Multicolored packages plastered with dozens of languages from Indonesian to Korean to Arabic burst from the shelves of the Sunrise Asian Food Market in Eugene, Oregon, as shoppers squeeze by, arms full of vegetables and groceries. This is just another day for a cultural epicenter supplying ingredients and foods that can't be found anywhere else.
For many who identify as Asian, Sunrise is a refuge from chain grocers that often stuff an entire continent's worth of ethnicities into a single "Asian" aisle. It offers an opportunity to find ingredients like coconut milk, shrimp paste, palm sugar and fish sauce—essential to food from a continent that stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the outstretched fingers of Indonesia.
But in Bend, a city of roughly 100,000, this opportunity does not exist. Within the city, and even across Central Oregon, there are zero Asian markets or international grocers. Without access to these cultural hubs, a vast number of cultures and diverse heritages are left in the dark and forced to find difficult or burdensome workarounds.
"It's a culture shock," said Sophin Zoé Pruong-McCreery, a Khmer-American who formerly worked for a grocer and moved to Bend from Southern California. As Khmer, Pruong-McCreery traces her ancestry to the Angkorian Empire and indigenous Cambodia.
Access to culturally-specific foods and ingredients is the baseline that ties many communities together — flavors that lace together the foundation of cultural or ethnic identities. Yet, despite the importance of culturally appropriate food and ingredients, Asian and Pacific Islander communities in Bend are forced to live without access to some of the most basic ingredients.
Vietnamese community members will struggle to find Trung Nguyên coffee, with its strong and ambitious flavors, while Korean kimbap or jajangmyeon is missing from the aisles of chain grocers like Safeway, Albertsons and WinCo. Chinese Gai Lan or Gai Choy? Forget about it.
"Food is such a big part of culture," Pruong-McCreery said. In Cambodian culture you don't greet people by saying hello but instead ask if they've eaten, she said. "That's like the first thing you ask a person when they walk in the door."
Yet, when looking at culturally specific food, this question can be difficult. In Bend, often the only place to find some ingredients is through the US Foods Chefs Store on NE Third Street, a wholesale food service warehouse, or Newport Market.
"We try our best to fill the gap," said Erika Maloley, Newport's store manager.
However, Newport can only pack so many Asian products on its already full shelves and narrow aisles, with dozens of other cuisines vying for attention.
In areas like Portland, multiple Asian markets compete for customers and help keep groceries at an affordable level. In Bend, the lack of access and competition lets grocers set prices however they see fit.
"The high prices of foods causes some folks to have to go without and may contribute to a kind of food insecurity," Pruong-McCreery said.
Maloley said as an independent grocery store, they can source directly from various retailers and have things shipped directly to them, which puts them at an advantage over other grocery retailers in the area. She said they also try to empower employees to find things customers are looking for and work to bring them to the market.
"My employees can jump on the internet and reach out to our wholesalers and see if they can bring it in," she said. "We have that flexibility."
To cope with the lack of access and high cost, many have depended upon a word-of-mouth system where those who happen to be traveling to Portland or Eugene can stop at various Asian markets to bring ingredients and food back to Bend. Much of this occurs through two Facebook groups: Asian and Pacific Islanders of Central Oregon and the Japanese-American Society of Central Oregon.
Pruong-McCreery, a member of APICO, said that after driving the two and a half hours across the Cascade Mountains to Eugene, or the roughly three hours to Portland, "Literally, we will load up the whole car with six months' worth of Asian products because it's so much more inexpensive."
This tactic is common, with many spending an entire day, or multiple days, traveling to larger urban centers such as Portland or Eugene to fill up on supplies.
Jason Barber, whose wife Christy is Burmese, does the six-hour round-trip drive to Beaverton and Tigard three times a year to fill up on Asian groceries.
Barber said they visit H-Mart in Tigard and Fubonn in Portland, along with 99 Ranch, Manila Market or Uwajimaya in Beaverton. When asked what kinds of ingredients the family bought, he said it would be a very long list but included ube jam, rice cakes, Chinese broccoli, long beans, ong choi, Korean chili, miso pastes, black bean paste, "and a list of a hundred other items."
Barber, who teaches third grade, said he had an adopted student whose parents wanted to allow her to celebrate Lunar New Year, and that he provided them with the necessary ingredients to make the traditional foods because they couldn't be purchased in Bend.
