When Grace Rai, a Bhutanese refugee who grew up in Nepal, first came to the United States in 2018, she had trouble finding the food she was used to.
She and her family finally felt at home, she said, when a woman named Muju brought them Nepalese food.
Her husband, Uffwal, experienced similar concerns when he came to this country in 2014.
“I was at the airport,” he recalled, “and I was so worried I would never get to eat rice.”
So Grace Rai decided to do something to help all the other immigrants in Utica, founding the online Muju International Grocery Store in 2020, which uses an app developed by her husband, and opening a brick-and-mortar store on Champlin Avenue in Utica this spring.
The store caters to all of Utica’s immigrants of recent decades with different sections for different cultures; it offers spices, packaged foods, fresh produce, fresh meat, frozen foods and more.
“We are trying to bring many countries together,” Grace Rai explained.
Over the last two or three decades, a growing number of ethnic grocery stores have popped up along city streets, predominantly in East Utica. Most, though, carry specialties from one geographic region: Asian groceries started by Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees; eastern European stores started by Bosnian, Serbian and Russian immigrants; a Latin American grocery and restaurant owned by an Ecuadorean immigrant; and a store selling Arabic and Bosnian food.
They thrive alongside a bounty of ethnic restaurants and markets promising halal meats (which meet Muslim dietary guidelines) started by newcomers to the city. The stores represent a taste of home to Utica’s immigrants.
Utica natives are constantly reminded of their city’s diversity through the universal language of food, said Beth Irons, Oneida County Public Market manager.
“We enjoy the diversity that the immigrants and refugees bring to our community,” she said. “We welcome it. We’re intrigued by it. We’re not afraid of it …
“And we want to know what you do with a potato as opposed to what do we do with a potato. And what’s that funky-looking thing sitting on the side of your plate.”
A taste of Asia
On Oneida Street in Utica, an empty Save A Lot supermarket and a former City Liquors store sit next to a thriving Asian grocery store, Lucky Mey’s Market, which opened in 2009.
Like many Asian markets, it’s crowded with products — cans of jackfruit and mung beans, tiny spotted quail eggs, Thai candy and, in season, durian, an Asian fruit treasured for its delicious taste and derided for its horrible smell. The store also, like many Asia markets in the city, seems smaller at first than it is, sprawling farther and farther back.
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Karen refugees from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, are the store’s biggest customers, but other Burmese, Vietnamese, Somali, Laos, Thai and Nepalese refugees as well as Latinos and native English-speaking Americans all shop there, many drawn by the diversity of the store’s fresh produce, said Mike Boudreau, the store’s jack-of-all-trades deputized to speak for the owner, Socheatar Mey, who is from Cambodia.
The store has even added a section of Goya foods for the Latinos who come in looking for produce, he said.
Finding ‘the most delicious’ food
When Kyi Kyi Min came to the United States in 2008 with her husband and daughter, she had trouble finding the ingredients to make her favorite foods from her native Myanmar. There were only two Asian grocery stores in Utica at that time and they were run by Vietnamese and Cambodia immigrants and did not have everything she wanted, she said.
She was not interested in trying American food. Now she gets by on food she finds in the city’s growing number of Asian groceries and on care packages of traditional foods from back home, Kyi Kyi Min said.
“I think Burmese food is the most delicious for me,” she said in an email. “Because Burma has a lot of ethnicities, so we have a variety of food. When I got a package from Burma, those days were like in paradise.”
A taste of Europe
When Hanka Grabovica came to Utica with her family in 2001 at age 16, there was perhaps one Eastern European grocery store in the city. That was okay, though, because they were more concerned with getting enough to eat than eating Bosnian food, she said. Things had been tough in Bosnia.
Now Ruznic Market and Restaurant, the market portion of which opened in 2003, feeds Uticans who crave eastern European food in an 1892 firehouse on Albany Street, said Elena Ruznic, the American-born daughter of owner Elmir, a Bosnian refugee.
The store offers fresh bread and other home-baked goods and products from the former Yugoslavia, Germany, Poland, Turkey and Italy. Most of its customers come from the city’s Bosnian community, but Somalians, Rwandans, Arabs and Asians all come in, Elena Ruznic said. Often they come to send money via Western Union, but stay to shop, she said.
Native-born Americans come, too, she added, if they’ve heard about Bosnian food from friends or have visited Bosnia.
Now a number of Eastern European groceries, some owned by Russian immigrants and some by Bosnian refugees, have opened, selling jars of grilled eggplant, pate, vegetable spread, Serbian wine, smoked beef, European coffee, frozen pierogies and tins of herring, sardines, salmon and mackerel.
And they all have a big assortment of sweets — tortes sold frozen or sliced by the pound; European chocolate bars by brands such as Milka and Kinder; gingerbread; endless boxes of European cookies; and Nutella and other brands of chocolate hazelnut spreads.
Grabovica has learned, she said, she embraces many kinds of cuisine, but is glad for the new grocery stores, which make it easy to find the few Bosnian products she always keeps on hand.
“It just feels like it reminds me of my homeland,” she said. “It reminds me of my country. It reminds me of where I came from. … My kids are learning and that’s keeping them knowing this is Bosnia’s story.”
Best of both worlds
The Rais, both the children of Christian pastors, are using profits from Muju to reach out to their homeland. A quarter of profits go to help Nepali women who have been rescued from sex trafficking in India, Grace Rai said. Another quarter goes to churches in Nepal, she said.
But the couple are also working to create stronger ties with their new community. They’re buying whatever goods local farmers can offer for the store, things like cabbages, eggplants and cucumbers, Uffwal Rai said. “We have plenty of (tomatoes) here,” he said. “So why should we pay the big boys big money?”
And the store is now offering subscription boxes of seasonal products from local farms through its app, he said. In the future, he hopes to use the app to link local growers directly to customers, he said.
“We’re trying to bridge the gap between farmer and the customer through our app,” he said.
He’s looking to work with Amish farmers, who have transportation issues; they’ve said they’re willing to try growing vegetables that immigrant communities want, such as okra, cherry hardball peppers and even collard greens for southerners, Uffwal Rai said.
“This is home now and we are committed to home,” he said.
“We’re trying to balance them both.”
Amy Roth is the health and education reporter for the Observer-Dispatch. Email Amy Roth at [email protected].