Columbus has one of the most vibrant immigrant food scenes in America. Here's proof.
By Zahir Janmohamed
Imagine this: you find yourself living in a country you have never been to before. You’ve read about it in the news, maybe learned a bit about it from movies, but for the most part, it’s all very foreign to you. And then suddenly, a few years in, you find yourself missing the things from back home you did not think mattered to you: the beer you once dismissed as being watered down; the potato chips you swore were too salty; the biscuits you passed on at family meals because they were too sugary. And now, in this new place, it’s all you want, not because your opinion of these items has changed, but because they transport you to somewhere familiar, somewhere comfortable, somewhere that feels, well, like you.
At Saraga International Grocery in Columbus on Morse Road, I witnessed this myself when I watched a Korean family, who had driven in from a small town in Pennsylvania, almost burst into tears when they discovered that the candies they used to cherish back in Seoul—candies that they had not been able to find elsewhere in the US—were available in aisle eight.
If you want to experience magic like this, of people finding the communities and the treasures they have long been searching for, spend a weekend in Columbus. Even if you have never lived outside the US and cannot relate to this feeling, it’s hard not to be touched by the warmth of Columbus’ burgeoning, and I would argue, unparalleled immigrant food scene.
This past August, I spent three days crisscrossing around Columbus, eating far more food than I thought humanly possible. I found myself bowled over by the hospitality and the eagerness of businesses not only to welcome me in, but to teach me about their cultures through food.
It was not my first visit to the city. I moved to Columbus in the fall of 2017 when my wife was a one-year visiting professor at Denison University. I had previously lived in Portland, Oregon and while I loved my time there, I was often frustrated by how Portland’s food scene often excluded women, immigrants and people of color. Those frustrations led me to starting a podcast, Racist Sandwich, that explored the intersection between food and identity.
When I moved to Columbus, I expected to be bombarded with similar stories of exclusion within the food industry. Instead what I heard was the opposite: of immigrants singing the praises of Columbus and of foodies saying, rightfully so, that Columbus is doing pretty damn good for itself, punching way, way above its weight.
Consider the following: in 2017, when I moved to Columbus, the number one restaurant on Yelp was Momo Ghar, a dumpling restaurant started by a Tibetan-Nepali woman. The number one ice cream place, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, was started by a woman, Jeni Britton Bauer. Even when Momo Ghar was knocked off its perch, it was only because a new fried chicken place had opened called Hot Chicken Takeover—a restaurant known for its good labor practices, including hiring formerly incarcerated individuals.