ALBANY, N.Y. — There it sits, lumpy and white, staring out from a modest plastic shelf in the cramped aisle of a grocery called Lee’s Market. Amanda DeFrancesco nudges her boyfriend and points. She’s impressed.
"Look at the daikon,” she whispers, admiring the radish in front of her.
Forget a kitchen redolent with the scent of overcooked carrots, bottled salad dressing, melancholy pot roast and lumpy gravy. Enter cilantro, chutney, pungent leek dumplings and spicy daal — and thousands of other options from the new world of food. American tastes have evolved, and it’s no longer just restaurants that are serving the nation’s increasingly sensitive taste buds.
Mealmakers across the country are discovering small ethnic grocers that once primarily served immigrant communities. Even in overwhelmingly white regions like Albany, culinary adventurers like DeFrancesco troll the aisles of stores like Lee’s, stocking up on whatever unusual sauces, candies and snacks strike their fancies.
Tracking the growth of these grocers is difficult; most of them are scattered wherever immigrant populations appear and want foods familiar to their heritages, says Michael Sansolo, spokesman for the Food Marketing Institute in Washington.
But the growth hasn’t gone unnoticed. Major supermarket chains are dedicating more space to ethnic foods, Sansolo says. It’s an attempt to draw shoppers who may otherwise head for these specialty markets.
Demographically, it makes sense. Hispanics and Asians now represent about 18 percent of the U.S. population, and account for more than half of the nation’s population growth since the start of the decade, according to the Census Bureau.
That means food — all kinds of glorious food from different traditions: Chinese, Filipino, Mexican, Indian, Pakistani, Korean and Cuban, all of which brought to this country diverse culinary traditions that weren’t being satisfied by the typical grocer.
In time, those communities met their own demand and created specialty markets that cater to their tastes, says Saul Gitlin, spokesman for K&L Advertising in New York, which tracks the Asian-American market.
But while these shops may have mom-and-pop roots, they are becoming big businesses. Some Asian grocers are starting to resemble large supermarkets, carrying general merchandise along with imported and specialty goods. One West Coast chain, the popular Asian grocer Ranch 99, has more than two dozen locations.
In Albany, where Asians and Hispanics account for less than 10 percent of the population, the modest Korean, Chinese and Indian markets have seen a growing diversity of shoppers.
At the spare India Bazaar, a refrigerator holds containers of sticky desserts in bright shades of pink, green and white. The aisles are stocked with imported spices and sacks of grains. Owner Mathew Varghese says the bulk of his customers still come from the region’s Indian, Afghan and Pakistani communities, but the balance is slowly changing.
He doesn’t mind helping that along. To reach a wider audience, he keeps the freezer section stocked with a startling variety of microwavable Indian dinners popular with mainstream shoppers.
It’s a similar story down the street at Kim’s Market, where owner Minjin Kim says college students snap up kimchi, seafood and beef instant noodles imported from South Korea. She keeps the foods with less visual appeal (pickled vegetables, marinated meats) in a refrigerator toward the back of the store.
When the market opened 13 years ago, it was the only Asian grocer in Albany and served all the region’s Asian ethnic groups, Kim says. Indian and Chinese markets have since opened nearby and taken some customers, but she says business remains steady because of growing interest from the broader community.
Most people collect their groceries from more than one place. After traditional supermarkets, discounters and club warehouses, people shop most frequently at niche stores like health and ethnic food shops, according to FMI. "People find food at so many different locations. You become many different shoppers in the course of a week,” Sansolo says.
That’s the case for DeFrancesco, 28, who hasn’t stopped her expeditions to the city’s Asian markets despite her supermarket’s expanded options.
The supermarket, she says, "still doesn’t have the same variety, the weird candies and sauces.”