If you’ve ever been inside an Asian supermarket, you’ll recognize that distinct smell that hits your nose right as you walk in the doors. It’s the combination of freshly butchered fish laying on ice at the seafood counter, and the lingering smell of cleaning supplies on the linoleum floor. While slightly pungent, that smell brings a certain sense of familiarity to my mind. It reminds me of the days I used to run through the snack aisle of 99 Ranch Market (the West coast version of H Mart) with my brother when we were young. That was the exact smell that hit my nose after walking into Ren’s Mart last winter.
Ren’s Mart is an Asian grocery store that opened in Ithaca last November. Located at the far end of Buffalo Street past the commons, Ren’s is a family business operated by father Rockey Ren and daughter Aneara Ren. The Ithaca location is the fourth store that owners Rockey Ren and partner Qing Li have opened in upstate New York, with other locations in Rochester, Syracuse and Buffalo (under the name Asia Food Market).
There were a number of reasons the group decided to expand to Ithaca, but store manager and nephew of the owner Jian Li highlighted a customer WeChat group advocating for this location. Li explained that Asia Food Market customers who lived in Ithaca had to travel to Rochester or Syracuse to find the specific items they were looking for, so they requested that a market be opened in Ithaca.
Ren’s Mart offers a selection of fresh produce, meats and other Asian foods that are hard to find elsewhere. The store also boasts a seafood counter with both live fish swimming in tanks and freshly butchered fish on ice which you can purchase whole. In addition, the store owners are currently in the process of obtaining a cooked food licence to open a deli section where they would serve roast duck and other ready-to-eat dishes.
Li is especially proud of the fish counter and said, “You don’t really see fresh fish in other markets.” In other nearby grocery stores, it’s uncommon to find whole fish to purchase. Steamed whole fish with ginger, scallions and soy sauce is a popular Chinese dish peticularly during holidays, and in the week leading up to Lunar New Year I witnessed many people buying whole sea bass at Ren’s.
Ren’s Mart is a welcome addition to the Ithaca grocery scene because it provides accessibility to Asian ingredients that cannot be found at other grocery stores in the area. “Ren’s is great because it carries cuts that aren’t popular in American cuisine like pig trotters and pork blood,” said Ernest Li ’22.
Particularly for students of Asian descent, Ren’s allows them to cook the dishes they grew up eating but cannot make themselves in Ithaca. “Especially with COVID, when it’s harder to go back and visit, it’s nice to have somewhere where I can pretty much get all of the things I need to cook up stuff like my mom would make at home,” said Brad Phelps ’22.
Additionally, Ren’s gives Asian and Asian-American students, such as Robin Zheng ’22, the chance to introduce cultural foods to their friends. “Ren’s is cool since I can show people that didn’t grow up in Asian communities some of the things I grew up having,” Zheng said.
Emma Goldenthal ’22 was one of those people who was brought to Ren’s by a friend. “I haven’t been to many Asian supermarkets before, and I was really blown away by all of the different choices,” said Goldenthal. “Had I not been with my friend, I might have felt a bit out of place, but as we walked the aisles together in search of the perfect lo mein noodles, I felt like I was embarking on a wonderful culinary adventure.”
Hopefully, Ren’s Mart will be around for a long time to make Asian foods more accessible to all of Ithaca. Manager Jian Li added, “Thank you all for supporting us! We are still working on providing the best in all aspects for our customers.”
Margaret Chan is a junior in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at [email protected].