I really don’t like grocery shopping. It’s probably because I don’t enjoy cooking. However, one of my favorite things to do when traveling overseas is going to supermarkets.
It all started when I lived in Japan as an undergrad. My first excursion outside my host family’s house was to their local grocery store (a fraction of the size of a US supermarket). But I loved guessing what most items were, inspecting the packaging and relishing the fact that I was “living like a local.” It also exposed me to store bought, packaged, Japanese sponge cheesecake – one of the dreamiest things I’ve ever eaten. I made many trips to the local convenience stores and markets while there. It was where I first had cold coffee in a bottle and where I picked up tea-flavored candy for my then-young cousins.
Years later, trips to foreign groceries all over Europe and Asia served as excellent spots to pick up cheap souvenirs – candy, sauces and seasonings. And, our last two trips overseas with our boys, we made sure to visit the supermarkets. In Japan, they loved perusing the aisles and guessing what food was in the packages. And, we even found a 100 yen store (like the Dollar Store). I gave them carte blanche on what they could pick up. I’m still finding things around the house from that fun shopping excursion.
In the UK, a trip to a convenience store to pick up bottled water, the boys found what they saw as the Holy Grail, a candy/toy combo in convenience stores – KinderEggs. Also known as KinderSurprise, these hollow chocolate eggs have a small prize in the middle like a superhero or princess figurine or some other small toy. Making KinderEggs even more coveted, these are available in most countries, but are banned in the U.S. because of fears of kids ingesting the toys. My boys talked about them more than Big Ben. I bought a few extras to bring home and feel like Mom of the Year when I bring one out of hiding.
Iceland, which is very expensive, had great items in their markets – volcanic salt and other spices, dried fish, their national treat – an acquired taste for sure, but a great souvenir and fun for our foodie family. We just finished the last box of Hraun chocolates – crispy rice with chocolate. I could not get the boys out of candy aisle. I heard:“But, mom, I’ve never seen these before!” a thousand times. On occasion, you’ll find a grocery store with a small souvenir section with key chains, scarves and other items that are much less expensive than the gift shops.
Over the years, my aunts swooned over the Vanilla extract from Tahiti. My niece and nephew loved trying Vietnamese taro candy, and my brother-in-law always enjoyed sauces from China.
It’s fun to open up my spice door when I’m grabbing lemon pepper and see the paprika I picked up in Hungary years ago or the herbs de Provence that were procured in Southern France.
Shopping at a supermarket or convenience store in a foreign country provides some fantastic”local flavor”, and is a great way to have reminders of travels in your kitchen.