"If the groceries were available here," Barber said, "people could celebrate traditions much more easily."
Li Westenfelt, a business advisor who moved from China to Central Oregon in 2004 and then to Bend in 2013, said she often goes to Portland every other week for groceries and other activities. While substitutes found at chain grocers can help, they all taste slightly different, Westenfelt said.
"A lot of times, especially for people who immigrated here, you miss the flavor that your memory associated with the taste of food," she said. "Say peppers; say that you find a substitute with what you got but the final dish comes out different than what you remember."
Rachel Alm, who identifies as Japanese-American, grew up in Hawaii, and whose family owned a grocery store, moved to Oregon to attend the University of Oregon. After graduating, she moved to Bend with a partner who was also Japanese and said it was easier to cope with the lack of an Asian market together.
"When we split up I was like, 'Oh, I have to be Asian here alone,'" she said. "That's when it really started to hit me, like, 'Oh, I don't have a stockpile of things in my pantry.'"
She soon found APICO and JASCO, which she said have helped.
Phil Chi, a GIS Analyst for the U.S. Forest Service and one of the founders of APICO, said the group started around two years ago as a few friends trying to organize grocery trips to Portland or Eugene.
"After the lockdown ended in 2020, I went to Eugene specifically just to go and get stuff," Chi said. "And I bought a ton of things for people because none of them had been able to get stuff."
He said he bought the whole shelf out of sesame oil after six or eight people had asked him to pick up supplies from the market.
"But it's always a challenge finding exactly what people are looking for," Chi said.
And, without an Asian community center or a grocery store where people can stop by in Central Oregon, it has grown from food to more of a community hub for the local Asian community. But, it's still a lot about food.
As for starting an Asian market, "I think we've really lacked the population to maintain that sort of thing for a long time," he said, "but I imagine that we're getting close to a tipping point on that."
This may be one of the most challenging aspects of starting an Asian market. Despite the need and desire for an Asian market, Bend's demographics have been a stumbling block.
According to 2020 Census data, Bend is 91.3% white alone. Just 1.8% of the population identifies as Asian alone — roughly 1,700 people.
But, this must be taken with a grain of salt. Census numbers get a little hazy when considering people who identify multiple ways, such as for Alm.
"It always ends up being kind of a mess for us, because we can see the Asian percentage and we can see the Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander," Alm said, "but we don't know how much of us are in the larger percentage that's two or more."
Even counting the home cooks of other identities who cook with Asian ingredients, it's debatable whether this number would bring in a profit for the owners of an Asian market after import fees and transportation costs. Not only this, but anyone interested in starting an Asian market would have to compete with skyrocketing property values in Bend.
According to Alm, there have been multiple attempts to start an Asian market, yet none have found a long-lasting solution.
"There's so many imperfect solutions that have popped up," Alm said, "but nothing stuck."
Alm recalls one successful Asian grocery store in Bend called A&B Market, but the family was only able to make it successful because it was a butcher shop that happened to have Asian groceries.
"The Asian groceries made them absolutely no money," she said. "So they were doing that mostly as a service to our communities so that we had a place to go."
The market no longer exists and she said the model is hard to replicate.
"It's hard to start a store knowing you're going to operate at a loss on the Asian foods," she said.
"Not having access to these ingredients directly affects the way that we're able to come together and experience culture," Alm said.
Despite this, some think an Asian grocer could be entirely feasible — such as Westenfelt, who was a banker and involved in the finance industry and now works as a business advisor. She said it 100% could work.
"I definitely think the market is there," she said.
She said the reason so many attempts have failed in the past has been due to poor business management and marketing skills. With the right method, such as Trader Joe's method of teaching customers how to cook dishes with their ingredients, she said, people could learn and become more comfortable with Asian foods.
This is not a far-fetched idea. Visit Uwajimaya in Portland or Sunrise Market in Eugene and one will run into dozens of shoppers who don't identify as Asian. Dozens of customers are there, simply curious about a world outside of their own, with a desire to learn and a hunger for the sweet tang of lychee or the numbing sensation of Sichuan peppercorns.
"Having greater access to Asian foods," Pruong-McCreery said, "benefits all of us."