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Finding home in the familiar: an immigrant shops for groceries in Minneapolis

When Kenya native Julia Nekessa Opoti goes grocery shopping in Minneapolis, she marvels at the sense of community she finds.

Fishermen pull in their nets at dawn on Lake Victoria.
REUTERS/Euan Denholm

I have my own version of the miracle of Minneapolis, and it is a celebration of the ways in which immigrant communities in Minnesota in grassroots ways are continuously changing the landscape of the city

I am interested in the shadow systems created by people of color in this country when most institutions exclude them. Often when we talk about communities of color; we discuss disparities. These are certainly important, particularly as we look at how racism, classism and xenophobia leave many of us on the margins. However, there is another kind of wealth; a wealth that cannot be measured by economic and other achievement indices.

How does an immigrant interact with the choices of food at their local grocery store? With narrow stock choices, many of us find the grocery store lacking, despite the abundance in American grocers.

I have been a resident of the Whittier neighborhood for about five years now; and have lived in Minnesota for almost 15 years. As an immigrant who was raised in Kenya, I am always exploring, marveling at the new, but also familiar; something that reminds me of home.

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Take a walk with me, down my neighborhood and memories of my childhood. When I lived in St. Paul, I found refuge in the Latino and Asian supermarkets. In Minneapolis, my choices also include Somali, Ghanaian, Togolese and Liberian supermarkets and stores.

Here’s how I shop. Actually, I cannot really explain how I shop. I know how I do it, like my mother did, and her mother before her. She supported small businesses and stayed away from processed foods. She did not avoid supermarkets entirely, just as I cannot avoid the Wedge or my local Cub Foods. Mama made friends with everyone: the fishmonger, the shoemaker, the baker, the butcher, the cashier at the supermarket. In fact, I remember all these people through my mother’s eyes.

I grew up by Lake Victoria in Kenya, where tilapia and other fresh water fish were in abundance. We could walk to the lake, a 10-minute walk from our home, and buy fish: fresh, dried or fried by the roadside. Or we would go to Jubilee Market, and buy fish from the woman who Mamma had bought her fish from since she migrated to the city as a young woman.

Jubilee Market looks a lot like the Minneapolis Farmers’ market on Lyndale and 394. At the market are big concrete slabs on which traders would array their wares. Some of the stock was pre-wrapped and vendors would engage us, mostly Mamma, in conversation as they measured out her orders and would then give us a bit extra, urging us to return. My favorite was the vendor who gave us extra fruits. The fish market was set apart from the main market. In large frying pans you could have your fresh fish fried and refried. Mamma was anxious about having her fish fried because of the unknown quality and age of the cooking oil.

In Minneapolis, my neighborhood Vietnamese supermarket on Nicollet Avenue, a 15-minute walk from my home, has a healthy choice of both freshwater and sea fish. And quite affordable too. Unlike the fish from Lake Victoria, this fish is likely farm fished.

Buying fish is an art that my mother never fully mastered. The fish has to smell just right, and the gills and eyes need to look fresh. Mama only bought her fish from trusted fishmongers because she once unknowingly bought rotten fish; and only made the discovery when we got home. I don’t need those skills in Minneapolis. I only ask that my fish is scaled before I take it home.

A Kenyan friend visiting from Ohio, a few years ago, was so impressed with my tilapia that she had me mail her a couple of fresh tilapia so she could relive the culinary experience from the home country reminiscent in my cooking.

Unlike my mother, I do not deep-fry my fish. Instead, I stuff it with fish masala, onions, green peppers, garlic and tomatoes; and toss it in the oven for about half an hour. It is served hot alongside ugali and ong choy, the Chinese spinach I discovered a few years ago that reminds me of mix of kunde leaves and Kenyan kale.

Closer to home in Minneapolis, about a five-minute walk away, are a host of small family-owned grocery stores. While the mark-up on milk, eggs and bread can be steep, I venture into these stores to buy foods and spices that I would not find at the big box grocery stores.

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Raw spice mix for chai masala: tangawizi, ilichi, karafu and mdalasini.

Ground spices for cooking everything else including Royco Mchuzi Mix (a Kenyan household pre-mixed spice that I only use when I am homesick, which I am a lot in the winter). My favorite is nyoyo: slow cooked beans, corn (maize), peas, potatoes, carrots slow cooked for hours with a spoonful of Royco.

One winter night on my way home, I decided to stop by one of these grocery stores on Lake Street. I craved injera and lamb key wot. It was not until I was at the counter that I realized that I did not have my wallet on me. Disappointed, I begun to tell the cashier that I would not be buying anything after all and would return the next day. Without asking for any identifying information he said that I could make a payment whenever I made my way back. And so I began to notice the notebook.

Families living on small incomes get produce (milk, bread, eggs, injera, chapati, tortillas, tomatoes, onions) on “credit” and pay back without interest on payday or make small payments toward what they owe.

At the Karmel Mall, something similar happens. Most of the household goods and clothes sold there are imported from Dubai and made in China or Bangladesh. However, many of these businesses are owned by Somali immigrant women who rely on that income to sustain their families. A friend, also an immigrant, was looking to re-furnish her house so we walked over to the mall to see what her options would be. For a couple of hours, we looked at shades, drapes, curtains, blinds, carpets and other upholstery; she bargained with every retailer. We settled on one woman who insisted on calling us her African daughters. She could barely speak English, Swahili, Wolof or French, the languages we were both fluent in. We would spend another two hours with her; pitching sales to other customers and chatting with them. She trusted us so much that she walked away from the store to run errands. When she returned, three Sudanese women walked in with several hundred dollars in an envelope. One of their children was getting married and they had selected fabric that had been set aside for them on layaway to make dresses a few months earlier.

Sometimes when I am really homesick I visit these malls and stores, even when I do not need to buy anything.

Finally, I am in intentional about not identifying stores. This is not to make invisible the people I am interacting with, but to acknowledge that this experience is not unique to individual stores and business owners. It is a nod to all those immigrants who welcome each other, without introduction, into their spaces. 

Julia Nekessa Opoti is a research and communications consultant. She also produces and hosts a weekly radio show on AM950 where she talks to immigrants about living in Minnesota.