In praise of... foreign supermarkets: how shopping for food abroad reveals the appetite of a nation

Cathedrals, museums, art galleries: these are all noble travel pursuits. But for a true taste of your location, nothing can beat a visit to the local supermarket, argues Katrina Conaglen

In praise of ... foreign supermarketsIn praise of ... foreign supermarkets
In praise of ... foreign supermarkets

In praise of... is a new weekly Travel feature in which NationalWorld writers extol the virtues of a particular aspect of adventuring. From the idiosyncratic, divisive, or sometimes just plain quotidian - these are the things we love to do on our holidays.

It’s not novel to profess your favourite aspect of travel is the food. Indeed, for some of us, cultural highlights or adventurous activities often serve as a means of passing time before you can eat and drink again (if there was an option to travel with four stomachs, cow-like, I would plump for it). So naturally it follows that stalking the aisles of a local supermarket while abroad is a preferred pastime. 

Under the blinding fluorescent lights of these theoretically functional spaces, you’re ideally placed to learn about the whims of where you are. The concept of the region’s cuisine hasn’t been put through a tourist-filter and sold back to you - this is a far better indication of how the locals eat, where their priorities lie.  A voyage to a foreign supermarket can turn even the least observant traveller into an amateur anthropologist - and you can get dinner out of it, too. 

You’re discovering the appetite of a nation - it’s almost voyeuristic to discover what makes the stomachs of strangers growl. Crispbreads, ruffs, and knekkebrod occupy acres of space in Stockholm’s Åhléns (invariably being browsed by unfeasibly hot blonde people). There are entire aisles of madeleines to peruse in a French Carrefour (no wonder Proust banged on about them so much). Australian and Kiwi supermarkets feature walk-in fridge rooms, almost over-flowing with ice cold beers. When the sun is unbearably hot stepping into one of these oases of booze offers perfect respite (and you emerge with a six-pack, so much the better). 

I first realised my adoration of crawling supermarkets when stopping into one in Cortina D’Ampezzo, Northern Italy, hiking the Dolomites at 24. There, I spotted a shrink-wrapped, mass produced Nutella tart. "Oh my god, these Italians have their priorities right," I thought. Ever since I’ve thrilled to the notion of what I might find foraging the marts abroad.

Idiosyncrasies abound and preferences are on show

Fresh durians in the market. Be grateful your olfactory senses are sparedFresh durians in the market. Be grateful your olfactory senses are spared
Fresh durians in the market. Be grateful your olfactory senses are spared

Globalisation can lead to the sense that the world’s taste-buds are becoming homogenised - if everything is available everywhere all at once, where can we find idiosyncrasies? But a journey through a supermarket will immediately reassure - nation’s still have their peccadillos, preferences, eccentricities. Coca-Cola may be available everywhere, but cucumber Pepsi is unique to the food-halls of Japan. Find chicken feet in vacuum bags in China, or ready meals that self-heat at the pull of a tag (we are truly living in the future). Durian fruit stink up the shelves of Indonesian supermarkets (Anthony Burgess evocatively referred to consuming them as “like eating sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory”). Or, more problematically: rows of Filipino biscuits in Spain, with their grinning black cartoon character on the wrapping, carrying the epithet ‘chocolate negros' (reader, I confess, these racist morsels are delicious).

Fanny Tuna, spotted in Peru Fanny Tuna, spotted in Peru
Fanny Tuna, spotted in Peru

Sometimes, of course, the trip offers puerile pleasures - noticing a brand of tuna in Peru called Fanny, or Jussipussi dinner rolls in Finland, Fud dairy products in Mexico, or Bimbo bread. And of course there’s gawping at local delicacies - the sight of a heaving pile of bulls’ testicles I spied in a supermarket in Zagreb often drifts through my mind, unbidden, while the ease with which you can buy horse meat in Italy impressed and unnerved in equal measure.  

In an adventurous frame, you can pick up ingredients to sub for the groceries you’re more familiar with. Swapping Japanese yams for sweet potatoes; or noshing on a pomelo in place of a grapefruit, frying up plantain fries rather than potatoes, yuca instead of squash. A culinary adventure that may end in catastrophe or triumph: but will provide an anecdote, either way.

