“Just Trust the Supermarket”: Processed Food from Home, and the Immigrants Who Look for Them by Jonathan Katz

Growing up, we always had avkat marak in the house. Avkat marak is powdered soup: you pour some of it into hot water, and boom! You have stock. In Israel, where my mother grew up, avkat marak is a pantry staple: it is not just used for stock or soups, but as a seasoning for pashtidot (egg-based casseroles), stews, and sauces. It is a very common ingredient in Israel, and it is very much processed. (In fact, one company, Osem, makes the majority of avkat marak consumed in Israel and the Jewish diaspora.)  And besides this, other processed foods from Israel and my father’s home country of South Africa were in our pantry. We had shkedei marak, “soup croutons” or “soup mandel,” Mrs. Ball’s Chutney, and various relishes at points growing up. That is, of course, before all the American processed foods we creatively used while preparing various Jewish and South African dishes – for example, garlic powder. 

He’s back! Jonathan Katz has returned to this site to provide his unique take on culinary traditions. His post on processed food, disability, and autonomy is currently the second most viewed one on this site. I am pleased to welcome his perspective on processed ingredients as used by immigrants to prepare traditional foods that remind them of home. It is particularly timely as it follows up on the plea from Food Justice to avoid “less healthy, highly processed, less affordable, and culturally inappropriate standardized food products for low-income communities.” 

"heimish brands" in a food cabinet
Miriam Geiger’s photo of “heimish brands” in a cabinet

As a New Yorker, I was always aware that other immigrant families had similar foods. Some of these foods are seen in many supermarkets: Goya seasonings, Chinese black bean sauce, and big jars of tahini. Others are in the various community groceries that dot the New York area. For example: the Japanese grocery store near my childhood home always had immaculately arranged shelves of sauces, pickles (tsukemono), and dried goods imported from Japan or produced in California. Further down the road, some groceries stocked canned vegetables and spicy relishes from Mexico and Guatemala. Many kosher groceries stocked “heimish brands” – foods made by Orthodox Jewish-owned companies under strict rabbinical supervision. And of course, in New York, dozens of these stores from dozens of places exist.

As a teenager, I loved staring at the different packaging and similar-yet-different foods from various countries as I explored the city. Some might find this experience to be “other” or “different,” but there was something deeply homely about this. It was fun to see other countries’ avkat marak, other countries’ jarred sauces, other countries’ spice mixes, and other countries’ canned vegetables. Often, the greatest joy was finding a different version of something deeply familiar to me – for example, stock cubes made for the Indian market.

I surveyed my Facebook friends, many of whom are immigrants or, like me, the children of immigrants to the United States and Canada. Others, too, had gone on special trips to specific supermarkets to get their ingredients. Still others, too, reached for these foods as second nature. What did they buy? Besides childhood favorite snacks, they too sought the various foods that let them prepare home dishes. One Malaysian mentioned looking for pandan-flavored ingredients and sweet soy sauce (kecap manis). Other children of South Africans mentioned boerewors – thick, spiced sausages – and peri-peri sauces or spices.

pickled herring fridge
Polish pickled herring at a Polish supermarket in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Photo by Jonathan Katz

“All [these sauces and ingredients are] technically replicable in the home kitchen but I don’t know a single SE Asian/Chinese family who does (pipe up if you do!), oftentimes too many ingredients are involved, and I guess Asia has a long history of bottled spices and sauces… just trust the supermarket!”Orthodox Jewish friends mentioned “heimish brands” for their strict relatives and friends, as well as pickled herring and Israeli products. Indian-Americans mentioned asafetida (hing), spice mixes, and specific tea leaves. Most memorably, my Taiwanese friend explained why she bought the sauces and processed ingredients needed for her home cooking:

“Just trust the supermarket.” This advice counters a lot of what many American foodies and “food nerds” think of when they think of “authentic” cuisine. We envision people looking for a specific fresh ingredient, or bemoaning the lack of an herb from home, or recreating – “from scratch” – the “authentic” dishes of home. (As I have written elsewhere, authenticity is often ridiculous.) Michael Pollan dismisses processed foods that he does not approve of as “unreal,” and then foodies go looking for immigrant food as they see fit: made from scratch, without the lazy additions of instant stock or premade sauces.

