The beauty of the grocery store – whether it's a huge supermarket or a tiny bodega – is that it gives you a glimpse into what local people buy to cook, snack on, and what they pay for food. This offers clues into their lifestyles and preferences, and into the agricultural and cooking practices of the country. I stare at the strange fruits and vegetables, the exotic-looking seafood, the cheeses, the spices, the breads, and oh, the chocolate... always the chocolate!
Being the environmental nerd I am, I like paying attention to packaging and seeing how different places present foods for sale. Italy, for example, has an awful habit of requiring customers to bag their fruits and veggies in plastic for weighing, while Sri Lanka leaves everything loose in bins. In Brazil, everything is prepackaged and swaddled in absurd layers of plastic, whereas I was able to use cloth bags in Costa Rica and buy loose fruit in Turkey.
I've noticed that people in grocery stores tend to be friendlier than in other places because they don't expect to see you there, an out-of-place tourist. They smile, say hello, and sometimes ask questions, which can lead to great conversations. I had an animated discussion with a teenaged cashier in a neighborhood corner store in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, over which bag of crunchy mix to buy. He insisted that the one labeled 'spicy' would be too hot for me, but I told him I was willing to risk it. He laughed and we ended up talking about my favorite Sri Lankan foods for ten minutes. (And just so you know, the mix was just fine.)
Visiting a grocery store is also a good way to save money as a traveller. You can stock up on curious-looking snacks with hilarious names (think 'Ah-Ha Vanilla Cake on Chocolate' or 'O-Kay Layer Cake'), call it an exercise in cross-cultural studies, and suddenly you've got a frugal dinner to munch on a street corner (hopefully not in Florence) or in your hostel common room.
Sometimes you can share your edible discoveries with fellow travellers, which makes for a better meal. This happened to me in Istanbul, when a Russian guy at my hostel pulled out containers of salty cheese and honey and flatbreads, and I contributed apples and chocolate. We feasted as we swapped travel stories and that's how I planned my next day of sightseeing.
The financial savings extend to souvenirs, too, which I always buy at grocery stores. Whether it's ground spices for my mom, a bottle of truffle oil for my husband, or chocolates for my kids, the grocery store is the first place I look for unique gifts that aren't marked up to crazy-high tourist prices.
It's interesting then to come home and look at one's own local grocery store through new eyes. What would a visitor think? What stands out, and what do the food displays say about us as a culture? You might be surprised by what you realize.
February 26, 2020
photos from Flickr by keetr and Sharon Hahn Darlin