Originally written on 3/3/15.
All photos from Flickr used in accordance with the Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode
Three of the international groceries I visited:
My friend Abbey is a world traveler. Once or twice a year, she goes on an international trip with her mom or a friend to someplace like India, Portugal, or Austria. While she’s there, she takes a ton of photos (because she’s an excellent photographer, too), and then when she gets back she throws a party where she shows everybody her photos. I always love seeing the photos, because I am not likely ever to get to India, Portugal, or Austria, and this way I can live vicariously through her adventures.
At the parties, Abbey serves food from whatever country she visited, because she is also a wonderful cook (in fact, pretty much the only thing she doesn’t do is blog about her trips, not because she can’t write—she can do that, too—but because she doesn’t have the compulsion to write that I do. Down the road when we both retire, I’m thinking of proposing a second career where we do a travel blog together: she can do the photos and I can write the blog).
Over Christmas, Abbey and her mom visited a friend in Vienna. When she got back, she needed to start preparing to cook for her party, and that meant she needed to visit some international grocery stores. She invited me along.
I had never been to an international grocery store, so of course I said yes. My parents had always shopped at the grocery store on the Air Force Base (my dad being in the Air Force), and as an adult I’ve shopped at the big chain grocery stores like King Soopers and Safeway.
International grocery stores are very different from the big chain stores. We visited five all together: a European market, three Middle Eastern markets, and one Asian market. The Asian market was huge (more on that later), but the other four were very small, more the size of a phone store or an ice cream shop than a Safeway. The aisles were short and cramped, the fixtures more functional than attractive, the signs mostly hand-written.
On the shelves were canned and packaged goods that you couldn’t easily get at King Soopers, specialty items imported from Eastern Europe or the Middle East.
Some of the items seemed odd to an American used to shopping at a big corporate grocery store, and whenever I came across an item like that I took a picture.
Abbey was very patient with this and did not pretend she didn’t know me. She probably wanted to.
All the markets had surprisingly lush produce sections (I had to stop myself from buying more produce than I could easily eat in a week), but the big highlights of the markets were the meat counters, where you could get ingredients you needed for your traditional cooking: whole fish, halal meats (meats prepared in accordance with Islamic guidelines), and even sheep tongue. I was going to take a picture of the packages of sheep tongue, but the woman at the counter was standing there looking at me, and I decided it would be rude.
You could get deli-style ingredients too, where the clerk scooped items out of a jar or dish for you: olives, dried fruit, feta cheese. Sometimes the items weren’t labeled, or were only labeled in Russian or Arabic, so I was glad that Abbey knew what they were. And there was wonderful bread, some in packages from specialty bakeries, and some made in-house and sold hot from the oven.
The most interesting thing to me about the small markets was that none of the packaged products I looked at—bread, vegetables, meats, spices—had any artificial additives. Over the last few years, I’ve become increasingly careful about what I eat, and I try to avoid artificial ingredients like hydrogenated oil and high-fructose corn syrup. I did not find a single item in any of the four small markets that had any of those ingredients. Pickles, for instance.
I usually have to buy pickles at Whole Foods or Sprouts because pickles from regular grocery stores have high-fructose corn syrup in them (which doesn’t make any sense to me). There was a bewildering array of pickles vegetables at the international markets (pickled mushrooms, pickled cauliflower, pickled eggs), and not a single variety I looked at had any artificial additives.
American companies would have you believe that preservatives and additives are necessary, but apparently international companies know better.
Another interesting fact: the prices at the markets were very reasonable. Abbey told me that she shops there instead of Whole Foods for specialty ingredients when she can because the prices are so much lower.
All the markets had a dedicated bagger at each check-out lane. At one of the markets, the bagger was wearing a suit and tie.
I did not take a picture of the bagger in the suit and tie, but at the same market I took a picture of these Christmas chocolates. It was January, and plus we were in a Middle Eastern halal market, and it made me smile.
The Asian market was an entirely different kind of place.
For one thing, it was enormous, twice the size of the King Soopers I usually shop at.
There was a separate little bakery and pastry shop near the entrance, where we bought a bean curd doughnut to eat later.
The produce section contained vegetables I’ve never even heard of, like:
Abbey had heard of durian; she called it “smelly melon.” Apparently, durian has such an intense odor that people aren’t allowed to carry them on buses in Asia, and in the grocery store they have to put them in these freezer displays to keep them from stinking up the whole produce section.
And I didn’t know that there were different kinds of eggplant, like Philippine eggplant…
…and graffiti eggplant. I bought some of these–they were so pretty. And tasty!
A woman in the produce section was making fresh kimchi.
There was a meat counter, but also a separate fresh seafood market with tanks of live lobster and fish.
I don’t know if you can read it, but the motto of the seafood market was “Experience the Freshness.”
And, wow, was it fresh! Live fluke here…
…and live abalone here. I’d never seen live abalone before.
There was an entire aisle of different kinds of noodles, an entire aisle of different kinds of rice, and multiple aisles of spices, pastes, and sauces that I wouldn’t even have the first idea how to use.
Like fried gluten!
And banana sauce! Is that sauce made from bananas? Sauce for bananas?
It was overwhelming.
And then, in case the food itself wasn’t enough, half of the store was a goods market, selling clothes, shoes, art, cookware—you name it. Abbey and I didn’t even go over to that side. It was just too much to take in.
The Asian market was much slicker than the four small markets: printed signs, wide aisles, very professional presentation. Interestingly, it was the only one of the five international groceries that carried products that contained artificial ingredients. Some of the snack products from Japan had hydrogenated oil, for instance.
It made me sad that some of the products had hydrogenated oil and high-fructose corn syrup, because otherwise I might have bought some of the crazy candy they had on the snack aisle.
My favorite part of the Asian market? The stockers (who were busy redoing some shelves while we were there) were all speaking to each other in Spanish. Definitely an international grocery!
At each grocery, we bought a few things, and then we went back to Abbey’s house and had a picnic of fresh, warm flatbread, feta cheese, olives, figs, apricots, and various kinds of pickles. It was wonderful. I will definitely be going back to the international groceries–and you should try them, too!