Due to various conversations with friends and family and my recent necessitated quest for calcium, I have decided that a blog entry just about grocery shopping in China might be worthwhile. If you have any further questions, feel free to comment or shoot me an e-mail.
Upon our arrival in Suzhou, we were given a pre-charged card that we could use at the local store (that our roommates call the “supermarket” but is really more like a convenience store) or in the canteen/dining hall. The store has a small selection of snack foods as well as school supplies and other random things; the canteen is frequented by other students but is not my favorite place to eat as so many of the dishes are either unidentified or contain meat (or both).
We are also given a per diem to pay for our meals - or, really, to spend however we like, as it is doled out in cash. I do spend most of it on food, though, whether it be on the street, out at a restaurant, or at a different dining hall, like the Indian mess across campus. I also have used much of this money buying food to keep in my room that I eat for breakfast especially but also for snacks and even the occasional meal. We have no access to any cooking facilities other than a microwave, so the most “food preparation” that I ever do is make a sandwich or heat up leftover rice. This also makes buying many foods pointless, as there’s no way for us to cook them. But I have survived thus far, I suppose...(please note that I, who used to not be able to cook anything other than canned soup, actually really miss cooking. Hello, kitchens in my house and in Furman’s dorms!)
Oh, yeah: I have spent a large portion of my allotted cash on plain drinking water. We can easily boil tap water here, and it is supposedly safe to drink, but I do not like the taste of the result, so I tend to buy humongous jugs of water that I subsequently transfer into my CamelBak or smaller bottles, depending on the situation.
ANYWAY, to get back to the point of this post: I buy the vast majority of my groceries at Auchan, the French supermarket that is about 15-minutes’ walk from my dorm. It is almost like Wal*Mart, but with less organization and many, many more Chinese characteristics. The food section comprises a large percentage of the merchandise, I think, as it takes up the entire left side of the store. The first five visits or so were incredibly overwhelming, because it seems that, no matter the day or time, the store is unbelievably crowded. This renders maneuvering with a cart nearly impossible; as my trips usually require me buying too many things to carry in my arms, though, I always brave the crowds (or mayhaps I should say “mobs”??) with a medium-sized basket (with which I inevitably run into at least five people before the trip is through. Don’t worry - I am probably bumped into at least two or three times for each contact that I initiate. The Chinese don’t seem to ever say “excuse me”; now that I think of it, I’m not even sure of the word or phrase that they would use. It is just a part of the culture to bunch and push rather than go orderly in a line, but that is another entry for another night...)
Auchan of course stocks Chinese staples such as rice, cooking oil, and soy sauce, the latter of which lends a not-so-appetizing smell to the same aisle in which they hide the PEANUT BUTTER - which is, obviously, available here, but can be a bit pricey and is not commonly consumed, so the variety is not too impressive (read: no Jif. Sad day.) They also have a large, if suspect, meat section (it never ceases to gross out me, the vegetarian), and a decent selection of produce (nor can it be completely trusted.) Imported foods comprise one special aisle and are unnecessarily expensive - but so worth it after days and days of fried rice and tofu. Things like cereal and other foods that are consumed in China but a foreign notion are fairly easily found (now that I have finally figured out the basic, albeit changing, layout and arrangement of Auchan), though there is not much selection. One of the things that I still have yet to find include grape jelly, so my PB&Js are made with strawberry jam - it’s not so bad.
Fruits such as oranges, bananas, various berries, and countless others abound and can be purchased from any one of the hundreds of street vendors. Of course, one has to be careful about sanitation, but when, in China, does that not apply??
Kathleen surprised me one day with a trip to Fresh Mart, the newest grocery store to open up in Suzhou’s SIP (industrial park, an area of primarily foreign and modern business and entertainment.) The outing was very enjoyable; Fresh Mart, it turns out, stocks almost exclusively imported food and has a very reliable-looking produce section. I splurged on my favorite cereal (Great Grains: Raisins, Dates, and Pecans) and some rice milk with which to eat it (I finished the box of cereal in less than 24 hours). I couldn’t afford much more and definitely cannot afford regular trips there to get such luxuries as Goldfish (mmmmmmm...) due to their OUTRAGEOUS prices. At least I know that those foods are there should I ever really need them...
My usual Auchan trip is warranted by a combined lack of any three or more of the following: apple juice, water, bread, cereal, (good) milk, granola bars, peanut butter. I like to keep these things on hand. Juice, water, and bread may be found at the convenience store down the block, but they are considerably cheaper at Auchan. The latter four can maybe be found at the random shop along a street, but for the most part, they are unique to larger groceries such as Auchan, and of course are cheaper there than at a smaller store.
See related: The Quest for Calcium