I recently had the pleasure of going to a Korean grocery store—H Mart–in Korea Town (otherwise known as K-Town) in Manhattan. It was an evening after work, at the suggestion of a coworker who happens to be Korean-American and volunteered to be my guide. The store was on a street I have walked past a hundred times and never ventured onto. Suddenly, a whole new world opened up, and I felt I understood the fundamentals of Korean food much better—and even had a better sense of the culture and how it fits into other Asian cultures.
Wherever I go, I like to visit the local supermarkets. That’s where I see how local people really live, and what they really eat. I believe that you never really know a place until you’ve been to its supermarket. In Japan, the supermarkets are often in the basement, and everything is bright, happy, and shiny, and sometimes there are people in white coats talking into a microphone. I don’t know what they are saying since I don’t speak Japanese.
In Hawaii, you can see the integration between Japanese and American foods. In the Caribbean and Puerto Rico, the space allotted to hot sauces is equal to the soda aisles in America. In Puerto Rico, even the Gerber baby foods come in piña colada and beans-and-rice flavors.
France, of course, is unique. Often the grocery stores are tiny and stink to high heaven of cheeses. But the daily markets–especially ones like the Nice Flower Market, with its perfect little displays of alpine strawberries and wild-picked morel mushrooms—tell the story of just how much the French worship fresh food.
Even in America, supermarkets vary by region. If you go south, you have to go to the Piggly Wiggly, just because the name is so cute, and it’s important to try things like fried peanuts in the shell (crunchy-good!) and boiled peanuts (surprisingly good). In Iowa, the Hy-Vee feels like a thousand-acre cornfield—so neat and orderly and spacious. Whether or not a town has a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s can tell you how educated and affluent the area is. (We don’t have one where I live.) When I go visit my in-laws in LeRoy, NY, their Tops Supermarket doesn’t even carry organic milk. Of course I asked them if they had it and they said they can’t sell enough to make it worthwhile. But even ol’ LeRoy (home of Jell-O and the stringless string bean) now has a local farmer’s market in the parking lot of the drugstore.
Like I said, every supermarket tells a story. What story does yours tell?