Devon Fish House
6347 N Rockwell St. Chicago, IL 60659
When we began preparing this tour, Devon Fish House was a flourishing grocery store owned by Bangladeshi immigrant Sayem Khondakar, or Babu. By December 2014 the business closed and a new Bangladeshi-owned store is expected to open in this location. We have an alternate location, in case this store location is inaccessible to you. You may visit a similar store called Fish Corner and Meat located on 6408 N Campbell Ave, Chicago, IL 60645.
Culinary scholar Boria Majumdar writes, “Another Devon attraction is the availability of nearly all the varieties of fish we consume in Bengal. At Fish Corner, the Bangladeshi fish store on the side street from Fresh Farms, you get the best quality hilsa and pabda, two of the best-known and most popular varieties of fish in East and West Bengal. I have seen people from Jersey drive up to Devon and fill the trunks of their cars with fish to last them for weeks! Imported mostly from Bangladesh, the fish is of impeccable quality and taste and is sold in kilograms or by the number of pieces. Neatly packed and labeled, the fish trade is a thriving business in Chicago’s bustling South Asian neighborhood.”
Stores owned by Bangladeshi restaurants are distinct from Indian and Pakistani stores because they carry imported frozen fish. These stores may seem like any other South Asian or Indo-Pak grocery store to a bystander, but to Bengali-speaking immigrants, these stores are distinctly different from other ethnic grocery stores. Bengali is a language that is spoken in Bangladesh as well as in the Indian state of West Bengal. Thus the term Bengali-speaking refers to a transnational category of immigrants who speak a common language albeit with varying dialects and inflections. The South Asian postcolonial national categories (Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani) render invisible all alternate transnational forms of peoplehood such as those based on language and culture that preceded the formation of these states. The fish stores remind us of the existence of such transgressing categories.
Bangladeshi entrepreneurs employ the interpretive flexibility of food (as place, advertisement, or for its sensory and symbolic qualities) as an effective business strategy. For the Bangladeshi newcomers in this retail street, setting up a niche business is not as easy as it is for their Indian and Pakistani neighbors. That is because the population of Bangladeshis is not sufficient to support five Bangladeshi owned stores located on Devon Avenue. They appeal to a larger constituency by marking the stores in ways that attract a wider clientele, but at the same time also send messages to niche groups. Already disadvantaged due to narrow profit margins these stores need visibility and attractiveness in order to survive. Displays, signage, unique smells and sounds, a cacophony of colors, advertisements and imagery on their storefronts help them achieve these survival goals.
The fish sections of the Bangladeshi owned grocery stores are architecturally unique. The effectiveness of these interior spaces rests on their ability to tap into deeper emotional responses and habitual memories among its patrons. In Devon Fish House Babu carefully arranged the interior of his store for the Bengali customer. White island-freezers or commercial refrigeration units are centerpieces of the store. (There are six freezers in Fish Corner and Meat store, laid out in two parallel rows in a back room. Each freezer is neatly marked with fish names, sizes and details.) Babu has two freezers and he carries more than forty varieties of fish from Bangladesh, India, Burma, Thailand, and Singapore. He categorizes fish based on their size. “Big fish” includes fish such as katla, koral-bhetki, Indian mackerel, catfish, aar, boyal, chitol, mrigel, pangass, shoal, and tilapia. They come in 4-7 lb. packages. “Mid-size” blocks weigh around 2 lbs. and hold around six smaller fish like pabda, parse, tangra, koi, bacha, poua, baila, lotia or Bombay duck, sorpunti, bai, sing, magur, and charapona. Finally he stores “frozen blocks” or 1 lb. of tiny 200-300 count fish such as mola, kajoli, batashi, deshi punti, chakila, kucho chingri, harina chingri, borro chingri, maney machh, chiring, lucky, and rani. Babu remembers names and details of most of the merchandise he carries by creating a mental map of the fish as laid out in his freezer.
According to Babu, the fish sections of Bangladeshi owned stores are sensoria of unique smells, sounds, textures, temperatures and humidity that, once experienced, cannot be forgotten easily. These spaces are designed and maintained by its owners as cues to produce affective responses from ethnic shoppers while the arrangement and layout of the freezers are carefully designed as a cognitive map. As a result, what may seem as exotic and unique to outsiders—a list of fish names organized by size— may indeed be familiar and reassuring for Bengali immigrants, recreating a sense of home and homeland. Food merchandise, packaging and organization induce emotional responses and memories from targeted customers and as Babu argues, it is familiarity and nostalgia that brings customers back to his store from distant suburbs.
For a life sketch of Babu see the People Section.
Text by Arijit Sen