The world-foods aisle, the futility of travel, & controvertial oat-milk investments

Nice Pear: a weekly(ish) feminist foodletter | Issue #008 | 06 September 2020

Hello!

This weeks’ essay started life as a commentary on one of the links I was going to share down in the ‘what to read this week’ section, but when my own thoughts on the topic reached a full page in my Google Doc, and without having really made a start on the essay I had in mind, I decided to make it the star of the show.

If you’re new to this newsletter, you can read my mission & ethos here & then forward it to all of your pals.

Photo by Mehrad Vosoughi on Unsplash

WTF is the World Foods Aisle?

The question of how we refer to food from cultures and countries other than our own is a tricky one. Nation’s Restaurant News recently called out the way we refer to that aisle in the supermarket: Calling an aisle of food ‘ethnic’ is so broad as to be meaningless

In the UK we tend to call it the ‘world food aisle’, not the ethnic food aisle, but the meaning is much the same. The food in this aisle if the supermarket is designated other, different, for those people. Momofuku’s David Chang characterises ‘ethnic’ food aisles as a kind of socially-acceptable form of segregation in the US. 

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To people who grew up in white/western households, the brands in the world foods aisle might be less familiar, than others found throughout the store. And - as anyone who has been both vegetarian and broke knows - the lentils, chickpeas and rice on the world foods aisle are often cheaper than those spread about across the shop.

By labelling an ingredient as 'ethnic’, 'international', ‘world’, or even miscellaneously 'Asian', ‘African’ or ‘European’, are we othering those cultures? The distinction infers that they are the antithesis (and even inferior) to the 'regular' food white people may be used to.

So should we remove the ‘world foods’ aisle, incorporate those ingredients into the rest of the store?

There is evidence that the foods grouped in the world foods aisle sell better this way.

At first glance, it is easy to assume that the world foods aisle is for immigrants or people from non-white or non-UK backgrounds. But let’s look a little closer. 

In an episode of Mintel’s podcast, researchers discussed this very question: is the international food aisle of the grocery store confusing or convenient? Organising a shop by cuisine (instead of, as is traditional, by food type) can be more convenient. But for whom?

No ‘ethnic’, ‘international’ or  ‘world foods’ aisle can compete against the stores run by and for people from specific countries, cultures or backgrounds - I’m thinking of places like Bradford’s Indian supermarket Pakeezah or Leeds’ Chinese supermarket Sing Kee.

Consumers can usually get a wider choice of more authentic goods far more cheaply at say, a dedicated Indian, Chinese or Turkish store than they could ever find them in the big chain supermarkets.

So maybe the ‘world foods’ aisle isn’t made with ‘world shoppers’ in mind, but with white/western consumers. The aisle is helpful for people outside the diaspora. It can act as a gateway, for people to discover and access ingredients and flavours they are less familiar with, and as a kind of one-stop-shop to buy find all the ingredients or taco Tuesday or for a curry night.

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The world foods aisle might just be my favourite part of the shop. I love looking at brands I’m unfamiliar with, picking out new-to-me ingredients and (after checking they fit in my dietary requirements) adding them to my trolley, already thinking up a way to use them in my kitchen.

The world foods aisle brings flavours and ingredients into the ‘mainstream’. Familiarity with foods from cultures outside of our own immediate experience seems like a good thing. But, we must take care not to appropriate.

When we call paratha ‘flaky bread’ or label a recipe for curry #TheStew, we erase the history and culture that is (excuse the pun) baked into food. By failing to credit and appreciate the chefs and cultures that created an ingredient or recipe, are white/western people falsely claiming a culture and heritage that is not our own?

We should enjoy foods and ingredients with which we are unfamiliar, but we should also do the work to learn a little of the unique history, culture - and name - of the foods we want to eat, sell and write about.

PS. If you enjoy Nice Pear & want to support it (or any of the other content I create online) you can always become a paying subscriber or buy me a virtual coffee.

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Things to read this week

  • This line from last weeks’ Some Meals Considered caught me off-guard and struck me as incredibly true: “Changing locations is often synonymous with vacation. But now that work is remote for many, uprooting oneself doesn’t necessarily translate to taking time off. The lines between what’s considered a trip and a shift in scenery are completely blurred”. It summarises perfectly some of the things I’ve been feeling lately. The combination of itchy feet and never being able to switch off feed one another and make me dizzy. 

    In her newsletter too, Alicia Kennedy wrote on travel in a way that makes me want to leave everything behind and disappear down an alley into a dark bar, where I can only just speak enough of the language to order and pay for a drink. Of course, she writes on it much more eloquently - and with far more nuance - than I can.

  • This week saw the UK’s first review of a West African restaurant in a National paper (I’m not linking it because it was in the Daily Mail). Apparently inspired by writing in Vittles, it is both A Good Thing that UK food media are publishing this kind of writing, and a shame it’s taken so long to do it.  

    In not-unrelated news, this report in Vice shows the dearth of UK food reporting on Black-owned restaurants: fewer than five were reviewed in Nationals this year. 

  • In other UK food-ish news, the Co-Op and The Spectator are apparently having a row, because… someone on the Co-Op’s social media team said that the supermarket would remove their ads from The Spectator, over transphobic content published by the magazine - a move which was later denounced by the Co-Op.

  • In vegan news: outcry over Oatley’s newest investor. The Oat-milk brand has traded not just on its superiority to both dairy milk and other vegan milks in terms of taste, texture and ability-to-make-a-really-frothy-coffee, but its’ sustainability credentials, too. But investment from Blackstone Growth is raising eyebrows, due to Blackstone’s “alleged ties to deforestation in the Amazon”

    On one hand, yes, it’s hard to call yourself the most sustainable option, when you take investment from an organisation with ties to non-sustainable practices. But, this all feels a bit like when people stop liking a band’s music after they’re played on Radio 1. If Oatly, as a product, is the most sustainable alternative then it needs big investment to enable the growth required to make it a completely mainstream choice - and you’d be hard-pushed to find an organisation offering funding to the tune of $200m that has no ties at all to any less-sustainable practice. Better surely that the investment is also going into a sustainable business like Oatly, than not at all?

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Things to eat this week

  • I have eaten two jacket potatoes with (vegan) coleslaw this week and I’m not even mad. I once had a boyfriend who was horrified that his bag of potatoes didn’t come with instructions - I was horrified that a man in his twenties didn’t know how to jacket a potato. For anyone in the same boat: Take out any eyes. Prick it all over. Microwave for five minutes, turn it over and microwave it for another five minutes. Your potato is now, technically baked, but for a really good one: rub your hot potato in olive oil and salt and then bake in the oven (or the airfryer) for 5-10 minutes, until its really crispy. Alternatively, if you remember in time, skip the microwave. Prick, oil, salt, oven for an hour to an hour-and-a-half.

  • I also made brownies. I pushed fresh raspberries into the top before baking. They’ll need baking for a little longer than usual and might be even more moist, but they taste delicious (and definitely count as one of your five-a-day).


Where to find me this week

As always, you can find me @ZoePickburn on Twiter, Insta, TikTok and other social media.


Thanks!

Zoe

Freelance writer & journo | Food blogger & newsletterer (she/her)

Say hello@zoepickburn.com with stories, commissions & foodie chit chat