Okay. I know this may seem strange, but when I lived in England for a summer, it wasn't the sightseeing that won my heart. I did so love wandering the streets, lighting upon lovely parks and cafes, popping in shops and meeting new people. London was a wonderful, magical place to stay. But one of my favorite parts of living there was going to the supermarket.
I'm not sure what causes my fascination with the varying tongues and tastes of the world. Maybe it's my "gotta catch 'em all" mentality when it comes to trying new flavors, or how pleasantly piqued I am by pretty product design. Maybe Ira Glass summed it up best while talking about a French grocery shop in an episode of This American Life:
Inside, it is exactly what you want when you're traveling in a foreign country. Every object is familiar, but packaged and presented in a way that is pleasingly new and exotic. So it's all comprehensible, but at the same time palpably foreign. And the foods walk that disturbing but fascinating line that foreign foods can have, between looking delicious and looking frightening.
I could have spent hours in Sainsbury's alone, reading all the yogurt flavors. In the U.S. we don't have gooseberry-flavored yogurt. Or blackcurrant, or redcurrant, or rhubarb or plum. We don't sell individual packs of trifle and toffee pudding. We don't have prawn-flavored or chicken-flavored potato chips, and I haven't seen honeycomb ice cream around these parts. There is also an interesting attitude towards grocery shopping in London: Most people seem to walk to the shops daily and pick up immediate necessities, rather than stocking up on bulk items as we car-driving non-city-dwelling Americans often must do. It is a fresh and enviable lifestyle, appealing to someone like me who usually can't finish all her produce before it goes bad.
Close to home, I've been lucky to visit several specialty supermarkets. At an Indian grocery store, I found high-quality spices, giant jars of Ovaltine, and the best samosas sold hot at the cash register. Asian markets around here sell a cornucopia of exotic meats and cute confections. And finally, in Carrboro there is a strong Latin American presence that has generated bodegas in addition to taquieras. Several shops are well known for their delicious Mexican snacks and drinks. Mexican cuisine has even influenced generic grocery chains like Food Lion, for at two Raleigh locations I was stunned to find whole aisles dedicated to exotic flavors. Rainbow bottles of sweet soda line the shelves, and I long to taste every kind of queso and fruit nectar for sale.
The restaurants, pub fare, and home cooking traditions of different cultures are diverse and interesting enough to spawn a whole other discussion. But grocery stores remain one anthropological aspect of human existence I'd love to study. If I get to travel again, it will be interesting to shop in open air markets, to barter, to share. It will be important to remember that even the thought of a whole building full of food is decadent and unheard of in many places.
Have you ever had a fascinating foreign food shopping experience?
All images taken at Food Lion by me.