What can the supermarket tell us about how ethnicity is imagined, managed and remade in Australia?
Jinghua Qian: I spend a lot of time at Footscray Coles and often I’m frustrated at the way the store is organised. I’ll be looking for nuts and they’ll be in six different sections: snacks, health foods, pick and mix, dry goods, baking supplies, and the ‘ethnic aisle’. But one thing I really loved about this supermarket was all the exotic British foods in the ethnic aisle. They had Yorkshire pudding mix, PG Tips, Branston pickles, and even Irn Bru.
Most of the time, white Anglos get to pretend that they exist outside race, ethnicity and culture so it’s satisfying to see their foods sandwiched between the chana dal and oyster sauce. It underscores how arbitrary and fragile the whole schema is, when you have Kikkoman soy sauce and Allens jelly babies in the regular ‘raceless’ sauce and lolly sections but Lee Kum Kee soy sauce and Maynards wine gums in the ethnic one. But today, I was devastated to see that they’ve now split up the ethnic aisle. Mexican and South Asian food is in aisle four while Italian, East Asian and I guess Southeast Asian food is in aisle five.
Maddee Clark: Is the British section gone altogether now? I’ve appreciated the fact that you can get UK stuff like Yorkie bars at Footscray Coles, but at the same time I’ve kind of wished they’d do a New Zealand candy section instead. The ethnic foods aisle seems to throw the whole supermarket system into chaos, and to me it’s always looked a little bit awkward sharing the same postcode as places like Footscray Market and Little Saigon. Do we know whether this is a thing Coles is doing elsewhere? Or has someone working the floor gone rogue here?
QJH: The British section’s gone as far as I can see but people on Twitter tell me that it still exists at some other Coles and Woolies stores. I assume it’s been cut from Footscray because it was never very popular. Irn Bru is a Scottish soft drink. In my mind Irn Bru is to Scotland as L&P is to New Zealand except L&P is delicious and Irn Bru is quite average. The South Asian section is unlabelled but appears on the laminated store directory card under ‘Indian’ and I have no idea why it’s paired with Mexican beyond maybe a vague conception of brownness? Aisle five now sports red lanterns and an ‘Asian’ label while the Italian section is just labelled ‘pasta’. As for why I go to Coles so much, it’s just easier than going to six different shops, plus it’s open later.
MC: I’ve been pained in the last few years thinking about how much more dominant Coles has been in Footscray, compared even to five or six years ago—that trope of the supermarket giant in the neighbourhood edging out local smaller ethnic grocers. But to tell you the truth, I’ve seen some of my local groceries recently flourishing against that narrative, pivoting their business in inventive ways when the supermarkets were hit by panic buying or became COVID-19 hotspots. My housemate and I talk about how you can get whatever you want on our block without going to Coles or Woolies or even the market because the local smaller stores have, between them, everything.
One of the ways it seems like they’ve succeeded for so long is by tapping into the needs of people who live around them, many of whom are international students and migrant workers, and identifying what sort of foods they want and need. I also noticed that my local milk bar also started racking Aldi and Woolworths products and reselling them, and lately they were able to renovate, added a new deck to the front of the store and also started selling bubble tea. (I’ve also noticed they actually just started selling slabs of Irn Bru, possibly also appropriated from Coles now that Coles has decided to cease selling.) They already acted as a really effective neighbourhood corner store, keeping people’s mail for them, opening at odd hours to service local shift workers, and functioning a bit like you’d expect a proper corner store to do by keeping an eye on things on the street.
The local Asian grocery next door to Aldi in Maribyrnong started stocking imported Latin American groceries and seems to be doing really well whereas before the pandemic they struggled to compete with Aldi. It makes Coles’ ethnic foods aisle situation look like a joke.
QJH: That’s really cool. Yeah I definitely feel a bit of 2nd-gen guilt/shame/inauthenticity about shopping at Coles and paying too much for bok choy, especially knowing how hard it is for small businesses to compete with them. When my parents ran a milk bar, we’d often just buy our stock from the big supermarkets coz their sale prices were cheaper than what we got from the wholesaler. Impossible.
When I first moved to Footscray I shopped more at Little Saigon and I remember that year when the Coles/Kmart complex was closed, I was really determined that I wouldn’t drift back. But of course I did, and actually Covid makes me reluctant to go to a bunch of different shops when I can just get everything at once. It’s wild to me that you can now get multiple kinds of Laoganma at Coles. You know I hate ‘representation’ and think it’s cursed but it’s interesting to note that there’s more Asian representation in the supermarket aisle than any other mainstream Australian institution. I still remember when Coles and Safeway didn’t really sell any Chinese food and we had to drive to one of the designated Asian suburbs just to get Chinkiang vinegar. Where did you remember shopping as a kid?
MC: We had a pretty good spread of town milk bars, the type which double as fish and chip shops, and one local grocery store, a Tuckerbox, when I was a kid. It was taken over by Coles in the late 1990s, and the town continued expanding into a sprawling coastal suburb after we got a second supermarket, a Woolworths, in 2008. Those two supermarkets represent moments of a tipping point where the place transitioned from being a regional small town into something else. Now it’s expanded even further, the place has their first McDonalds and the rate of development has pushed a lot of people away. One of the things me and my Dad would do together as a kid was actually coming to Melbourne and going to Footscray together, I still have vivid memories of Little Saigon from my childhood.
