fitness · food

In praise of grocery store tourism

For part of every Christmas holiday I go visit my family in South Carolina. It’s a no-brainer: all of my family are there; it’s warmer there than where I live, and there’s a whole nother hour of daylight, which is pretty much priceless in late December.

Another thing I enjoy about my visit is the chance to browse and buy foods that I can’t get in Boston (or aren’t in season, or just aren’t the same). Tops on my list is pecan products. There are the pecans themselves, and also salted and spiced, or caramelized, or in other ways dandified. A number of local purveyors sell them, and I bring some back for gifts (and of course personal consumption). In the summer I buy raw peanuts for boiling in salted water. Boiled peanuts are a regional delicacy and acquired taste, but being from the region I love them.

Of course it’s fun to sample the tastes of our homes, especially when we’ve moved far away and don’t have regular access to them. But another real treat is checking out flavors and yummy comestibles from other places. And where better to see how the other folks live than by exploring local grocery stores in other locales? This article in New York Magazine recounts the pleasures and discoveries when we put local grocery stores on our must-see lists while traveling.

I had just landed in Bogotá and was thrilled for this vacation: I was visiting Paula… “What should we do?” I asked. “Let’s make a memory.” Paula lit up. She knew just the place. We walked a few blocks away and dipped into a grocery store. “Why are we stopping here?” I asked. She spread her arms, ta-da style. “This is where you want to be,” she said.

I thought it was a prank. But then I saw a pile of tomates de arbol — tree tomatoes — and my curiosity was piqued. I passed the dragonfruit and picked up a waxy green thing. “What’s this?” I asked. Now she thought I was the one pranking her. “That,” she said calmly, “is an avocado, mi amigo.” I turned it in my hand, studied its conspicuous lack of reptilian rind, and looked back at her. “No, seriously. What is it?” She laughed… Was being an adult in a foreign grocery store the grown-up version of being a kid in a candy store?…I learned more in that grocery store than I did the next day at the Museum of Gold.

One of my favorite things to do when I’m trying to get the feel of a new place when I’m traveling is to check out a local grocery store. This is especially true when I’m outside of the US. I’m always astounded at the variety of dairy products, for instance, when I’m in Europe. Generally I’m not there to buy food for cooking the way I do at home. It’s enough to peruse the breads– oh the breads! So many interesting variations– and the produce (and see how many fruits and vegetables I’ve never tried or can’t even identify).

Even the humble packaged and processed foods take on an air of mystery in far-away grocery stores. When I was living in Italy on a term abroad with students, my favorite breakfast foods were these two products:

It was staggering to me how many different packaged vaguely pastry-ish breakfast foods there were, and also how many different varieties and brands of toast-in-a-box were offered. I also got to see how Italian shoppers made shortcuts in their cooking– what sorts of pre-made sauces they bought, what kinds of pasta seemed to the be most popular, etc.

When on a grocery expedition in a location where you don’t know the language, it’s important to maintain perspective and a sense of humor. When I was in Prague on a sabbatical many years ago, I ventured to the local Tesco to buy a few things like butter and cheese and bread and some fruit. However, I didn’t know the word for “butter” (it’s maslo). I looked at many items that looked butter-like, but with a variety of names. One row of products looked like this:

Items like those I thought were butter, but were NOT butter.
Items I thought were butter, but were NOT butter.

These were marked “sadlo”. Well, I thought, sadlo, maslo, must be about the same thing, right? Wrong. Maslo is butter, and sadlo is lard. Pork lard. Czechs eat lard on bread with some onion or pickle on it as a regular thing. I bought it by mistake once, but never did again. Live and learn.

I love trolling the aisles from here to Hong Kong to look at candy and sweets. I’m not actually a big candy fan, but it’s fascinating what flavors and flavor combos pop up. Looking at what people are buying and eating every day offers me new options for food experiences.

Readers, do you ever check out local grocery stores when you’re on holiday or traveling far afield? Have you made any great (or horrendous) discoveries? I’d love to hear about them.

13 thoughts on “In praise of grocery store tourism

  1. I do! I like visiting corner stores and fancy ones. I found boar in one shop and rabbits by the pair in another. 🙂 One of the best things we do when we travel as a family is check out the sweet and see what’s different and what’s the same. So much fun. Thanks for reminding me of how much fun this is.

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    1. I totally agree with you about the wild variation in sweets all over the world. And they’re easy and cheap and fun to try out, too!

