In praise of grocery store tourism

Lots of grocery store food from all over the world.

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 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.

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