Chattanooga’s ethnic markets are treasure troves of food—and culture
One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about Chattanooga’s growth during the past couple of decades is the variety of wonderful people from countries all over the world that have decided to make this city their home.
Chattanooga now has over 75,000 immigrants, speaking more than 70 languages. Each of these individuals and families are unique in that they mustered the strength and tenacity it takes to move to another country and start a new life.
These new residents come from a wide variety of cultures, each with its own rich culinary history that, many times, is one of the few tangibles they retain from their country of origin. The food they eat and the recipes they recreate from their homelands are a powerful cultural comfort, yet many of these dishes are unknown to the average Chattanoogan. In fact, the cultures that many local immigrants hail from are unknown to most Chattanoogans.
Our city prides itself on its Southern hospitality and has made welcoming visitors part of our local brand, yet we mostly move and socialize in ethnically cloistered groups, watching celebrities on television taste food and experience cultures that we have right outside our own front doors.
The average Chattanoogan has never tasted the barbacoa at Guatamalteca on Main Street, or fresh Thai eggplant from Asian Food and Gifts on Hixson Pike. Most Chattanoogans do not know about the spectacular fresh bread from the Balkan bakery in East Ridge or the aromatic curry leaves from the cooler in the back of India Bazar in Brainerd.
The people who own and operate these markets are our neighbors. We will proudly support the “shop local” movement within our own circles, but overlook locally owned ethnic markets. By not stepping outside of our typical routines and boundaries when we shop for food, we are missing out not only on an opportunity to expand our world of flavors and foods, but also who we view as a neighbor.
Food can be a great unifier, bridging races, religions, languages and generations. When people gather around a common table and a common love of food, boundaries begin to crumble and understanding begins to grow.
Shopping at local ethnic markets is a win-win for everyone. Aside from the low prices on everything from meats and seafood to produce, sauces and spices, the selection of hard-to-find items and traditional ingredients for the dishes you have always wanted to try is spectacular.
When you shop at these markets, you’ll be helping small, local businesses, which feed the bloodstream of our city’s growth. You’ll also get the chance to meet new, interesting people, and will be helping break the cultural divide that stands as one of the obstacles to diversity, understanding and unity within our broader community.
My hope for Chattanooga is that it becomes a truly cross-cultural, diverse community with immigrant and non-immigrant businesses sharing in Chattanooga’s growth and prosperity. Breaking out of our comfort zones and embracing ethnic markets as part of our “shop local” philosophy is a great way to reach out and welcome the new. Chattanooga will be stronger for it.