Mr. Kiwi and Mr. Pina

A Maori and a Mexican walk into a bar. Wait a minute. No. That’s just wrong.

Mr. Kiwi and Mr. Pina are actually the names of two different grocery stores. Pina being the Spanish word for pineapple, although I’m missing the ability to put that squiggly line over the N on my politically insensitive keyboard. I forget how you spell it, but it’s called an enye or N Yay! Not to be confused with that easy listening lady from the ’90s. Sail away, sail away, sail away.

These grocery stores are sort of an organic, health food type store, but without the token dreadlocked white guy. They are actually run by Koreans. Interestingly enough, on the West coast, lots of mini marts are run by Korean families. Out in New York, the mini mart is usually referred to as a Bodega. The main proprietors as far as I can tell are Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and sometimes Middle Easterners. I’m not sure what language Bodega originates from, but I’m pretty sure it means cramped, dirty corner store with unhealthy food and a deli counter.

The enterprising Koreans of New York City have sensed opportunity in the form of gentrification and realized that the yuppies, vegans, and artists that continue to populate Brooklyn are looking for better food shopping opportunities closer to home. Manhattan has a Whole Foods and other indie health food stores, so the Koreans are bringing their version into competition with the Bodegas that are everywhere around here. It’s kind of nice to see. Mr. Pina is newly built in the time since I’ve arrived and located in Williamsburg. I walked by recently and saw it had opened and right up front they were making fresh juices. I picked out some fruits and vegetables for my drink and it was only $3!

There’s another chain of Korean health food stores making their way around Brooklyn and I read an article noting the change that was happening. It almost seemed to be against this progress, siding with the Bodegas. Now, I’m all for the small business owner, but you combine lousy choices, aloof service, and high prices and maybe there’s a few that don’t need to survive from a business standpoint. Cruel? Heartless? I’ve been laid off. We’re all expendable. Create your value.

When I spent a year teaching English in Korea I remember how limited my choices felt when I first arrived. No Mexican food whatsoever. No tortillas. No salsa. No refried beans. Hell, I can’t even get Rosarita refried beans in New York, what’s up with that?

One day a month or so after I had arrived I went into the supermarket that was in the basement of a five story shopping mall, and as I wandered the aisles, I came across something familiar. Cheese. Not a common food item to find in Korea. But what really got me was that it was Tillamook Sharp Cheddar. Tillamook, from my adopted home state! I had visited the factory in the summer and had ice cream as a kid. Everybody does that when they go to Tillamook. As I stared in disbelief, the Korean music that had been playing gave way to something else familiar. Kurt Cobain was singing Come as You Are! What kind of cosmic joke was being played on me at that moment? I was nearly overwhelmed with homesickness for the green and rainy Northwest. The cheese was way too expensive for what I would pay at home, so I left without it.

Eventually, I learned to appreciate what I could find, although my mom bailed me out once or twice with a care package of food. Thanks again mom! But I began to love kim chi, dry roasted seaweed, shrimp chips, Pocky chocolate crunchy sticks, the disgustingly named Gatorade ripoff Pokari Sweat, and the veritable plethora of Korean chewy drinks. Korean chewy drinks you ask? They have pieces of fruit in the bottom of a bottle of juice. Mandarin orange, grapes, kiwis, lychees, peaches. It’s very unsettling to Westerners, and there was always a story of some oblivious rookie teacher who took their first big swig and nearly upchucked at the first indication of floaties in their drink. Remember: Drink then chew. Drink then chew.

Comfort food becomes what you make of it. We all have things that remind us of home, or childhood, and they bring a wonderful familiarity. I was raised to have an adventurous palate, and in my travels have discovered new things that I have incorporated into my list of favorites that bring excitement when I can find them. In New York I still feel that I’m in a foreign land and at times have unfulfilled food cravings, but maybe I’m just a glutton.

Mr. Kiwi is closer to my home and right down the street from my gym, so it’s great for a post workout fresh squeezed veggie fruit drink. It makes me think of Jack Lalanne and his Juice Tiger, and when I’m done I feel ready to tow a rowboat across the East River by the skin of my teeth.

I just wish Mr. Kiwi sold kim chi. It’s not something you want to buy that’s mass marketed and filled with preservatives. You need to find it locally made by the Korean community. They do, however, sell Korean chewy drinks, along with a Japanese product called Chocorooms. The package describes it as a chocolaty cap with a crispy cookie stem. Chocorooms! I once knew a hippy girl that gave me some Chocorooms. They weren’t crispy, but an hour later I was.

In defense of Bodegas, I will say that they have bags of chips for a quarter by this brand called Utz that are pretty good, and a pretzel maker from Pennsylvania, home of all great pretzel makers, called Unique. They make pretzel shells, just the outer crispy part of the pretzel. YES!

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