Where I used to live in the United States, we were the hometown for distribution for Aldi, U.S. I enjoyed the relatively inexpensive groceries, the wide variety of items, and pretty good liquor selection. Living on a tight budget then, Aldi was perfect for me. I thought it was a U.S. thing, though, meant for us Midwesterners.
Imagine my surprise when last year, as I traveled around Budapest, Hungary, I found an Aldi store right outside my hotel. I hadn’t been to Aldi in three years, so of course, I had to go inside. This was after going into local Hungarian supermarkets, buying wine, cheese, and the ubiquitous Pick (Szeged) salami. Still, there is nothing like a stop in Aldi. It’s the same efficiently, cash or debit card only options, and opened boxes of goods.
I found out that Aldi is actually a German concept, and really, no surprise there. It’s too efficient to be any other system, right? I love it.
As I was aimlessly walking around Vienna after visiting Stephansdom, I found one such Aldi. Armed with a reusable shopping back, I jumped right in. Viennese love their bread, cakes, cheeses, meats to go with breads and cheeses, breakfast breads, fizzy waters, and Haribo gummies. I picked up at least one of each of these things, knowing that I’d want a snack back at my hotel since I wasn’t incredibly hungry for a dinner out.
But … supermarkets? As a tourist, why would I bother with supermarkets on each of my holidays? First of all, I like to think that I’m a foodie, and that doesn’t always mean restaurants or outdoor markets. I think it tells a great deal about a culture’s values. After all, when I pop into my local supermarkets in Hong Kong, at least one aisle will be soy sauces. Another will be dedicated to cooking oils. Double-sided aisles for instant noodles. Walls of giant bags of rice. Meat that looks like it still needs to be butchered up and isn’t in plastic sleeves yet. Vegetables might still be a bit dusty with roots attached. Fruit gives off an interesting smell … or maybe, it’s just the durian fruit. It could be that.
What I’m saying is, it’s clear what is valued here. In the U.S, we have aisles of junk food, easy-to-make-meals, at least a wall of coffee and a wee bit of tea (just in case you might like tea), perfectly round, shiny, and unbruised fruit and veg. Prepared meat in plastic containers, neatly packaged with prices already stamped on. Most fish won’t have heads and eyes. There are pasta sauces that stretch on for miles like winking red rubies. Don’t forget about the miles of different soda brands. Depending on the supermarket, there might be aisles of diet products and “healthy” alternatives. There is so much choice, that, when I first come home after a year of living in China, I’m confused by how much choice. I just want corn, damn it, not have to choose between 20 types of corn! CORN!
People do not understand my overwhelmed and overwrought expression upon visiting a big U.S. supermarket again after a year away. After all, the size of the charts is impressive! They are big enough to hold a family – or sixty pounds of groceries. They are a pain in the ass to maneuver.
I’m used to one choice of canned corn (if I’m lucky), one choice of coffee (again, if I was lucky – tea, you’re really lucky in China), maybe meat prepackaged without a face (most supermarkets in Shanghai offered both), and tiny wee shopping carts meant to maneuver around huge displays placed most conveniently in the aisles of groceries.
In the U.S., I had a car and did most of my shopping once a week – on the weekend. I filled up that trunk. In China, I don’t have a car, so I have to rely on a taxi or a bus or my legs to get me home. I have to be able to carry out my groceries. Therefore, my grocery runs are more frequent during the week. Besides, food isn’t so full of preservatives here, so things tend to go badly rather quickly. I’ve learned to eat what I buy that day – or within a day or two. It just doesn’t last otherwise.
There isn’t one way to run a supermarket, of course, and I think we have much to learn from visiting them when on holiday. After all, a simple “hello” at the cashier in his/her native language is a nice start. Pay, move on. It’s easy. Besides, you get a chance to see the foods and products that locals value. You can find interesting gems to take home with you – like flavored salts, which I found in a Vienna Spar shop. Lavender salt and rose salt. The lavender salt is an interesting companion to lamb dishes in the spring. I sprinkled the rose salt on a sweet caramel. I also had the chance to sit down with a macchiato in the supermarket, sipping strong coffee and watching people shop and interact.
Supermarkets – fantastic food finds and excellent people watching. Nothing wrong with a little gastronomy and sociology on your holiday.