My birthdays are marked by grocery store visits.
By visits, I mean travels. I mean wandering journeys that go beyond simply picking up a personalized princess cake and a couple easy-to-distribute snacks. I mean an immersion that begins when I cross the threshold of a hot busy street into the cool embrace of familiar aromatics.
These visitations don’t occur in Trader Joe’s or Publix or whatever the New Jersey equivalent is. Food is more than personal: It’s love and memory and history. Publix and similar grocery chains are anything but—the foods of my cultures tucked away on dark shelves and limited to a single overpriced, problematic brand. Food speaks; my local grocery suffocates its voice.
No, these visitations instead take place in various Asian grocery stores where I can find ten brands of miso but only a single tube of pesto. Nostalgia is a luxury that I’m willing to pay any price for, and these grocery stores sell it all.
Over a thousand miles north of my house, on a northbound NJ Transit train where Gawon and I have laid claim to a set of four chairs, I’m turning 21.
A few rows behind me, someone else was also celebrating a birthday.
“We’re going to Newark for my birthday! I can’t wait to go to Newark!” the little boy cheered. He was on the phone with family members who’d only just finished singing “Happy Birthday.”
“Not New-ark! New York. We’re going to New York,” a little girl corrected in a voice that only an know-it-all older sister can master.
I wanted to look back and give the kid a birthday-twin fist bump and tell him that I’m actually the one going to Newark. Instead, I smiled down at my phone for the rest of my trip and shook my head when Gawon asked what I was smiling about.
I didn’t intend the pilgrimage to land on my birthday. After a series of grocery trips to surrounding markets with Gawon that happened to occur every other Saturday, I should have been content about the abundance of Asian grocery stores in the vicinity. Maybe I should’ve planned a trip with my friends to New York City like any normal 21-year-old would. Maybe I should’ve stayed on campus and let my friends dictate the day. Instead, I found myself in every place wanting to go back to the Japanese grocer in Newark. Mitsuwa was a siren sitting on the Hudson shore, and I keep getting called back to it again and again.
I first went to Mitsuwa when I was sixteen. In place of a Sweet Sixteen party, I was offered a three-day trip to New York with my mother. It was my first time in the city, and my mother was particularly excited about finding Japanese restaurants.
In a primarily white suburb, we rely on our family cooking to bring to life the cultures across seas. In my hometown, there are two Asian grocery stores. We don’t have an H Mart—a Korean grocery chain that spans everywhere in the country except in Florida apparently—and instead rely on small family-owned Korean businesses to supply us with yakult, wakame, and bags of rice. I learned from my mother to ask the owner for things using the Japanese words. Even in a store that hummed in a language we didn’t know, there was something like home there. We were grateful for a hum, and I clung to it.
My mother and her friends made a hobby of going to any Japanese restaurant that opened in town. They’d make their calls about the food like acclaimed critics, their review shaping whether or not the rest of the family would ever go. There were few restaurants that ever passed their test, and my sister and I became snobs about Asian Fusion cuisine.
But New York is a city of food. It is a city where Asianness and authentic restaurants grace every corner. It is a city of aroma and taste and heritage, and bustles with the home we tried to pack into tiny local grocers in our Florida suburb.
I only remember a few things about my first time in New York: the Natural History Museum where we specifically hunted for the Easter Island head because “Dum Dum give me Gum Gum,” meandering walks in Central Park, a Dutch dollar store with cute stationary and mementos. Yet, the highlight of the trip didn’t take place in New York.
Down on Jersey’s side of the Hudson, wedged between a river walk and an incline of expensive-looking homes, there’s Mitsuwa. My mother’s friend drove us from Manhattan, through the Lincoln Tunnel, to the store my mother had been talking about for weeks. Mitsuwa is a Japanese grocery store located in a shopping center filled with other Japanese stores, what I still call Jersey’s Little Japan.
Walking into Mitsuwa was crossing a portal into memories I hadn’t given much thought to in years. My mother is a Japanese immigrant and my father the children of Latino immigrants. I once spent summers in Japan and soaked up Japanese the way young kids do, but it’s been years since I last went to Japan, not for lack of trying. COVID cancelled the plane ticket I had booked for last summer and butchered my ability to keep in my Japanese language courses. Yet, going through aisles of fruit swaddled in styrofoam nets and bundles of tiny beech mushrooms that I can’t find in a Trader Joe’s, I thought of shopping with my grandmother Baba in open street markets where the vendors would hand me small sweets to munch on as Baba collected the night’s dinner. In the bento section that replaces the American Deli, I thought of my mom telling me to pick one of the boxes for lunch and me going for whichever one had the prettiest narutomaki. I thought of hot afternoons in Fukuoka where a PocariSweat was pressed into my hands and of evenings inside building sugar-sushi candy projects. All the while, in real time, my mother would gasp and point out things she hadn’t seen since our last trip in Japan. I remember more Japanese on this trip than I do in any other moment within the U.S. border. We stuffed our suitcases with canned and dried goods; everyone else wondered why we’d go to a Jersey grocery store while on vacation in New York.
I’m on the unlimited dining hall plan, so I have plenty of options for food and absolutely no logical reason to cook for myself other than a desire to. Gawon, both a dear friend and a terrible enabler, provided the perfect opportunity. She’s the one on an independent meal plan, although the residents of Lockhart Hall would debate otherwise considering I practically live in their kitchen. Gawon is Korean, and upon our return to in-person classes we grew closer over the lack of Asian food options and jumped on the opportunity to go shopping for the foods our mothers made so well.
