You Can Find The Best Version Of The US At This Japanese Grocery Story
A trip to Houston’s Seiwa Market — where the shoppers are a microcosm of a wildly diverse city — will literally turn my day around.
Area of Expertise is a column on niche interests, personal passions, and other things we might know or care a little too much about.
It’s worth just yelling up front: I love Seiwa Market. The Japanese grocery store entered my life the way most things in Houston do — I was driving aimlessly and ran smack into it, all of a sudden, as if I’d been headed there my whole life. Which is hilarious, since I used to be one of those kids with an allergic reaction to grocery stores.
For a while, my mother wheeled us across town to the Carribean shop in Alief, scouring for ackee, and once that one closed there were the afternoon hours spent in Fiestas sprinkled across the region, forever searching for sales. We had the Nigerian grocer by our old church, the days spent haggling with fishmongers in the Chinese food court by Beltway 8. It got so bad that my presence in these places was deemed a given on Sundays, like I was their lumpy child mascot; at one market, this white guy asked me if I knew where the agave was (because I worked there, obviously, in mesh shorts and a snapback), which had me so annoyed that I led him in loops through the aisles ad infinitum.
I just didn’t appreciate these places or their delicacies. But now? I’m a brand-new man. What happened is what always happens: a boy. He reintroduced me to cooking — the sheer sorcery of it, the payoff. And these grocery stores were where that began. So I started going on my own, often, tentatively, and then daily, just to touch the cilantro and the purple yams and to flirt with the butcher about whatever lamb he’d stored in the back, and also when was he dropping the price. Now, grocery stores and shrines are my favorite places on this planet (although grocery stores are more abundant in Texas, and plane tickets aren’t cheap).
You can tell everything about a city by its grocery stores.
But a trip to Seiwa Market will literally turn my day around. Back in 2015, when Hidejiro Matsu’s plans for a Houston spot were first announced, I thought the spot might be akin to a jumbo-sized FamilyMart, or an Everything’s Bigger in Texas–esque Lawson. Except that wasn’t the case at all: It’s a virtually independent entity, divorced from the hang-ups surrounding most chain branches, donning all of the accoutrements that come with a grocery store in the South. The building sits south of I-10, right down Dairy Ashford. You’ll pass like 42 strip malls, and a bevy of Indian diners, and the parking lot rests across from a row of police cruisers, which is unfortunate, but fuck it, because of what you have waiting inside: the sacks of katsuobushi, the tins of curry powder, the furikake and kombu and the shoyu.
Everyone who spends any modicum of time with me grows sick of my talking about Houston and its food, but you can tell everything about a city by its grocery stores — who, specifically, it values; whether you have to make bank to eat well; are there healthy, fresh options for folks living on or beneath the poverty line, or has the infrastructure codified an unspoken agreement acquiescing to food deserts? There are places that I simply won’t live, no matter how sexy, because your boy can’t find beef patties or lemongrass or soju for miles. And I know delivery options exist on the internet, but I also don’t much care: Our fingertips can’t brush the cans of coconut milk lining the walls of Amazon dot com.
It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that the whole community shops at Seiwa Market, from the moneyed folks in Sugar Land, to the punk-adjacent set in Montrose. Representatives from the city’s other hubs swoop in, with all of us looking for a reasonably priced jug of Mirin. That diversity illustrates Houston in microcosm, an ugly beautiful town where every other person seems connected by two crooked degrees of separation (or is hella quick to acquaint themselves when they aren’t). And that image alludes to the future our state’s en route toward, if we allow it to progress unimpeded: very Purple Texas, very Blue Twitter.
Spaces like Seiwa Market are simultaneously totems of our current dystopia; where, a couple hundred miles south, hundreds of families have been separated and detained for no other reason than their point of origin. Even 30 miles beyond I-610 (to say nothing of the city center itself), you’ll find yourself bombarded by rampant xenophobia. But the fact that our hubs of multiplicity can exist in such close proximity to these disparate, fear-tinged realities is evidence enough that we are capable of eradicating those hellscapes entirely, even if the powers that be aren’t so inclined.
This designation of “international” creates an implied they and an implicit us. But what’s at the root of that distinction?
And maybe calling spaces like Seiwa Market — along with the Indian and Vietnamese and Honduran grocers across Houston, spanning the length of the world’s culinary limits — “international” stores is a little bit of a misnomer. Because who, of anyone in the States, is more American than the immigrant? The person who left everything — a whole fucking life elsewhere, a sprawling web sporting roots and branches — to make one here, without the pale assurance of acceptance, without even the certainty that the structure would hold upon their arrival? This designation of “international” creates an implied they and an implicit us. But what’s at the root of that distinction? In what way are their aspirations so wildly varied from your own? And what’s a grocery store, really, except an assembly of ingredients for your (our) loves — the kindling for our own tiny fires?
Love is a red-bean bun. Love is tempura, simmering and warm by the register. Love is the flyer of coupons announcing half off of the curry. I am a profoundly forgetful person, and maybe lasting affection requires that sort of constant misremembering (This is why I’m still in it; this is why I put up with his shit), but that could be why Seiwa Market and I work so well: For the consumer, there isn’t much to think about. Nothing to debate. It’s a beautiful space, chock-full of delicious food, and frequented by folks from all corners of a wildly diverse city. It is, in other words, a gift. And all you have to do is arrive.
So: An old woman squints and asks me, in Spanish, about the rice crackers in my cart. A trio of brown frat guys, stoned to the constellations, juggle bottles of sake, blinking at the hiragana lining their bottles. The lone cashier waves me over, because of course I wasn’t paying attention, and I ask the lady behind me to go on in my stead since I forgot to grab a tub of miso by the tofu. I don’t need it (you never really think you need your true loves). But I’m thinking of meals with family and friends and boyfriends and myself. And I am happy, again, daydreaming about some indeterminate future, bonded with the present by the alchemy — which is people, only ever people — holding together the market’s walls. And I didn’t have to go very far at all. ●