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Ethnic Bounty : The Hunger for Exotic Foods Is Met by Stores Offering Conch, Tofu and Jicama and by Classes in How to Cook Them : Cuisine: The Valley has become part of a revolution in culinary life styles. Many of the new dishes come with the boom in immigration.

January 25, 1990|ROBERTA G. WAX

When Teresa Alvarado moved to Southern California from Mexico nearly 20 years ago, she soon discovered that local supermarkets did not carry many of the fresh ingredients that were the basis of her daily meals.

Chilies only came in a can. And when she searched for chorizo at the meat counter, all she found were row upon row of steaks, chicken parts and pork chops wrapped in plastic. So she adapted her recipes and relied on canned chilies for her relleno.

Today Alvarado, who lives in Canoga Park, is amazed at what she can pile into the shopping cart at her local grocery store.

Reaching for a bag of yellow-green tomatillos in the produce section of a Ralphs supermarket, Alvarado, 45, bragged about how easy it is to create authentic Mexican dishes. Most of the ingredients she needed were only a few feet away.

Wheeling her cart slowly between the well-stocked aisles of the international food section, she plucked a can of menudo from a shelf.

She admitted that she no longer makes everything from scratch. "But it's good that it's here if I want it," she said, passing bags of rice and beans and chicharrones (fried pork rinds).

Amy Asai, 30, of Granada Hills remembers when it was hard to find tofu in Valley supermarkets. But today she says that although she sometimes drives to specialty stores in downtown Los Angeles or Gardena, her search for Japanese foods has been greatly simplified. When she shops at Hughes Markets in Granada Hills, she can choose among at least four different types of tofu in a freezer case brimming with Asian specialties--the makings for pot stickers and a colorful array of pickled vegetables, including pink radishes, red plums, white scallions, red ginger and purple eggplant, all of which can be washed down with various teas, from brown rice to Korean ginseng.

Alvarado and Asai are the beneficiaries of a quiet revolution within the food industry: The days of Salisbury steaks, apple sauce and peas are fading; the era of tamales, jicama and ginger is here. Ethnic is in, and supermarkets are feverishly restocking their shelves and bins to cash in on the trend.

Like retailers throughout Southern California, Valley grocers are adding an increasing number of ethnic products to their shelves to meet the needs not only of a growing ethnic population, but of shoppers looking for new gastronomic delights.

Supermarkets that didn't even offer Indian chutney or Korean kim chee five years ago have nearly doubled the shelf space that holds international foodstuffs. Retailers are also hiring special buyers, promoting ethnic products in newspapers and opening up new specialty stores.

Ethnic food is a nationwide trend "that was taken to a peak in California because of the diversity of the people," said Steve Koff, president of the Southern California Grocers Assn., a Los Angeles-based trade group with 1,200 retail store members.

Gloria Alvarez takes it one step further. The executive director of operations for the Mexican-American Grocers Assn., a 900-member organization based in Los Angeles, says ethnic foods in supermarkets are "more than a trend." She terms them "a necessity, as the ethnic makeup of neighborhoods changes."

Consider the following evidence of our changing tastes:

* Ralphs Grocery Co. has increased shelf space for ethnic foods 30% to 40%--depending on the store--in the past five years. The 133-unit chain, based in Compton, created a special buying department for such products, according to Robert Williams, director of ethnic foods, buying and merchandising.

* Five years ago, Lucky's Markets, a 192-unit chain based in Dublin, Calif., launched a "neighborhood store" program designed to bring more ethnic foods into local markets. "Based on individual stores . . . space for ethnic food has more than doubled," said Bob Sherrick, vice president for grocery buying.

* Vons Grocery Co. has created a separate group of supermarkets to cater to the needs of Southern California's growing Latino population (see accompanying story). Called Tianguis, an Aztec word meaning marketplace, the super-size stores in El Monte, Cudahy and Montebello offer such items as fresh chorizos, salsas and tortillas. A Tianguis is in the works for the city of San Fernando.

* Food wholesalers such as Certified Grocers of California, which supplies more than 2,200 markets in Southern California, and Frieda's Finest, one of the largest produce purveyors in the Los Angeles area, have created separate ethnic divisions to handle the growing demand. In fact, ethnic foods have become so popular at Certified that its seven-year-old ethnic foods subsidiary, Grocer's Specialty Co., has seen sales double every year since its inception.

According to a report issued by Business Trend Analysts of Commack, N.Y., the potential for growth in the ethnic food market "surpasses that of virtually any other food product."

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