Let’s talk a bit about this cursed topic of representation though. Why has studying the evolution of this ethnic food aisle fascinated you so much, what do you think it means?
I’ve also been obsessively watching Masterchef. Masterchef has a couple of things going on here. Firstly, the Asian cooks are absolutely owning the competition and there’s a heavy emphasis on bringing your culture to the table (see Melissa Leong crying over Eric’s silken tofu dish), but with the caveat that there has to be something in there which ‘elevates’ it to fine dining. Then there’s also this unspoken points system around valuing Indigenous Australian foods which are totally trending in foodie culture at the moment.
I’m into the mythic elements of Jock Zonfrillo as a celebrity chef. But I’m also kind of into how both he and Mel Leong talk about food in a way that blends this harsh and competitive Anglo fine dining value system with a logic of pure desire and pleasure eating. At one point he assigns a cooking challenge that involves HP sauce. On another occasion, Mel assigns a challenge using instant noodles which is a really direct example of ‘something poor ethnic people eat, but make it fine dining’.
QJH: Gosh the Jock Zonfrillo d(eb)unking in Good Weekend was so wild yet I feel like it’s sort of evaporated in the tailspin of the overall media frenzy lately. I didn’t watch Masterchef in 2021 but I got really into the 2020 season (with all the gaysians) and it’s probably what inspired and aggravated my thoughts on how value is assigned in food hierarchy. Jock gets a lot of his cultural cachet from combining Indigenous foods with European techniques and I reckon his whole image pivots around some kind of fusion: tattoos and three-pieces suits; expensive-looking stubble.
It strikes me that all those TV competition shows operate on the same logic in that popular/ethnic/folk elements must be ‘elevated’ to make it fashion/fine dining/interior design. Fashion shows like Next in Fashion, Making the Cut and Project Runway juxtapose high and low culture in the same way, and they can be quite explicit about fashion as an expression of wealth and class—Project Runway judge Nina Garcia often comments on whether a design looks ‘expensive’.
Fusion is a safe strategy, because whether it’s food, fashion, literature or dance, often the judges or consumers don’t have the knowledge to recognise quality or innovation in non-western or even non-Anglo traditions unless it’s blended with something familiar. I’m thinking about conversations we’ve had before about judging literary prizes and arts funding, as well as what I’ve learned from Raina Peterson and Nithya Nagarajan about how this lack of cultural context plays out for classical and contemporary Indian dance. Fusion is a proven way of making your work legible within an Anglo value system and to a market that appreciates the price of caviar but not the scent of durian.
In the 2020 season of Masterchef, there was a really blatant celebration of Aboriginal foods without Aboriginal people. It struck me as an expression of settler nativism that’s especially suss when you take note of how many times non-Indigenous businesses have tried to trademark bush medicine or words from Indigenous languages. So, there’s a financial incentive in reducing Indigenous culinary knowledge to ‘native ingredients’, stripping away the cultural context and the collective intellectual property, and repositioning those foods as raw materials that can be absorbed into an Anglo or raceless framework for value adding.
That’s what I think about in Footscray Coles: the architecture of the melting pot. Sometimes the framework is a literal structure like the design of a supermarket or city, and sometimes it’s a way of organising and understanding things like a menu, a documentary, a cookbook. Narrative is one of the things that can assimilate and elevate exotic elements into ‘mod oz’ cuisine.
MC: I saw a post on Tiktok recently where a PoC described the white people in Footscray as ‘Built different: they’ll recommend you a really good Ethiopian restaurant but in the next breath they’ll be ordering a coffee with plant milk.’ Maybe the real result of the melting pot is this elite class of white people with confused tastebuds like this. Meanwhile, I’m over here—having initially grieved the small coastal town I grew up becoming commercialised by developers and large chain supermarkets—transplanting from Naarm to another small town and crying when I think about how much I miss Highpoint.
QJH: Haha they are built different! And then on the flipside, there are the eastern suburbs tourists who cluster on the pavement eating scraps of injera by itself. I recently found out that these Footscray food tours cost $135 per person and I was incensed, amused, and then seriously considered starting up a rival business.
Elite whites with confused tastebuds remind me of Facebook groups like Foodie Cuties, where Anglos are always posting things like ‘where can I find [dish I had one time in Ghana seven years ago]’ or ‘what’s your favourite recipe for [something that in Asia has been industrially manufactured for over a century].’ There’s a whole thing of cottagecore white queers making ethnic food from scratch as a really finetuned performance of class—it’s the opposite of bogan, but it’s also not posh like European fine dining. Cultural capital without conspicuous consumption. White women are trying to be Li Ziqi and I kinda hate it, but also I wouldn’t say no to a hot homecooked meal.
I feel like this conversation makes me sound snarky but the thing is, I love food and I’m always hungry. I’m a sucker for dumb trends, I’ll happily line up for an internet-famous snack, and I’m so impressed and moved whenever someone cooks me something special. Eating is the deepest, purest pleasure and maybe the mess is part of what’s delicious.
Overland’s Friday Features project is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.