David Chang Explains Why We Need to Get Rid of the “Ethnic” Aisle at the Grocery Store

updated Oct 4, 2019
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On a recent episode of his own podcast, the David Chang Show, the star chef and founder of the Momofuku restaurants called the “ethnic” aisle of American grocery stores “the last bastion of racism that you can see in full daylight in retail America.”

Even just the term “ethnic” has faded out of use by most food writers and industry people as an outdated term that otherized based on race, rather than (as the name implied) any actual ethnicity. Soleil Ho, the restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, explained to Mother Jones, “The imprecision of the word — and the assumption that it doesn’t apply equally to people and cuisines associated with Europe or white America — gives me such a headache.”

For Chang, that manifested itself in the supermarket aisle that served as anything not considered “American,” a jumble of culinary ingredients from around the world that includes soy sauce, coconut milk, and tortilla shells.

Leaving aside the absurdity of doing this type of sorting by “American-ness,” when that salsa started outselling ketchup in the early ‘90s and tortillas outsell burger and hot dog buns, the idea that rice noodles should be in a different place in the store than spaghetti because of what part of the world they came from would only make sense if you also made sure that your apples were nowhere near the bananas. While defenders of this type of sorting claim it’s to make shopping simpler for people looking to make stir-fry or tacos, it’s hard for me to believe this until we see the bacon, eggs, and toast all grouped together for breakfast and I walk into the spaghetti and meatballs aisle.

But beyond bad logic, the current organization also does more serious and long-lasting harm than just making someone have to go all over the store to make the kind of food most Americans do today (using ingredients from all over the place), says Chang. It showed him, as a kid, that he was different — in how he looked, ate, and shopped — from the rest of his community.