Food comes in many shapes and sizes, and that is most especially true from culture to culture. And while many grocery stores now carry a variety of ingredients to match the needs of the diverse population in the Western Treasure Valley, that wasn’t always the case.

Years ago, when different cultural groups settled into the area, there was period of time when it was difficult to cook recipes that had been passed down from one generation to the next, due to a lack of access to basic ingredients. It was a reality for local Japanese and Mexican residents who lived in the area. For many, this meant taking a semi-distant drive to stores outside of the immediate area, and sometimes it meant going without traditional foods.

Essential ingredients hard to find

Kay Maeda, 90, of Ontario, was about 20 years old when she was no longer detained at a Japanese-American internment camp.

Her parents, she said, decided to stay in Ontario upon their release in 1945, with the closing of Minidoka Relocation Center in Jerome County. At the time, Maeda said, there was a Japanese store which carried tofu and other basic ingredients such as rice.

“But not so much,” she recalled.

It wouldn’t be until much later, she said, that retail-chain stores housed a larger selection of ingredients essential to cooking Japanese cuisine.

“With them bringing ingredients for Japanese cookery, it made it a lot easier,” she recalled. “It was great because we could make miso soup ’cause we had the tofu and miso and things like that. We had the soup base because they came in little envelopes and other ingredients that went with Japanese cooking, like chow mein noodles, water chestnut, bamboo and shiitake.”

Maeda says she does her grocery shopping locally, however she knows others who still make a drive to Boise, to shop at an Asian market.

Victoria Mendez, 90, of Ontario, also knew what it meant to have to make a semi-distant drive in order to buy essential ingredients for cultural cooking — in her case, authentic Mexican dishes. Those times, she said, were in the 1960s when she moved to the area.

“There was a store in Notus [Idaho], that was owned by Caucasians and they had a lot of ingredients,” she said in Spanish.

Those items included ingredients to make mole and menudo as well as other dishes, such as chile verde and chile Colorado.

Before that, she adds, there weren’t many places to buy Mexican products.

“That came later when bigger stores opened in the area,” she said.

Having those ingredients, Mendez added, were important in order to cook the food her she grew up with her entire life.

Helping newcomers

While the lack of cultural ingredients at local markets isn’t the same today for local Hispanic and Japanese populations, the struggle is still relevant today for other groups that are newer to the area.

For many, food is an expression of cultural identity, a way to preserve their culture, and most notably, a remedy for homesickness, said Matt Stringer, executive at Four Rivers Cultural Center.

So when Stringer sat in a meeting that discussed the local refugee population, and a lack of resources, including the absence of ingredients those people could cook with, he initiated the Newcomers Committee.

Made up of several community members, the group hopes to aid local refugees with integrating to the local area by assisting them with allocating resources, among one of the goals. Another initiative is to ensure local stores house essential ingredients for their cooking lifestyles.

“We don’t really know how important food is, culturally. It’s the most important and critical element to feeling comfortable and confident in your environment to be able to cook your meals with your ingredients,” Stringer said. “We know what it means to families and they are just desperate to cook what they are used to.”

Angela Machuca is on the committee, which is working to get grocery stores on board with stocking essential ingredients for families from Iran, Iraq and Somalia.

As of now, committee members have reached out to local grocery stores with the anticipation that they will be on board to house those particular ingredients.

“Red Apple and Waremart are both on board and have been very supportive,” she said.

As a grocer, Kimmie Serrano, co-owner of Red Apple, said she understands that people come from a wide variety of backgrounds, ethnicity and beliefs, but that we all have one thing in common.

“We enjoy food. Here at Red Apple that means food from all cultures,” Serrano said. “Customers often contact us in search of a product — we will do everything in our power to find that product and then carry it on our shelves so it’s there for them in the future.”

Currently, Machuca said, a survey is awaiting to be given to local refugee families in order to learn more about which ingredients are the most needed or most popular. Once that is complete, the information will be given to the stores.

For Machuca, she finds comfort in knowing that the community she lives in cares enough to want to make refugees feel welcomed.

“We want to be able to help make them as comfortable as possible to have food they have had their whole life and for them to keep it in their homes. We don’t want to take any of it away,” she added.

As a Hispanic, she said she is also happy to be able to accommodate newcomers.

“Imagine the Japanese community not having their food or the Mexican community — just like we are being accommodated by being able to access foods we like to eat and cook with, we want to be able to do it for them as well,” Machuca said.

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