The image of the immigrant is someone making everything from scratch, lovingly recreating home. For the millions of people like who came here for a better life, this hokey image of some sort of pre-modern existence is often downright insulting. To them, cooking everything from “scratch” is the exact sort of backbreaking labor they do not want for their children. This romanticism places unreasonable expectations on immigrants and their children – especially when they are people of color. (Ever notice whose food must be authentic?) And besides, it’s just wrong.

pantry with processed products
Ilana Newman’s photo of her pantry

A cuisine, contrary to what is often said, is not just about specific fresh ingredients and dwindling recipes. It is about what people in the culture actually do. In the home country, processed foods are often already incorporated into new and delicious things. Koreans use SPAM to create “army base stew” (budae jjigae), Moroccans put Nutella on malwi pancakes, and there is nothing South Africans cannot put lunch meat into. When immigrants come to the US or Canada, they can continue this practices. And they and their children develop new ones to compensate for missing tastes or to bridge different cultures. I myself use cottage cheese as a substitute for Israeli gvina levana, a tarter and slightly firmer counterpart.

Parents often combine the product children want – often after being teased for carrying “weird food” to school – with techniques or methods from the mother country. Soleil Ho’s poignant piece on cultural appropriation and food illustrates this point with smoked turkey rice bowls and Maggi sandwiches. That essay reminded me of all the times that I have seen “American selections” on various restaurant menus, or the combined lunches my colleagues brought to work, or the matzah pizzas made for children who do not want to eat the stodgy fare often served at an Ashkenazi Passover seder. The obsession with authenticity misses this point.

Racism, colonialism, and oppression also play a role.  Immigrants – especially immigrants of color – and their children are often pressured to abandon their cuisines. Children are teased for their “weird” food, adults are asked not to bring “smelly” food to work, and the media constantly reinforces the idea that certain cuisines are “other.” Many of the well-used processed foods came to mother countries as a result of colonialism – like the baguettes in banh mi and condensed milk in Southern African sweets –  and have a fraught history all their own. These foods are tied up in that. But what is impressive is that these foods are reinvented by people to have a life all of their own. Banh mi is an (arguably better) innovation on French sandwiches, combined with local ingredients and local processed foods like pickled vegetables.

The various new ingredients in fried rice, khichdi, jollof rice, and pozoles immigrants add reflect this subversive and deliciously creative tendency. This practice also has a long tradition: I remember reading pieces from the 1950s by Ashkenazi Jews who were apoplectic that their brethren, faced with anti-Semitism, made their noodle kugels “goyish” by adding chocolate chips!  White Americans often miss this fact because of an obsession with authenticity – an obsession that steamrolls the histories of the places where the food comes from. There is nothing wrong about someone who mixes foods to make something taste more like home. And vice versa. This is authentic too. It is often a way for people to find comfort in an environment openly hostile to them.

And even without hostility, it is still the taste of home. People “trust the supermarket” to recreate or reinvent the cuisines of their home countries. This is how different cuisines actually live and thrive in the United States and Canada: not on the backs of specifically sourced fresh ingredients, but on the avkat marak and jarred sauces that provide flavor.

I do not use avkat marak that often anymore. The main company that produces it, Osem, gives a significant portion of its profits to right-wing organizations that I find objectionable, so I avoid buying their avkat marak – which is the majority of the avkat marak available in the United States. But there are other processed foods I still use that come from afar to make the food from “home”: South African spice mixes, Israeli stock cubes, and pickled vegetables from Israel that go great in salads and sandwiches. Part of me wonders if maybe I should make my own stock or mix my own spices. But I realize that this is simply how I cook – and that there are many others like me, who, to quote my friend, “just trust the supermarket.”

Thanks to Viviana Qiu for the quote that provided the title for this piece. Thanks to my many friends who responded to my Facebook appeal about processed food.

Next week: More Pressure Cooker: Food distribution to low-income families 

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