Even when I struggle with my national identity, food is at the heart of my Indonesian understanding.

Cover photo courtesy of CookPad

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PSA: Fortune Cookies Aren’t Chinese

Those thin, wafer-like crackers with a soft tint of yellow and a subtle taste of vanilla folded gently to encase a rather enigmatic yet oddly comforting rolled up paper fortune has become an icon of Chinese American restaurants. Three billion cookies are made each year almost entirely in the United States, but the origins of fortune cookies didn’t come from China nor did it come from Chinese Americans. The roots of fortune cookies can actually be traced to Japan. So how were fortune cookies adopted into Chinese American food culture? It’s a story about immigration. 

The emblematic folded shape of the fortune cookie was found in 1870s Kyoto by researcher Yasuko Nakamachi. She gathered evidence of these cookies in family bakeries owned by generations outside a Shinto shrine in Kyoto. Instead of commercialized vanilla scents, these cookies were made of miso and sesame resulting in a darker cookie. Nakamachi is the crowned expert in the history of the fortune cookie. She used old documents and even illustrations that referenced the traditional fortune cookie known as “tsujiura senbei” in Japanese. Instead of a paper fortune enclosed inside the hollows of the cookie, Japanese fortune cookies pinched the fortunes into the folds of the cookie. 

Anyhow, this is where immigration changed the fates of these centuries-old Kyoto cookies. After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned Chinese workers from entering the country, the cheap labor market was replaced by an influx of Japanese immigrants in the 1880s and early 1890s coming into Hawaii and California. These cookies started popping up in several Japanese bakeries—one in San Francisco called the Japanese Tea Garden (traced back as the original vanilla and buttermilk flavoring) and three in Los-Angeles called Fugetsu-Do, Umeya, and the Hong Kong Noodle Company. Japanese immigrants actually opened up Chinese restaurant businesses. 

Even as the fortune cookie traveled from Japan to America, the fusion between Japanese and Chinese businesses was already taking place. Jennifer Lee traced immigration patterns of the fortune cookie in her book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. She observed that Americans at the time of Japanese immigration in the 1890s opened Chinese restaurants rather than their own cuisine simply because Americans weren’t big fans of Japanese food like raw fish. 

However, the crossover of Chinese businesses run by Japanese owners doesn’t fully explain the complete adoption of fortune cookies into the Chinese American mainstream. In fact, the transfer of fortune cookies from Japanese bakeries to Chinese restaurants was a product of Japanese ostracisation following World War II. Reacting against the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt relocated almost 120,000 Japanese civilians in internment camps. This executive order displaced the Japanese from their livelihoods, homes, and businesses. With the closing of Japanese bakeries, Chinese entrepreneurs saw an opening. These cookies became increasingly popular with a growing demand. After the war, nearly 250 million cookies were produced every year by Chinese bakeries and factories. 

Like most things in America, its histories are defined by stories of immigration. The transfer of one culture to another is a uniquely American experience. Fortune cookies aren’t Chinese, let alone solely a Chinese American invention. All of this is packed neatly into a perfectly manufactured yellow-tinted cookie.

Cover image courtesy of The Curious Origin of Fortune Cookies

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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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Veganism in the World of Dieting

In the last decade, veganism has become more mainstream than ever before. From the rise of climate conservation and animal rights, veganism became an easy, sure fire way for individual activism. But the early vegan activists who preached about “your body is a temple” mantra may have contributed to the endless cycle of cult dieting. 

Veganism is a lifestyle that rejects all types of animal products. No meat, obviously. Also, no dairy, eggs, gelatin, and whey. The term was born from a British woodworker, David Watson, in November 1944. He used the rise in tuberculosis in Britain—linked with dairy cows—to his advantage in his Vegan Society newsletter which had 25 subscribers. Watson died at 95 in 2005, in which veganism rose to a whopping 2 million in the US. 

It can be a beautiful lifestyle, one that lessens your carbon footprint by a quarter. If you followed a select type of popular vegans on social media from around 2015, however that lifestyle cuts too close to disordered eating, steeped in the language of bikini body dieting. 

Take for example, Freelee the Banana Girl—the mother of the vegan cult back in 2014. Her fame derived from the insane 51-bananas-a-day vegan diet. Yes, 51 bananas a day. That’s around 714 g of sugar. Not to say sugar is terrible, but 700 g isn’t great. She also started the popular vegan diet Raw Till 4, a diet that only consists of eating raw foods like vegetables and fruits until 4 p.m. 

Freelee’s brand was heavily based on fatphobic and diet rhetoric to further her vegan agenda for “healthy weight loss.” In a YouTube video from 2014, Freelee bashes Jenna Marbles, a popular comedy YouTuber, for her non-vegan diet which Freelee claims has made Jenna gain weight. “She’s putting the animal products back in her mouth at a rapid rate,” Freelee says. In another video from 2013, Freelee excitedly claims she is “cellulite free” at 33 years old—even though 80 to 90 percent of women have cellulite. This type of weight loss emphasis is harmful not only to a person’s emotional wellbeing, but their physical health too. 

Once religious followers of Freelee, popular vegan YouTubers Bonny Rebecca and Rawvana actually ditched their preacher vegan brand on social media after experiencing digestion problems possibly linked with their diets. 

Bonny Rebbeca was slammed with hate after releasing her “Why I’m no longer vegan…” video in 2019. She explained she and her partner experienced painful gut issues, skin breakouts, and chronic fatigue. The restrictive rules of vegan diets such as Raw Till 4, high-carb, and low-fat diets led to disordered eating and an unhealthy relationship with food. In many of her older videos, Bonny was afraid to use oil and salt in her meals. 

Rawvana was another YouTuber famous for her intense raw vegan diet. Imagine recipe videos of just … fruit. Just like Bonny, Rawvana experienced adverse gut issues like SIBO and other health problems like anemia. 

However, when done right, veganism still offers a wealth of benefits for personal and environmental health. Adopting a plant-based diet naturally increases intake of fiber, antioxidants, potassium, magnesium and vitamins A, C, and E. It can also lower blood sugar levels and protect against risks of heart disease and cancer. Moreover, plant-based diets are still a hot topic, with many brands such as HelloFresh, a meal-kit delivery company, promoting plant-based meals as part of their marketing strategy. 

There’s still a wealth of healthy vegan content on social media, with new vegan influencers on the rise and promoting a more well-balanced vegan lifestyle without all the dieting nonsense. For example, Nisha Vora, under the name Vegan Plant Life, offers delicious recipes that aren’t afraid of salt and oil like those of her vegan influencer predecessors. 

Restriction of any type, diets such as Keto and the Atkins diet, can destroy the body long-term. These diets may achieve short-term weight loss, but at what cost? Any diet can be unhealthy if it’s interfering with your life. 

Disclaimer: Always do your research when it comes to dieting and consult a doctor or nutritionist.

Cover photo courtesy of Today