I’ve created a mental map of the Asian grocery stores in the Princeton area as well as some landmark ones across Jersey. What we thought would be quick trips to buy what we needed became meandering immersions in nostalgia. On our first trip, we scheduled an Uber for thirty minutes after we arrived. We canceled it twice before finally deciding to just order it when we finished.
We started at Woori, a Korean grocery store located near Princeton Junction. We went with two things on the shopping list: miso and vegetables. We left with: miso, yakult, bibimbap, calpico, pork belly, pesto, milk candy, shrimp chips, popped rice crackers, red bean buns, green onion, beef stock, and so many packets of familiar snacks Gawon recommended (a lot of which we still have waiting to be consumed). At Woori, I appreciated how Gawon would point out the things she knew or look to the ceiling as she tried to find the words to describe a food completely foreign to me. We spent an obscene amount on groceries that are not in my budget.
The ingredients from Woori weren’t used in distinctly Asian dishes. We made a modified gnocchi recipe I’d picked up from a Hulu cooking show and added pork belly slices. We went into Woori rather blind the first time with little planning and ambition. It left something to want, and two weeks later we ended up at Asian Mart in Plainsboro.
Asian Mart is larger than Woori and specializes in Chinese foods. Although Gawon had been to Asian Mart before, we were both thrown into a sea of characters we couldn’t read and food we could only guess the content of. We strolled down aisle after aisle trying to find something we knew, and grew excited when we started to actually name things. It lasted about three minutes until we realized that we were in the “foreign food” aisle of Asian Mart where they had hoarded together the Korean and Japanese snacks.
One row over, a woman overheard us wondering what pandan was. Although she never quite explained it, I bought a case of pandan mochi solely because the woman jumped in to recommend it.
Although we repeated our wandering habit from Woori, we didn’t leave without a clearer vision. We concocted the recipes in our head, and it was in Asian Mart that I realized that even some of the dishes I made with my Colombian grandmother—like platanos maduros—could be made from the treasures stored in these shelves. At some point I decided I wanted to make dango—a Japanese mochi dish. When the recipe called for mirin—a cooking wine—I noted I could buy alcohol in two weeks. Thus began the pilgrimage to Mitsuwa.
After arriving in Newark and taking an Uber to the Hudson, we were into the thick of Mitsuwa’s sea of tight aisles packed with rows and rows of mostly pre-packaged food. This time, it was I who was pointing out the different items. Our list was more robust this time and I even had a recipe from Baba for hayashi rice. I was so excited to be able to take the role of grocery guide and make the recommendations.
Between this trip and the one for my 16th birthday, I’d returned to Mitsuwa once. I went on Mother’s Day and curated a list based off of what my family wanted me to bring home in a couple weeks. At the time, my mom replied that she needed nothing and simply wanted to shop at Mitsuwa in person. She later gave me a couple items to pick up.
I couldn’t understand my mother’s desire to be in Mitsuwa before this semester. The ingredients that I picked up at Mitsuwa were not specific to Mitsuwa. I could have gotten my kewpie mayo or mochi ice cream at Woori. I probably could find melon pan or strange yakult flavored liquor at Asian Mart. Practically, there was no reason to make a two-hour journey north for groceries.
In her memoir, Michelle Zauner writes about how Asian grocery stores unite pan-Asian cultures, particularly H Mart, and while that’s true, there’s also still a sense that something is missing. The sense of feeling out of place is impossible to ignore. Although I might feel like I am seen in Woori more than I am in Trader Joe’s, I still have to try to associate Korean brands to Japanese ones or rely on Gawon to tell me what was going on. At other Asian grocers, I feel like I am exploring, but at Mitsuwa I feel like I’m coming home. I can find very specific things that I’ve been craving or feel the comfort of hiragana lacing childhood snacks. I can peruse the restaurants and eat something beyond sushi or ramen.
We filled our cart with our ingredients, and at the cashier I got to proudly flash my ID to prove I was old enough to buy the liquor. We packed everything into a suitcase and visited the Daiso and book store next door. We spent most of the day in Little Japan, and I can honestly say I’m glad I spent my birthday in Newark. While reflecting about our pilgrimage and wondering what our other friends had in store on campus, Gawon said, “I don’t know what the others are planning, but I don’t think they can top this trip.” As ridiculous as it seemed, the grocery trips became highlights of my week and something that was once a chore became a new entertainment. I enjoy cooking because I get to share pieces of my culture and home, but I enjoy these grocery trips because I get to reminisce about these memories. It helps that Gawon is a great companion when it comes bouncing memories back and forth between us.
I still haven’t made the dango or hayashi rice (but I did buy the mirin). It’s on the table for the next week or so. I also have yet to visit the infamous H Mart. Maybe I’ll walk inside and realize that Zauner was truly right, maybe it’s something about H Mart that creates a unity stronger than a desire for something more. Or maybe I’ll only schedule another trip to Mitsuwa. In any case, our trip to H Mart in Edison has been planned right before Thanksgiving, just in time for our culture-fusion friendsgiving. We’ll make our list, we’ll over-spend, and somewhere along the way I’ll find something that reminds me of home.