Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Why I Love Grocery Stores

There is something about grocery stores that I find irresistible, especially the ones that I get to visit on my travels. I'm not exactly sure what it is that draws me to them, but I think it has to do with the combination of the mundane and the exotic. The basic structure may be familiar, but there are just enough changed details to make the experience truly memorable for me. I do not always have time to visit the cultural sites of each city that I visit, but I nearly always have the
opportunity to run into a grocery store or two.

There are all kinds of new and interesting food items out there to be had; you just have to look for them and take a chance on something new. These are often inexpensive snacks that don't look very promising, but you never know what you are missing until you try it. Salted black licorice is a good example. It may sound terrible, but once you try it a few times you may find yourself going back for more.

Then there are things that are a little more common place. Take something as mundane as sugar for example. In France you can find pairs of sugar cubes wrapped in bits of paper; the wrapping of each pair is often decorated with some sort of pleasant design. Tourists have been known to collect these sugar wrappers from their after-meal coffees. In Australia you'll find sugar made by the the Bundaberg company, which is better known for making rum. Since molasses (the raw material for rum) is a by-product of the sugar making process, producing rum and sugar is a natural combination.

For every product out there you'll find wonderful local variations. It may be a product that you are very familiar with, but since the packaging is in German, it's just a little more special.

In Taiwan, the easiest store for me to find was a 7-11 because they are wildly popular in Taiwan. At the Taiwanese 7-11 I found a wonderful variety of things that I'd never seen before: canned coffee drinks (both hot and cold), surprising variations on familiar products and no Slurpies. They had Doritos in flavors like BBQ Chicken and Honey Rib. I tried the Honey Rib Doritos, and they were quite good; I wouldn't go out of my way to try them again, but I'm glad that I tried them.

In Switzerland I went shopping for chocolate, and I tried 7 different bars to find what I wanted to take back home with me. I had quite a selection at the store that I wondered into, and I had a great time picking them out. I remember walking around the square feeling quite warm even though it was a bit chilly outside; it was a good day.

In the United States, we enjoy a large amount of regional variation in our grocery stores. Take grits of example. In Oregon, we have 1 kind of grits, but in the South you'll find at least 5 types. In a super market in Georgia I saw Aunt Jemima and Quaker brand grits, side by side, made by the same company, and with nearly identical packaging. One was red and one was blue. On one package there was an elderly black woman and on the other an elderly white man with a beard. They were the same product, just with different branding. It can be both maddening and wonderful to find something like this, and it tickles me every time.

If you don't happen to travel often, you can always visit your local ethnic grocery store for new and unusual items. While they can be a little overwhelming at first, ethnic grocery stores are filled with wonderful culinary treasures, so it's well worth the effort to visit. They have things that you just can't find at run of the mill stores. If you've always wondered what the inside of your local ethnic store looks like, take some time to wander around it some time; you'll be
glad you did.

Once you've brought something back from a far off (or not so far off) grocery store, you'll have it as a tasty reminder of your trip. I use my supply of grits to remind me when I need to visit the South; I am currently overdue.

What's the strangest food item you've brought back from a trip? I'd have to say that mine was some strange salted and dried cherries from a 7-11 in Taiwan, at least I think they were cherries. At any rate, they were awful.

If you've enjoyed this post please consider subscribing to the RSS feed.


  1. I brought back some pork liver pate from Portugal. In little individual servings. It wasn't bad.

  2. I love exploring grocery stores when I travel. I especially love the candy sections!