On a recent weekday morning, Alisia Duffy was browsing the produce aisle of the Apna Bazar Farmer’s Market when she found herself unwittingly answering questions about a particular vegetable.
The vegetable in question: poi saag, a nutrient-dense vegetable – also known as Malabar spinach – which is eaten in abundance in the eastern states of India.
Until recently, Duffy, who describes herself as your average Irish-American, didn’t know much about the leafy green vegetable.
But since becoming a regular customer at the Gateway Square shopping center market in Hampden Township, Duffy has had no problem inquiring about products and products that are obscure (at least to her): “I just of everything on Google,” she said.
Since opening the eight-aisle grocery store in February, Duffy has converted to what she says are its extraordinarily fresh produce, great prices, and ingredients that are typically hard to get or cost prohibitive elsewhere. .
This morning she was catching bunches of shiny green cilantro – at 49 cents a bunch.
“This place has the freshest produce,” said Duffy, who lives a few miles from Mechanicsburg. “I was so impressed with how fresh everything was.”
Duffy may seem like an unlikely shopper for a grocery store that caters to the culinary traditions of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but increasingly, ethnic market owners are banking on this kind of cross-appeal to expand a clientele beyond. beyond the already lucrative and growing immigrant. central Pennsylvania population.
In recent years, central Pennsylvania has seen an explosion of ethnic markets spring up east and west of the Susquehanna River, fueled by a wave of new immigrants settling in communities in Dauphin and Cumberland and by an evolving taste for international cuisines.
“Forty years ago, if you had opened a Bosnian restaurant, it would have closed its doors fairly quickly. No one had heard of it,” said Jeff Palm, executive director of the Mechanicsburg Chamber of Commerce. “Now people can see all these foods on TV – the Food Network. They see how the food is prepared and it piques their interest. A lot of people in this area are from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. They are here for technical and medical jobs.As they have arrived in the area, the businesses have grown.
The growing number of markets no doubt offer convenience to shoppers who once trekked out of town to New Jersey, Philadelphia or Baltimore for bags of chakki atta, mango leaves, tindora or dried rose petals. .
A quick perusal of the markets far exceeds the hundred or so shops representing a wide range of ethnic traditions, including Indian, Pakistani, Bhutanese, Thai, Korean, Nepali and Middle Eastern, to name a few. That’s not even including the more established bodega-style stores easily found in downtown areas that cater to a growing Latino population.
“There are a lot of Indian families here,” said Himanshu Bajaj, one of the owners of Apna Bazar, a chain established in 1995 and one of Southeast Asia’s largest grocery retailers. At New York.
After researching the changing demographics of central Pennsylvania, Bajaj decided Hampden Township was the perfect location for the new grocery store.
Cumberland County is one of the fastest growing in the state. The Asian population has nearly doubled and the black population has increased by 47.2% over the past decade, according to the latest US census statistics. The population of residents of Hispanic or Latino origin has increased by 85%.
The explosion of a more diverse demographic in Cumberland County in particular has been fueled by the presence of the U.S. Army War College, Dickinson College, and, increasingly in recent years, efforts by religious communities to resettle refugees. of the whole world.
Economically, it’s a win-win situation, Palm said. The newcomers brought their culinary traditions and, in turn, a demand for these products. As a result, county residents have more choices for expanding their culinary adventures, and they have the added benefit of living in communities filled with neighbors willing to teach them how to cook new recipes.
“He keeps the money flowing in the community,” Palm said. “I want Nepalese food? I don’t have to go to DC and take the money out. I can have nepalese food here. These people who opened ethnic markets and restaurants are investing in our community and now the community has the ability to invest in them and give back. All of this contributes to making it an international community.
Fresh produce is one of the draws at the Apna Bazar Farmer’s Market. Dan Gleiter | [email protected]
Apna Bazar offers a wide selection of organic foods and an amazing range of rice types, many of which are packaged in 50-pound bags. It carries strictly vegetarian foods – beans, lentils, puffed rice snacks, spices, chutneys, biscuits as well as cheese, eggs and milk, but no meat or seafood.
