Nostalgia can be evoked in different ways, but scents are particularly likely to because of the strong biological link between scents and memory. “Autobiographical memory in particular,” says Chelsea Reid, researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University. “The olfactory bulb, which is involved in the sense of smell, is linked to areas in the brain associated with memory and emotional experiences.” Furthermore, scent-evoked nostalgia directly activates the reward centers of our brain, to create those
warm fuzzy feelings of positivity, social connectedness, and self-continuity.
No wonder a walk through ethnic aisles, more than anything, seems to bring back such strong memories of belonging for immigrants. Complex and dynamic forces are at play, as one walks through scents of food and incense one grew up with. It’s a validation of identity, an experience that can be both therapeutic (and addicting). It also impacts how good one thinks the foods taste, as well as those who provide it.
London’s grocery stores having American food aisles, and Whole Foods selling ghee and chicken tikka masala are reinforcing the same memory recall. Yet, for the typical Nrst generation immigrant, shopping at the local ethnic market entails much more than buying halal meat, and freshly made chapatis. It’s a multi-sensory engagement of not just a recreated past, but also a cultural exchange amongst families, to talk about trips back home, graduation ceremonies and grandchildren.
Vibrant Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi grocery stores, stacked with fragrant spices and sweets, have been capitalizing on this craving for “home” since the 1960s. Additionally, these ethnic stores often occupy spaces in ethnic districts, that have a rich cultural history of prior immigrant groups. For immigrants, whose entire journey is about places and locations, these physical sites serve as important mnemonic devices in creating collective memories.
Oftentimes, however, the long commute to ethnic grocery stores, weekend crowds and parking, can quickly turn this tender nostalgic experience into a nightmare. Thanks to Subziwalla.com, brainchild of Manav Thaker and Sajal Rohatgi of metro Atlanta, ethnic food aisle now comes to your door. The idea got hatched over a dinner conversation of how diZcult it was to buy their favorite types of onions (a staple in Indian cooking). In partnership with FedEx, Subziwalla delivers in double insulated totes that keep produce fresh for eight hours.
While this initiative is barely ten months young, it’s already solving problem of access for students, seniors, and working couples. Even for Alabama residents, who often drove for hours to get to the closest ethnic market. It will be interesting to see how many South Asians forego “whiffs” of home for a free home delivery or a quick run to Trader Joe’s. Rather, which survival strategies spring up in place of community exchanges and chats over chai and samosa – SAI is tapping into ethnic enclaves next to find out!