Call it a failure of cultural curiosity: I did not try to cook bulls' testiclesCall it a failure of cultural curiosity: I did not try to cook bulls' testicles
Call it a failure of cultural curiosity: I did not try to cook bulls' testicles

The Super-U - a cathedral of choice

Oh, Super-U, my beloved chamber of consumablesOh, Super-U, my beloved chamber of consumables
Oh, Super-U, my beloved chamber of consumables

For jaunts to places I’m lucky enough to travel to frequently, a turn around the supermarket will situate me immediately. There’s a familiar pungent fug as you step into a French Super-U - the sheer concentrated mass of hundreds of strong cheeses, billowing wheels of fromage, fat rolls of cured meats and salted animal carcasses hanging from the ceiling. An umami hit that overwhelms and says, “hello, again. You’re in for a good time.” 

Perfect souvenirs, at a fraction of the cost

Ortiz tuna - almost too pretty to eatOrtiz tuna - almost too pretty to eat
Ortiz tuna - almost too pretty to eat

They are also ideal for purchasing gifts. Artworks, clothing, leather goods? These are all desirable souvenirs, certainly, but 12 unique crisp varietals and the local chocolate will bring grins and not leave you in penury.

My brother knows he’s not allowed to venture to Italy without returning with a packet of their Smurf Marshmallows (these expand and eventually explode if you place them in the microwave, a form of animation genocide that’s far more entertaining than it ought to be), while a good friend begs me to return with the pretty conservas (tinned fish) that you can find in abundance in Spain’s El Corte Inglés (the design on these tins is a often a form of high art: pretty enough to display on your mantel if you, like me, adore a curio).

A gift of a foreign hot sauce is pretty and practical: Korean gochujang, Georgian ajika, or Chinese la jiao jiang. Or simply stuff your own suitcase - a drizzle of olive oil purchased in Tuscany can transport you directly from your U.K. kitchen back to the Italian countryside. 

I returned from Singapore’s marts with two jars of kaya - a Southeast Asian caramel varietal, perfect for slathering abundantly on toast, an evocative thrill every time bit into it. I was forlorn when the last vestige was scraped out. 

An insight into the political

Of course, the experience is not always jubilant. The supermarkets of El Salvador are flanked by guards carrying enormous machine guns. Struggling to package groceries in foreign locales while the store clerks despair at your ineptitude and bark at you in their native tongue isn't fun.

When my best friend and I decided to stock our AirBnB with vittles on a trip to Havana, a quick jaunt around the local (unbranded, naturally) supermarket proved edifying. Call it sun-addled naivete that we endeavoured at all - we swiftly realised how little travellers can find, in a mart with mostly bare shelves (locals, we deduced, have their own back channels for purchasing produce and pantry staples, though we were not made privy to these modes, and the offerings are by no means extensive) - no tinned goods, no pasta, no produce, certainly no meats, cured or otherwise.  

If you wanted to live off a diet of beer, rum, and cigarettes, you would be set (that did end up forming the cornerstone of our holiday meal plan). “Oh yeah,” we muttered, “communism. Trade embargos” I was glad of the short, sharp reminder of how blinkered and Western my expectations can be sometimes. 

Same, but different

Finally, there’s the dissonance - a supermarket at home is utterly mundane, and the trappings of one, no matter the brand, are usually familiar: that eye-scorching fluorescent light, the brisk chill of the air-conditioning, a squeaky trolley, the piped-in inoffensive music*. Those outward markers, the familiar, are there when you head into a supermarket overseas. But the constituent parts are so different - be it shrink-wrapped octopus, a hundred yoghurt varieties where at home there are twenty, football-themed crisps - I find myself thrilled by the same-but-difference of it.   

Indeed, after spending a week bed-ridden in Cusco, Peru with e coli, the first place I went was the local supermarket to find something for my growling stomach. As I stood staring at rows and rows of unknown plantain chips, ‘Born to Run’ started playing over the loudspeaker. I dissolved into tears: I was so far from home, but home was right here. 

*I have not been, but a friend tells me Saudi Arabia’s supermarkets are eerily hushed - no one speaks above a whisper, and there’s certainly no Muzak played.