All are in high demand, Bajaj said, and not just immigrants from Southeast Asian countries. He said more and more Americans were among his clientele.
“Indians are our main customers, but Americans also shop,” Bajaj said. “I’m surprised how many Americans buy food here because in India they don’t cook or eat American food.”
Over the past few months, no less than five ethnic food retailers have opened along an eight kilometer stretch of the Carlisle Pike, joining already established stores catering to an increasingly diverse population.
Just down the block from Apna, Baywand Sdiq, originally from Iraq, opened Soltan Bazar in February, which has a distinctly Mediterranean appeal and offers halal meats.
“My focus was as international or middle eastern cuisine [store], but right now there are Russians, Ukrainians too or Greeks and they like it here. They see similar objects here,” said Sdiq, who has lived in the United States for seven years and is originally from the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq. “We have a lot of products and it’s between the Middle East and Europe.”
Soltan Bazar offers an exquisite range of fresh nuts, almonds and traditional sweets. Its inventory of dates is arguably unparalleled in the region. A shopper new to Middle Eastern foods may find an unfamiliar item or two, but most Sdiq food items – rice, lentils, canned beans and spices to name a few – are part of a vast repertoire of ethnic foods.
“We had a big gap with Middle Eastern products in the region,” Sdiq said. “We had a few stores in the area, but it wasn’t enough. Many people from here would drive to New Jersey or Washington, DC to buy Middle Eastern food. This is another reason why he opened the market.
Sdiq, who previously owned the Soltan Hookah Lounge in Hampden Township before selling it, said Hampden Township is quickly attracting families from across the Middle East.
“It’s a very quiet and very clean area,” Sdiq said. “There is not a lot of crime. People who come here are looking for a good community with good schools and there are churches and mosques here.
Throughout central Pennsylvania, the landscape, in terms of diversity, has changed dramatically in recent decades.
Kim’s Market is located at 5490 Derry Street in Swatara Township. During its three decades of operation, the store has moved, expanded and now includes food products for the Filipino and Korean communities, as well as other cultures. Dan Gleiter | [email protected]
Thirty years ago, for example, there were few Asian stores on the East Shore.
“At the time, there weren’t many immigrants here,” said Kim Lehoang, owner of Kim’s Market, a mainstay for Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian and Indonesian immigrants to the area.
Over the years, Lehoang has moved and expanded its inventory to include food products for the Filipino and Korean communities, and beyond.
“There are people here now from many different Asian countries,” said Lehoang’s daughter-in-law, Jennie Nguyen, who helps him run the grocery store and the adjacent Vietnamese/Thai restaurant. “They come here and they can find a bit of everything.”
After three decades in business, Kim’s Market is attracting non-Asian customers.
“A lot of American customers are looking for Asian dishes like sushi, Korean dishes and Japanese dishes,” Nguyen said. “They learn to cook these foods. They watch YouTube and go online to find out more about them. »
Nguyen said central Pennsylvania attracts immigrants from around the world.
“A lot of them say there are opportunities here,” she said. “They come here and they have a future. Back home, there is no future. There is no freedom. If you were born poor at home, you are poor forever. Here you can work from the bottom up.
Among the most recent influxes is the Bhutanese population, which by all estimates has reached a base of around 25,000 in south-central Pennsylvania. They are quite possibly the largest contributor to the region’s population growth over the past decade, primarily through extensive secondary migration of families from other parts of the United States.
Jose Kazi buys vegetables at the Bhutanese-owned BNN International Market on Derry Street in Harrisburg in August 2021. Marc Pynes | [email protected]
Many have set up retail businesses and restaurants along a stretch of Derry Street in Swatara township, which is becoming a hub for the Bhutanese population.
Kokila Patel knows firsthand the joy of being able to shop at a grocery store that caters to her native culinary traditions in Gujarat, India.
“The first generation, we cook at home,” she said one morning while shopping at the farmers market in Apana Bazar. “The second generation works outside but wants to come home and eat our food.
Patel said she had to go to New Jersey to buy food. Not anymore. Now there are several stores near her home.
“There are a lot of foods that you can’t get in American stores,” she said.