Wherever I travel, I’m pretty much consumed with eating. If I’m not eating, I’m probably looking for food. And when I’m not looking for food, you’ll likely find me looking at food, perusing the shelves of a local supermarket. Sightseeing? There’s no finer. Plus, you get to eat the sights. The Monoprix is my Louvre, Tesco my British Museum.
If one of the perks of travel is the chance to observe foreigners in their natural habitats—unguarded and wholly themselves—there are few better vantages than the corner grocery. No one postures in a supermarket; no one pretends to be someone else. (I once followed David Bowie around a Whole Foods in Manhattan. This was both more and less interesting than you’d think.) Under those too-bright fluorescents, we are all equalized and exposed, our appetites and eccentricities laid bare. You can learn a lot about a culture by watching it shop for groceries. It’s like sneaking into a nation’s house and rifling through the fridge.
At home the supermarket is the most mundane environment you know. Transfer that environment to an unfamiliar setting and our differences come into relief. At first it all seems boringly normal: the same motion-activated doors, whining toddlers, and treacly Muzak you’d find at your neighborhood Stop & Shop. But look closer and you begin to notice: something’s off. Milk in bags. Unrefrigerated eggs. Blatantly racist cartoon characters used to sell rice. Cucumber Pepsi. Hamburger chewing gum. Myrrh-flavored toothpaste. (Alas, no frankincense deodorant.) Globalization may or may not be flattening the world’s tastes, but all manner of regional quirks are still on display at foreign supermarkets. A walk down the aisle reveals the extraordinary range, and geographic particularity, of human cravings—for cephalopod-flavored potato chips (right there with you, Japan!), black-currant-flavored anything (good on you, Britain!), or rank-smelling durian fruit (you’re on your own, Southeast Asia!).
Browsing in supermarkets is also a fine way to hone foreign-language skills. The shelves are basically one long menu-reader, complete with handy illustrations. Let’s see…mulethi must be Hindi for “licorice,” berenjena is obviously Spanish for “eggplant,” and cavallo seems to be Italian for “horsemeat.” (Wait—horsemeat? That’s sick, Italy. Sick!)
Grocery stores offer a window not just onto the culture and cuisine at hand but onto that culture’s taste for othercuisines. Who’d have guessed that the Swiss have a jones for Mexican food? That Australians are mad for Malaysian? That Japan is obsessed with French pastry? It’s also curious-making to see which of our own foods have made the leap overseas. In Europe, high-end food shops stock “gourmet” imports from the U.S., which typically means Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Old El Paso taco sauce, and B&M Baked Beans. Do any Americans still eat B&M Baked Beans? Europeans think we do.
Some travelers go to supermarkets just to laugh at the inadvertently funny labels—your Bimbo-brand bread (Mexico), your Barf laundry detergent (Iran), your Jussipussi dinner rolls (Finland). Yet the packaging can also be seriously beautiful. In Denmark even the dish soap looks elegant; a tin of Spanish tuna could take your breath away. The best foreign groceries double as surveys of graphic design. I have a Neo-Constructivist can of borscht, purchased at a Perekrestok in Moscow, displayed on my living room mantel. But I’m weird like that. My collection of international novelty foods may soon outnumber the actual foods-for-eating in my pantry. I suppose in a really bad blizzard I could finally bust open the decade-old Laotian fish paste, though I’ll hold out as long as I can. That tube is really something.
When it comes to food packaging, few countries can compete with Japan, whose supermarkets are a wonderland of vibrant logos, kooky names, and cute (if occasionally creepy) mascots. Everything is packaged like sugar-charged breakfast cereal, even the bonito flakes; you’d think only children shopped for groceries there. Yet I know plenty of adults who queue up at Tokyo conbini stores to buy each seasonal Kit Kat bar on the day of its release: chestnut in autumn, candied potato in winter, cherry blossom in spring, and 200-odd other flavors throughout the year.
Of course there’s only so much cheese-and-fish sausage you can leer at without becoming utterly ravenous, which is another benefit of foreign grocery stores: they are the visual aperitif, the mental amuse-bouche that presages your next meal. Nothing fires an appetite like a stroll through the supermarket, especially if it’s really, really huge. The rule at home is never to shop for groceries hungry, but abroad I’d never do otherwise. By the end of a trip half my suitcase is filled with groceries. Indeed, some of my all-time favorite foods and ingredients were found—by sheer luck—in far-flung supermarkets: Marie Sharp’s Hot Sauce, from Belize; Laxmi-brand dal from India; Capilano honey from Australia; Amora mustard from France; Yancanelo olive oil from Argentina. Drizzling that oil on a ripe tomato takes me out of my Brooklyn kitchen and straight back to Buenos Aires.
If U.S. Customs would let me, I’d fill a whole other suitcase with yogurt. The entire world appreciates yogurt more than we do; it is the soccer of food. Seriously—walk into any overseas market, go to the (never-less-than-vast) yogurt section, and buy the first brand you see. I guarantee it will blow your mind. And it comes in a little glass jar or a dainty ceramic pot! That you get to keep! For the frustrated American yogurt lover, this all seems patently unfair.
It’s not just about food, either. The pharmacy section is always a treasure trove of horse-tranquilizer-size malaria tablets, jars of “milking jelly” (for cows, not humans), vials of “lung tonic,” and a bunch of other potions and elixirs you never knew existed. (And I’m sure the FDA would like to keep it that way.) Buying medical products abroad is risky, though, since the packaging is usually so inscrutable you have no clue what you’re buying—could be antacid, could be oven cleaner. Maybe both. Traveling in Borneo years ago I came down with a nasty chest cold; at a Kuching supermarket the pharmacist sold me a bottle of cough syrup that I swear was 60 percent deet. Upside: I was cured in 40 minutes.
Regional peculiarities aside, our planet is undeniably shrinking, and foreign treats are increasingly available in our hometown markets or, more so, online. Whether we’ve really gained from this is unclear, but it’s true that something—a certain thrill—has been diminished. Back in my Anglophilic youth I visited London once a year, and my first stop was always at the local Tesco, where I’d buy sackfuls of the things I couldn’t yet find back home: Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles, Walkers pickled-onion potato crisps, Ribena black-currant juice, Flake bars, Crunchie bars, Lion bars, Batchelors Mushy Peas (I ate them straight from the can), and, most coveted of all, McVitie’s Dark Chocolate Hobnobs (“the nobbly oaty biscuit”!). The latter became a real problem for me for a while, as I would beg and pester any U.K.-bound acquaintance to please please PLEASE pick me up a dozen packets of Hobnobs here’s a £50 note and an extra suitcase please PLEASE don’t forget I love them so. Friends learned to stop telling me their travel plans.
Years later, when imported Hobnobs suddenly materialized at a yuppie grocery near my Brooklyn apartment—selling for three times the U.K. price—I briefly worried that I might go broke and corpulent from eating cookies 24/7. Turns out the novelty wore off quick. A Hobnob in any other country, I discovered, was simply not as sweet.