From the January/February 2009 issue of National Geographic Traveler
Bastions of authenticity, supermarkets deserve a place on the traveler's must-see list.
Ilulissat, Greenland, is north of the Arctic Circle, an outpost at the edge of one of the world's largest and thickest glaciers. Getting there involved three plane rides and a ferry boat trip, so I was more than a little surprised at how normal and everyday it seemed. Walking through the sweet little fishing town, charmingly dotted with bright red and blue peaked-roof cottages, I had to keep reminding myself that I'd traveled nearly to the world's roof. And then I happened upon a hulking, windowless royal blue building, the town's supermarket, which put things into sharp context. Inside, aisle after aisle was stacked with boxes of imported items from Denmark: Danish crackers, Danish cookies, Danish butter, and Danish cheese. In Ilulissat, the first moment it really sunk in that I was hundreds of miles from anywhere was when I realized that the groceries were too.
Before I started traveling, I hated supermarkets. They were too much a part of my suburban childhood, boring and prepackaged and way too familiar. When I began to travel, I yearned to explore places where people really got close and personal with their food, at street markets, salumerias, marchés,corner boulangeries, and carnicerias. A day or two into my very first trip to London, my friend Patricia invited me to come along with her to do the dinner shopping. How wonderful, I thought, as I imagined her haggling for fresh English strawberries with some Dickensian character at the corner fruit market. I was completely devastated when I learned we were going to Marks and Spencer. But then, as we roamed the air-conditioned aisles of the venerable British institution, Patricia nearly lost her wide-eyed friend in the largest supermarket section devoted to tea that this American had ever seen.
Now, I always put a supermarket visit on my travel list. They may have started out American (the supermarket was invented in the U.S.A.), but when supermarkets move abroad, they change language, too. For a quick, instant immersion course in the life and culture of a place, there's nothing better than a half-hour spent pushing a cart, puzzling over unfamiliar junk food. Mind you, I still enjoy prowling open-air vegetable markets and old-fashioned butchers and bakers wherever I go. But the supermarket gives you a different type of traveler's take on a place, and it is an easier cultural "read." I think that's because street markets have so much activity going on at once—smells, vendors, personalities. Plus you must sometimes deal with the stressful intricacies of bargaining.
Supermarkets tend to be more meditative, more like museums. You can concentrate and observe without having to speak to anyone. What's more, the very predictability that made me hate supermarkets as a kid is actually a great advantage. Even if you don't speak Spanish or Tagalog, the supermarkets in Puerto Rico or the Philippines share a basic logic and format: aisles, shopping cart, checkout. So you can just relax and focus on the amazing lithograph of a peasant woman on the can of gandules in the Puerto Rican supermercado. Or guess what each of the 15 vinegars in a Manila market is made from.
How do local people deal with household pests? What kind of fragrances do they prefer in the laundry? How many weird flavors of ice cream exist in the universe? The supermarket is where the wise travel detective heads to investigate these and other cultural mysteries. And then there's the most alluring area of all, the housewares section. In Hong Kong, where I spend several months a year, most supermarkets have sections devoted to dessicators—charcoal and chemical moth ball contraptions designed to suck the moisture from the air. In Hong Kong, you live surrounded by skyscrapers and tend to forget about the ocean and humidity—until you go to the supermarket. The supermarket is also where you can learn about the intricacies of local customs. For instance, the produce cases of Japanese supermarkets are stacked with perfectly round melons that boast little green stems knotted like origami figures and carry price tags upward of $75 US. Why so much melon fuss? Because they are a favorite item in Japan's obsessively gift-giving "omiyage" culture.
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Speaking of gifts, some of the best I've ever given, or received, have come straight out of a supermarket cart. Whatever kind of souvenir you need, from useful to ironic, you'll find what you are looking for here. And, often, you'll find something you didn't expect. For two weeks, traveling across far northern Canada to Greenland, I had tried and failed to find the famous staple food of of the region's Inuit people: whale meat. Ilulissat had Chinese restaurants and restaurants that served delicious local grilled salmon, but nothing whale-related. Then, in the supermarket, I happened to linger in front of the freezer compartment (mainly because the fact that freezer compartments existed in a land covered 90 percent by glaciers cracked me up). And there, inside the cold chest, were a dozen or so rock-hard, waxy looking white lumps: whale meat with blubber.
The frozen packages were heavy and big, so I wasn't tempted to take one to the checkout. (Good thing, too. I found out later that whale meat is regulated and is only supposed to be sold to Inuit.) I'll admit, though, that I circled round the aisles, hoping that perhaps, tucked between the Danish imports, I might discover a pack of whale-flavored potato chips or blubber- infused chewing gum. No luck. Greenland's food culture hasn't moved in that direction, at least not yet. Maybe by the time I make my next trip they'll have launched the ice cream.