Grocery Shopping Abroad-A cultural study.


One of my musts when abroad is exploring the grocery stores. One would think the difference can’t be all that great. The differences are staggering! What is even more remarkable is how patriotic each country can be about their stores and quality of food, despite most things being imported.

I was at a California grocery store with my then Swedish boyfriend, before I had yet been to Sweden. He earnestly said to me, we have better fruits and vegetables in Sweden than you do. Considering we have people solely dedicated to polishing and misting the vegetables on an hourly basis I was dually impressed. Upon my visit to ICA Tuna-Lund in 1994, shortly after this comment, I  found pile after pile of rotten and unripe produce, stacked up in the boxes they were delivered in. Eventually I did an experiment. I placed a moldy, crushed avocado in plain sight to see how long it would take before it was removed. It remained in position for days. So, I began to wonder what on earth would posses this guy to make such a statement. Blind patriotism is the only answer I can come up with.

While this wasn’t an isolated incident, associated only with ICA Tuna, ICA Tuna is probably one of Sweden’s worst stores and we all have one of those. The ICA Maxi’s are clean and nice though pricey. My personal favorite is City Gross. They have a good vegetable department plus a nice mix of “foreign foods” and Swedish staples at a very good price.

However, while stores in Sweden/Denmark have improved greatly over the years, especially when it comes to selection, they still fall behind in many respects, mostly in maintaining a clean atmosphere. The difference in quality of service and handling is very different. The cost of labor in Scandiavia is exorbitant for the employer, thus there are less people to go around and that leads to cutting corners where ever possible. And that means the average store would be considered a discount mart in other parts of the world. Which is unfortunate, Scandinavian’s do have a passion for food.

The UK was a big surprise. Being that the English are well know for being absolutely useless at cooking, in particular vegetables, they surprisingly have some of the best stores I have seen. The vegetable sections are a marvel, beating anything I found in California hands down. Salad is a California staple. I thought I was a connoisseur of salad. Well, I wasn’t. Britain had a lot to teach me.

I plain love grocery shopping in the UK. However, I am not partial to the lack of basic friendliness found in London. While shopping for groceries in the US, I would worry about the moment I had to face the cashier. The random chit chat would always call forth my shy, tongue twisted side and lots of nervous sweat. Then I arrived in London and was given a stare of contempt when I simply said hi to the cashier. Okay having a bad day. No problem. Eventually it became clear that you don’t say hi. You just make your transactions in grim silence. No humans here. The contrast helped me appreciate what made me cringe back home. Now when home, I am the chatty katty associated with lonely senior citizens. The type the cashiers dread cause they just cant get rid of you. I cherish the mindless chit chat now. It makes the day so much brighter than a shrug and next! You just have to get used to it and see it for what it is, not friendship, just chit chat.

Now wait this thin about the English inability to cook, they actually can if they put their minds to it.

Manhattan, NY was another learning experience. It is so strange how little we know about our own country in the US. There is so much we take for granted. We forget how large America really is and how different we really are to each other. I spent an entire day asking, anyone I could flag down on the street, to point me towards a proper grocery store. I kept ending up at these 7/11 size stores. I would turn around and ask the next passerby the same question and they would point behind me and say, but your standing in front of one.  No ,I would reply, I want a real store. People just looked at me like I was crazy, as I stared back in palpable frustration, thinking what’s with all the secrecy?

Eventually my friend Ali figured it out for me. I was accustomed to the full size  grocery stores that you find everywhere in California, even in down town San Francisco and London for that matter. They just don’t exist in Manhattan. Besides rent being high, space is limited. If you want to find what I was looking for you have to take a trip out to the burbs. Go figure!

I also learned that the kitchens in Manhattan are tiny and make shift in part because people live mostly on take away and home delivery. Laundry the same. So lesson learned when in doubt listen to the natives. Well at least some of the time, it can pay to be stubborn.

Seoul, Korea was a delight. I could write an entire book on grocery stores in Seoul. The Man and I spent a good two hours on our first visit to the Hynundai store wandering around taking in all the details. Never seen anything like it. First off in opposition to the Swedish stores they have a staff member for nearly each customer. I am not joking. Every aisle has a person at each end in a suite and white gloves. On the more popular aisles an additional suit is found in the middle. You could hardly walk two steps before someone was asking if you needed assistance. Not the begging you to buy assistance, but real assistance. Never mind they don’t speak English.

Everything was displayed with utter care. Apples and pomegranates were packaged with bows, expensive but pretty. Each blade of lettuce was carefully washed and placed under misters. You could get all variety of plants, some looked like weeds, but were super yum.

My favorite part was all the tasting you got to do. They serve up tasters all day long, everyday, freshly grilled fish, kimchi, about 20 different kinds of pickled seaweed, steak, juices, omelettes… This is especially useful when you have no idea what it is your looking at. If you looked curious enough they would even open a package for you to taste. I couldn’t have gotten a better introduction into S. Korean cuisine. This also allowed me to make informed purchases.

I can’t say it is entirely easy to find all the ingredients you would need to make a Western dish, but what they do have is top quality even at the less aesthetic grocery stores such as Lotta Mart.

Meat is imported from the best parts of the world. It is costly, but well worth it. Even the cheapest cuts were to die for. If you can grill a steak in a cheap, teflon pan and still have a mouthgasim you know it’s quality. It’s easy to make a fool of yourself though. Tired after a day of sight seeing it was time to shop for New Years dinner. I pointed at some of the last steaks left at the meat counter. The lady at the counter kept asking are you sure, while pointing to the price.  Yeah absolutely, I nodded. A few aisles later I realized that I calculated the zeros incorrectly and was now in the possession of three, fist sized steaks at a value of $100 plus. I contemplated hiding them on a shelf somewhere before hitting the cash register. Honor got the best of me, so back I went, to return them with a sheepish grin. With a smile of understanding she took them back. Phew. Explain that to The Man.

The fish counter was like nothing I have ever seen. It was all amazingly fresh with a huge variety. Albeit, I wasn’t all that thrilled with the live octopus staring at me from bags of sealed water. They are highly intelligent animals by the way.

I could keep going, but I won’t. I give S. Korea a hearty stamp of approval.

Check out the video tour of Hyundai at COEX in Seoul.

France is also a favorite.

There is something about the way they display their meats. Like it just came straight from the farm slaughterhouse, with a bit of straw still stuck to it. They actually do it right,  leaving the meat uncovered in the display counter. Plastic wrap is really not good for meat, promotes souring. Either leave it exposed to the air or cover with cheese clothe. Chickens complete with head and feet, something really down home about that too. Never mind that chicken feet are a completely over-rated dish.

Hundreds of pates and cheese to chose from, breads and pastries… It’s really not nice that god blessed me with a sensitive stomach.

It’s strange to think back and remember how I kicked and screamed every time my mom demanded I follow her to the store. Now I relish the moments I can go abroad and spend hours scrutinizing the different grocery aisles. I think in many cases we stick our noses up to foreign stores because of the lack of familiarity. We get frustrated because we can’t find the things we know and are comfortable with rather than embracing it as a learning experience and exploration. Similar to say visiting Jamaica and getting angry they don’t have fish and chips with malt vinegar on every menu. No matter what the reason, it’s pretty amazing how much you can learn about a country, its personality and paradoxes through a visit to the grocery store. You just need to open your eyes and put your prejudices away.