The Joy Of The Foreign Supermarket

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The Joy Of The Foreign Supermarket

At a grocery store in Brussels, Belgium, I stare at a yellow-orange bottle labeled “American Burger Sauce.” It looks like nothing I’ve ever seen on a burger in the United States, despite the name. This is just one of the novelties I’ve discovered in foreign grocery stores, ranging from other “American” products that are most certainly not American to unfamiliar produce with textures and scents I’ve never encountered before.

These are the joys of the foreign supermarket: foods that seem banal, pedestrian to the inhabitants of the country or region in question but are presented to the visitor as small, delicious lessons in another culture’s cuisine. Of course, it’s a treat to visit a new-to-you country’s best restaurants and most famous dishes. But to me, there’s something that’s even more special about exploring a different culture’s supermarkets. It feels like an exclusive peek into what a country’s inhabitants eat on a daily basis—not just on special occasions or for celebratory meals.

Despite the fact that supermarkets can now be found in much of the world, they are not ubiquitous, nor have grocery stores been the dominant way to source food for very long. Supermarkets are a uniquely American invention: The first Piggly Wiggly, which is also widely considered to be the first supermarket in the world, opened in Memphis, Tennessee, just over 100 years ago in 1916. Before that point, shoppers would give a list of items they wanted to a clerk, who would shop for the customer. Providing a space where buyers could select their own goods was revolutionary, and within a matter of decades, the concept had spread to other countries as well. Now, in many parts of the world, supermarkets are commonplace, an easy way to source food to fill fridges and pantries from Tokyo to Cape Town to Mexico City.

Of course, not everyone (nor every country) sources their sustenance from supermarkets. There are countless other ways people manage to obtain food, from growing or catching it themselves to visiting bazaars to trading with friends and neighbors. Supermarkets are just one of many ways humans have found ways to eat well.

But as an American who grew up in a cookie-cutter suburb, large supermarkets were really the only way my family ever shopped for food. My mom would drag me and my brother along with her to the store, letting us pick out an occasional snack or treat to coax us into behaving while she picked out the week’s lettuce, chicken thighs, salad dressings, milk and everything else we’d survive off for the next seven days. As a child, the supermarket was at once monotonous and exciting, a chore that sometimes provided a flavorful punctuation mark to an otherwise ordinary day.

So when I visit a new country for the first time, the supermarket is one of the first places I want to visit: Its format feels comfortable, familiar, approachable, although many of the products feel foreign, unusual, novel. Browsing the fluorescently lit aisles, I feel almost at home, despite having to decipher unfamiliar words based on Google Translate and accompanying photos alone.

It was at a foreign supermarket that I first discovered a cashew fruit—a fruit that, until that point, I had never even conceived of, despite snacking on the nuts for most of my life. But it was also at a foreign supermarket that I snagged a bag of frozen chicken nuggets nearly identical to those I buy at home less than half a mile from my own apartment. The foreign supermarket is at once a beacon of globalization and a reminder that, despite our similarities, people from different corners of the world have their own delicious ways of doing things—ways that we can all learn from, if only we’re hungry enough.

At the supermarket I visited in Belgium, I did end up purchasing the American Burger Sauce, which seemed like a solid, albeit non-traditional, addition to a burger. I also purchased some sliced deli meat dotted with green peppers and a hard-boiled egg in the center, a mortadella-like creation I never knew I craved until that moment. I also filled my cart with cucumbers, tomatoes, olive oil and garlic: all staples I enjoy at home on a regular basis when I’m craving a simple and fresh salad. It was a supermarket trip filled with both familiar favorites and products completely foreign to me: the recipe for a flavorful, joyful experience. What I’ll find at the next foreign supermarket I visit, I don’t know—but I’m more than excited to discover what’s displayed in those rows and rows of aisles teeming with flavor.

Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.

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