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  2. I love doing this! Farmers’ markets, grocery stores and pharmacies or even big box stores are fascinating in other countries. One learns so much that one didn’t even think to wonder about. Just looking at differences in packaging is interesting – thinking about the cultural constructs that are different in terms of what is considered classy or tempting or reassuring in product design. And the way one pays too. In Germany cashiers at even the neighborhood little grocery store all have swiveling stools and the ergonomics have been set up carefully. Quite a contrast to here in the US where they might get a rubber mat to stand on if they are lucky.

    And of course the food differences are amazing and wonderful.

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    1. That’s so cool about the ergonomics and setups– how they differ so much. And you’re absolutely right about packaging. All the extra packaging here in the US drives me nuts. I mean, do tomatoes have to be extra wrapped and in a carton, too?

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  3. The only other country I have ever been to is Canada and my family used to go there to buy a certain jam when I was growing up. Reading this post just made me think of it and now I’m going to have to try and find it!

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  4. Trays jammed with blanched almonds in big fat juicy dates which I picked up in a Carrefour supermarket in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. They were so delicious and from time to time I have done the rounds of the continental deli’s in the cities I have lived I in Australia and never found them. Making my own has never been the same.

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    1. Oh, that sounds so yummy! There are a bunch of Armenian and Lebanese foodstores near my house; I will look and see if they have them. I have gotten Iranian pistachios, which are the absolute best.

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  5. I love checking our grocery stores and food markets! Favourite discoveries include canned octopus in Spain, pirarucu (an enormous fish from the Amazon region of Brazil) and Brazil nuts still in their coconut-like shell when in Belem, Brazil. Plus the adventures of shopping in post-conflict Kosovo (modern shop, no electricity to run the cash registers). Smelling durian in Malaysia (I chickened out on putting it in my mouth). Even the puzzlement of trying to buy chocolates with no nuts in Paris (hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds are all nuts – please stop asking if they would be okay). Grocery stores rank up with hardware stores as a great way to learn about the local culture.

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  6. What an excellent post and comments! Thank you!

    I have lived all over the US. My favorite place is Arizona. The grocery stores there were so different. The first time I visited one, I was amazed. First, large individual bins containing all kinds of chili peppers were in the produce department. In other states, only a few baskets on a small shelf contain a few kinds of chili peppers. Not in Arizona! The chilis were plentiful and diverse, every size, shape, color., and heat. Most of them I never knew existed. Second, grocery stores had their own tortillaria, an area for making fresh tortillas. All kinds of tortillas! What a difference between freshly-made and packaged! (Well, that’s probably true of anything.) Other novelties for me were corn husks for tamales, freshly-made tamales, all kinds of Latinx packaged foods and baked goods, and produce like jicama and cactus fruits. Arizona has a large Latinx population, so selling Latinx foods is a given. I have not seen anything approaching this in other areas of the US.

    I haven’t traveled much outside the US very much, unfortunately. I did spend a month in the UK some years ago, and their grocery stores were quite different. Everything seemed much more expensive. US national brands like Heinz were present, but their UK flavors are not sold in the US. I saw different kinds of Heinz beans, for example, and Heinz baked bean frozen pizza. I saw numerous European brands that I never heard of. A lot of packaged and frozen foods contained sweet corn. Even some personal care products, like shampoo, were sweet corn-flavored.

    In Toronto, I visited a very nice grocery store that was both similar to and different from US stores. Mostly I saw similar products, like crackers and pasta, but different brands. But what I liked more was a liquor store. So many different types of wine, beer and cider! I purchased two unknown-to-me kinds of hard cider and both were delicious. I wish we had had time to purchase cases of the stuff before we left. When I returned home I contacted the manufacturers, but they told me they don’t ship to the US because of our complex regulations on alcohol sales and importation. Apparently each state has its own laws and foreign producers can’t keep up.

    In my current city we have numerous “ethnic” grocery stores. I’m always impressed with the different produce they sell. I attempt to try a new fruit or veg every time I shop, but most of the fresh items are not labeled and I don’t know how to prepare them. Maybe some day I’ll learn.

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    1. HI k– it’s great that you point out how we can find variation and little micro-specialities in our own towns and states and countries. I love checking out little local places when I travel around the US as well. In July I bought a bunch of fresh-frozen tamales in Phoenix and brought them in an insulated bag back to Boston. They were so good!

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