Image:
@fruiticana on Twitter

How Indian grocery stores produce culture and nostalgia in the diaspora

By:
Guneet Pooni (@guneet_p)

Indian grocery stores like Fruiticana and Sabzi Mandi have expanded across the Lower Mainland as the South Asian diaspora has grown here over the years. 

Catering to the wider South Asian population, Indian grocery stores produce culture away from the homeland. These stores invoke nostalgia over a place once visited or lived, and provide a place of familiarity for some, through the environment and the products sold, that create a deep connection our evoke memories.

Purnima Mankekar writes on India Shopping for an ethnographic project titled “India Travels.” She explores how the Indian grocery stores are a place for the consumption and production of Indian culture in the diaspora. 

Indian grocers sell a variety of products, not limited to food items. South Asians living outside of Indian shopping hubs in Surrey or Vancouver often drive out to them specifically to buy the things they cannot find elsewhere. 

Customers can take comfort in seeing the same products they cooked with back home. Shoppers find it easier to communicate with employees and even strike up conversations with other customers, creating a social space for the community that is designed just for them. 

5X Press spoke with the Mahil family, who shop at Indian grocery stores located in Surrey at least twice a month.

Amritpal Mahil arrived in Burnaby in 1998. 

At the time, there weren’t a lot of Indian grocery stores. He recalls seeing an advertisement on TV for Fruticana when it first opened in Surrey. The commercial boasted about having Indian manja (beds) and Indian bicycles.

Mankekar notes that for newcomers, it can be a place to exchange information about community events, learn about neighbourhoods, schools, and employment opportunities.

Amritpal says he definitely feels the familiarity going into the stores, and that when you look around the people are apne -- “it’s like all of Punjab is here.”

Keerat Mahil, a first-generation Punjabi-Canadian, echoes this sense of familiarity, stating that you can ask anyone in the store where something is, and you can ask in Punjabi if you don’t know the English term for it and people will know what you’re referring to.

This also makes for a welcoming environment for elders, who might otherwise have a language barrier going into other grocery stores.

Mankekar says that commodities, including the ones sold in ethnic grocery stores, can function as cultural mnemonics. Some customers go to find the same brands they bought back home. 

Commodities sold in these stores bring back memories, and these stories can be told to their children, bridging a connection to the homeland. 

Amritpal says he feels nostalgic while shopping because he can get the same products found back home. 

“They have Maggie noodles and Desi oil for making pakoras.”

He also says that many of the brands he bought in Punjab, he can find here and the brand and the taste are “100% the same.”

He goes on to say that although some of the same products like the vegetable karela are sold in supermarkets, the taste is just not the same there. 

Pavit Mahil, also a first-generation Punjabi-Canadian, tells 5X Press that though she doesn’t cook Indian food often, she’s learning, and hopes to pass the skills down to her children one day.

The main products sold in Indian grocery stores are vegetables and spices. For many, food is a way to connect to their roots, and reproduce and pass down culture.

While many diaspora kids don’t participate in the cooking or have yet to perfect the round roti, we definitely love to consume the food, so these stores would be the first place we would go to purchase what we need to round out our spice cupboard.

Indian grocery stores are nostalgic for diaspora kids in a way that differs from their parents, but still shows the production of culture, that is then passed on through one's lineage. 

This nostalgia is over childhood -- for me, items like the small mango kulfis are a reminder of Indian stores, my childhood, and by extension Indian culture. 

The memories Indian grocery stores bring up for diaspora kids may be limited to short trips back to India or visits to the stores themselves, but they are still part of the consumption and production of Indian culture, and this is seen the way we fondly look to these stores as a place of comfort.

Indian grocery stores provide customers with products they can use to retain Indian culture in their households, in both big and small ways. For immigrant parents, it provides comfort knowing that they can pass down culture, even outside their homeland.

The nostalgia from brands and the social environment of the stores gives them comfort because it’s a sense of home. It’s familiar names, faces, smells, and sounds. It’s a way of maintaining their cultural identity.
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Guneet studies International Relations & Law and Society at the University of British Columbia. She is the founder of Moksha, an initiative aimed at addressing internalized racism in the South Asian community. Guneet was a Youth Fellow with Leading in Colour’s Digital Insitute of Activism and is on the UBC Current Dragon Boat team.

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