Middle Eastern Grocery Stores in Heidelberg - by Logan Moriarty
For this project, I chose a culinary phenomenon significant to my everyday life: Middle Eastern grocery stores. Although grocery shopping is often seemingly banal for many, the dynamism of these humble shops in Heidelberg provides a unique example of the influences between social food practices and urban space. When I first moved to Heidelberg in June of 2016, there were four Middle Eastern grocers in the city; in only one and a half years’ time, that number has doubled to 8 (Map 1). Since I regularly enjoy cooking Middle Eastern food and personally frequent these shops, this increase naturally caught my attention and piqued my curiosity
This project sheds some light with a case study of the shop, Orient Markt, on Bergheimer Straße in Heidelberg, Germany. I chose this particular grocery store for two reasons. Firstly, it was one of the original four Middle Eastern grocery stores from June 2016 and as such perhaps could provide insight into this culinary phenomenon throughout their experience of being open longer. Secondly, being located on my daily route to my study institute’s building, I am a frequent patron of the Orient Markt and recognizable by the employees – facilitating the process of contacting the owner for inquiries.
I conducted an interview with the owner, Mr. Nouri, asking questions to build a general profile of the Orient Markt as a social space where food practices are carried out within the larger topography of the city. Among others, examples of these interview questions were the following:
Why did you open the store?
What kind of products do you sell?
Who generally shops here?
What do they typically buy?
When is the shop most busy?
What do you like and dislike about the location of the shop?
The interview with Mr. Nouri was conducted in a mixture of German and Arabic. Upon completing the interview, I took photos of the store, and wrote up my findings. I then created three maps using OpenStreetMap (OSM) to postulate how social food practices in the Orient Markt and Heidelberg’s urban landscape influenced one another. The photos, maps, and findings of this research were finally presented to the seminar in the form of a PowerPoint presentation.
This section outlines the major points drawn from the interview with Mr. Nouri and establishes the Orient Markt’s profile as a social food space. Mr. Nouri first moved to Heidelberg from Iraq in 2001, at which time the store belonged to a friend of his. However, the store was not originally a specialty shop but rather a small grocery selling ordinary foodstuffs that one could find in typical German supermarkets. In 2010, Mr. Nouri took over the store and converted it into a Middle Eastern specialties store. He did so because he noticed a need for such a store among Arab migrants in the city. Additionally, Mr. Nouri was already familiar with the products due to his own background and even says that working with these products is his favorite part of the job.
Regarding the products themselves, Mr. Nouri describes the store’s wares as “Arabic specialties” but had originally used the term “Oriental specialties” – even using air quotations when saying this term. According to Mr. Nouri, the term recognizes that there is some crossover with Turkish products, which have been available at Turkish grocery stores in Heidelberg since before the opening of the Orient Markt. Nonetheless, he explains that his products cater specifically to the Arab migrant demographic of Heidelberg – especially since servicing them is the inspiration behind the store.
As for the Orient Markt’s clientele, Mr. Nouri attests that although there are indeed a few German customers, the vast majority of shoppers are Arab migrants, many of whom are refugees. He explains that his Arab clientele buy various products, while Germans typically only buy bread and fresh herbs. He believes that this may be because these specific products are either too difficult to find or too expensive in German supermarkets.
When asked about the busiest store hours, Mr. Nouri explains that afternoons – specifically on Saturday – are hands-down the busiest time in the shop. The store’s major clientele are working class residents and therefore typically only have time in the afternoon or on the weekend to do grocery shopping. In addition, Mr. Nouri shares his own personal insight by stating that enjoying mornings slowly and taking care of obligations later in the afternoon – especially during days-off on the weekend – is very much a part of Arab migrant culture.
Regarding the physical location of the store, Mr. Nouri has mixed feelings. He would prefer the store to be on Heidelberg’s arguably busiest street, Hauptstraße, in the Altstadt. However, he explains that rent in this section of the city is far too expensive, and the current location already receives adequate foot traffic due to its proximity to the transportation hub, Bismarckplatz. In this respect, Mr. Nouri expresses his overall satisfaction with the store’s location.
Description of Maps:
Keeping in mind what Mr. Nouri explained about the proximity to Bismarckplatz and that a significant amount of his patrons are Arab refugees and migrants, I decided to map potential transportation routes of this specific demographic. Heidelberg’s official city website has a page dedicated to frequently asked questions concerning refugee populations in the city. From these FAQs, I was able to map the current locations of city council accommodation for refugees and all relevant public transit lines that connect them to the city center (Map 2).
Unsurprisingly, these tram and bus lines all lead to Bismarckplatz, which is located more or less in the center of Heidelberg. It makes sense that within a three block radius of Bismarckplatz are four out of the eight Middle Eastern grocery stores (Map 3), since this is major transport node of all lines servicing city council refugee housing and connecting this demographic to the city center. Additionally, six of these twelve lines stop at the two stations closest to the Orient Markt (Map 4).
How do these findings shed light on how social food practices and urban space influence one another? A first point can be drawn from Mr. Nouri’s use of the term “Orient” when describing the wares of the shop and even epitomized in the name, “Orient Markt”. The conscious use of this term versus more specific descriptions like “Arabic specialties” plays into the German imaginations of “the Orient”. The name, “Arabischer Markt” does not conjure up the same romanticized imaginations of exotic and luxurious goods as “Orient Markt” nor does it speak to what Germans may already be more familiar with by Turkish products under the same term. In this way, the Orient Markt uses space (in the form of imaginative geographies) to appeal to the food practices and imaginations of German clients.
Secondly, the fact that most German customers have become regulars and purchase specific products (Arabic breads and fresh herbs) that are too difficult or expensive to buy elsewhere potentially elucidates a newly acquired taste by German residents for these staple foods of Arabic migrants. This is further accentuated by the physical placement of these two products; bundles of fresh herbs are displayed outside on the sidewalk with signs saying “1 euro each” and the bread stands directly in front of the shopper upon entering the store. This strategic utilization of space plays on Germans’ newly acquired tastes to entice them into making a purchase.
Finally, and perhaps the most explicit example of social food practices and urban space influencing one another, the cluster of Middle Eastern grocery stores that have popped up around Bismarckplatz (the major transport node of all public transit lines connecting refugee housing to the city) exemplifies a transformation of the city at its literal core. As Map 3 shows, this transformation is likely due to Arab refugee patterns of mobility from the city council accommodations to Heidelberg’s center in order to buy groceries.
This case study of the Orient Markt has revealed much about the relation between space and social food practices. Playing on imaginative geographies, acquired tastes of foods from migrant communities, utilizing space to appeal to these tastes, and lastly the transformation of the city center due to refugee mobility when carrying out the food practice of grocery shopping all exemplify the influences between social food practices and urban spaces.
Map 2: Locations of city council accommodation for refugees and relevant public transit lines in relation to the Orient Markt. Self-produced Map by the author.
Map 3: Locations of Middle Eastern grocery stores in Heidelberg with indication of 4 locations within approximately a 3 block radius of Bismarckplatz.
Map 4: Locations of public transit stops nearby the Orient Markt.