Ginger in Nashville, chiles in Chicago: When finding the tastes of home requires a road trip

Illustration for article titled Ginger in Nashville, chiles in Chicago: When finding the tastes of home requires a road trip
Photo: osman özkan, Liz W Grogan, Ralph125, olrat (iStock)

My mother taught me to be choosy with my produce at the grocery store, especially with ginger, a staple ingredient in nearly everything I cook. Unfortunately, I have a bad habit of going grocery shopping in the evening hours, often after work, at my local Jewel-Osco in the Boystown neighborhood of Chicago. The ginger selection there is already limited, so by the time I get there, I am forced to sort through what’s left—sad, overpriced little stumps that have been picked over multiple times. Even though I try to choose the best ones, after I get home and peel them to grate for dinner or a cup of fresh ginger cha, I often find that the insides are pale and old, not the vibrant buttery yellow they should be.

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Whenever I unwisely let slip to my mother that I’ve done this again, she chastises me and asks why I don’t go to one of the numerous South Asian grocery stores on Devon Avenue in Rogers Park to buy ginger and other staples such as Thai chiles that are still hard to find in my neighborhood, but can be found in abundance there.

One time during one of these conversations (which are often half-lesson, half-lecture), my mother casually mentioned that when she and my father lived in Kentucky while my father was in graduate school at Murray State University in 1989, they would regularly drive all the way to Nashville, two hours away, just to buy ginger, because it wasn’t readily available at their local Kroger. On those shopping expeditions, my mother would buy a month’s worth of ginger—almost four pounds—that she would peel, grate, and carefully store in the freezer to use until their next trip.

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To her, it was just an anecdote about the way things used to be, but I was fascinated by how my parents would go to such lengths just to buy ingredients as young immigrants in a country they had only called home for a year. I asked my father which store in Nashville they used to go to, but it had been so long he couldn’t remember for sure.

My parents’ mention of these ginger road trips took me right back to my childhood in central Illinois in the ’90s, where we lived for 10 years in a small town called Jacksonville. While we could get a basic selection of meat and vegetables at our local County Market, none of the surrounding stores had the ingredients for the traditional Bengali meals my mother cooked every night. To get them, we would embark on pilgrimages of varying lengths to grocery stores across three different cities: Springfield (capital of Illinois), Chicago, and St. Louis, where we had lived just before relocating to Jacksonville in 1995.

For Indian vegetables, we would drive 45 minutes to Springfield, which had the nearest Asian grocery store, a cramped little place I vaguely recall being named Little World Market.

For Indian freshwater fish, we would make the four-hour trek up to Devon Avenue on the north side of Chicago with a large cooler in the trunk of our car a few times a year. We’d visit a shop called Fish Corner to buy fish in bulk that my parents would store for months in our freezer.

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For anything else, we would stock up when we visited our friends in St. Louis during religious holidays and Thanksgiving at Jay’s International Foods and Global Foods Market in Kirkwood, Missouri, two international grocery stores each opened by Thai brothers Jay Prapaisilp and Suchin Prapaisilp in 1970 and 1999, respectively.

Though it has been years since I have been to these stores, I distinctly remember how all my senses were engaged every time we would make these treks: gazing up at the brightly colored international flags that flew above the aisles of Global Food Market, wrinkling my nose at the pungent smell of fresh fish, cooling my throat with the slippery lychee jellies I would gulp down in the car on the way home, and dunking lemon biscuits from China and ginger cookies from Canada into the cha we would drink after our long journeys.

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In 2005, my parents and I moved to the southwest suburbs of Chicago, where there are a plethora of local South Asian grocery stores thanks to the large South Asian population in the area, including a gigantic Patel Brothers location that opened up in Naperville—the same location Khushbu Shah writes about in her wonderful ode to her mother’s love of the chain. But that particular Patel Brothers is new; before it opened in 2018, we would find what we needed at one of the many other shops within a twenty-minute drive of our house.

It’s a far cry from 1974, when Mafat and Tulsi Patel opened the first Patel Brothers location on Devon Avenue in Chicago. At the time, there were only four other Indian grocery stores in the United States, and Patel Brothers soon expanded to other cities with growing South Asian immigrant populations. Today, there are 52 Patel Brothers locations nationwide.

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The funny thing about adulthood is that it’s led me to recreate my parents’ journey in my own way. After I graduated college in 2012 and worked in the suburbs for a year, I moved to the UK for nine months to pursue a Fulbright Scholarship in a rural town in Cornwall with very little diversity and access to ethnic groceries, especially compared to the rest of the UK. After nearly a decade of easy access to my culture, it was a struggle for me to readjust, and I often felt lonely and culturally isolated. I found solace in calling my parents to learn how to cook my favorite family recipes and making elaborate plans to visit London so I could buy the ingredients that could not be found in Cornwall.

While my parents drove two hours to Nashville to buy ginger in the ’80s, I was now traveling six hours by train just to find white poppy seeds and long dried chiles in Brick Lane, home to much of London’s Bangladeshi community. The streets of Brick Lane, with their signs written in Bangla—my family’s language—were beautiful and comforting to me, even though I couldn’t read them. They reminded me I wasn’t alone, even though I often felt that way, and I can’t help but wonder if my parents felt similarly, finding a piece of home in the middle of the American South, so far away from everything they had ever known.

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After grad school, I moved to Chicago and into my own apartment for the first time; I quickly realized that even though I was in a large, diverse city, most of the mainstream grocery stores around me still relegated their ethnic foods to a single aisle. I would still have to go out of my way to find the ingredients I needed to make my favorite meals.

So now I find myself traveling to Argyle, Chinatown, and Devon to find the specific things I want, little pilgrimages that are nowhere near as long as the journeys we have taken in the past, but which nonetheless take time and planning. Most often I find myself traveling north, either to the Talard Thai Asian Market on Broadway in Edgewater (Chicago’s first Thai supermarket in 12 years) or up to Devon Avenue once again, which can take up to an hour on public transit. When I finish cooking a meal in which all these ingredients come together, it feels earned.

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Still, every so often at my local store, the odd Indian ingredient shows up: methi saag, a fussy green that I’m still not quite sure how to cook on my own, and opo squash, which I know as lao. They only show up every few months, and whenever they do, I’m slightly confused to see them. Outside of their cultural context, they seem a little lost and wilted, like the old ginger I often buy, but I pick them up anyway, because I know they’ll be at home with me.

Priyanka Bose is an Indian American writer & photographer based in Chicago. A Fulbright Scholar born and brought up in the Midwest, she loves writing about all things food, fashion, film, and fiction.

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DISCUSSION

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Burners Baby Burners: Discussion Inferno

Two hours for ginger, that’s commitment. I don’t really understand the drive to have that level of perfection in ingredients, I’ll put cheap ginger powder in a dish if it’s all I’ve got. That said, I know people look down their noses at that stuff since it’s barely a shadow of what it’s supposed to be.

How often do you attempt those special dishes that need six hours on the train? Is it weekly, monthly? I hope not daily.