For many of us, supermarkets in our own countries is confusing enough; endless aisles looming with decisions to be made. In a Chinese supermarket, however, the problem is intensified by the lack of English signage, the inevitable flock of girls armed with trays of samples, and the dizzying array of products you’ve never seen or heard of before. If that weren’t enough, there’s also a labyrinth of departments, each with their own system of measuring and weighing, bagging and tagging… all before you even hit the checkout.
Weighing: One system that’s caught many an expat unawares is that most Chinese supermarkets have you weigh and bag vegetables in the vegetable section instead of at the checkout. I can’ t tell you how many times I’ve held up long lines of grumpy shoppers while I rushed back to have my onion weighed.
Meat: Most of us will be at least a little confused and creeped out by some of the meat items on sale in Chinese supermarkets. The hanging gnarled flesh like a Francis Bacon painting always worry me. And the trays of organs, while beautiful in their vivid colours, are terrifying nonetheless. The cuts of meat in China don’t generally look like the neatly packaged steaks, chicken breasts and pork chops we get back home.
New Things: But it’s not only the meat that looks different. There’s a plethora of unknown and indiscernible products packing out every department. If you’re like me, the weirder it looks the more curious you are to try it.
For example, Duck’s Blood Tofu (Yā xuè dòufu- 鸭血豆腐): Vegetarians beware! China has a whole load of awesome soy products, and most Chinese supermarkets have a dedicated soy counter where you can buy soy milk, tofu skin, silken tofu and all manner of gloopy goodness. However, there’s danger lurking for those who don’t eat meat. That dark red-brown-coloured tofu is not vegetarian at all. Actually it’s not even tofu. “Duck Blood Tofu” consists of chunks of clotted duck blood, which is sometimes substituted for cows or pigs blood in cheaper alternatives. If you’re not vegetarian, however, Duck Blood Tofu can actually be quite tasty when cooked in a spicy broth or stew.
Black Chickens (wuji - 乌鸡) are another peculiar sight for Westerners. These freaked me out no end when I first saw them. Black Chickens look exactly like any other plucked chicken except for the fact that the skin and meat is black. It can be profoundly disconcerting to see something you’ve eaten your whole life in a new hue. On first meeting, I thought a chicken had somehow completely rotted. Turns out these so-called “Silkie Chickens” are simply a special breed with black skin. They’re not dyed nor pickled, they’re more expensive than regular chicken, taste a bit different, and are supposed to be good for womens’ health. Strangely enough, these chickens have fully white feathers when alive.
If you’re super new to Asia, you may also not have come across durian (Liúlián - 榴莲) before; you’ll smell it long before you see it. To most people, the smell is bad, so bad that it’s forbidden in public places in Singapore and hotels all over Asia. Many people, however, say the fruit is really delicious. I’ve heard custard and tiramisu bandied about as comparisons, but although I’ve eaten it I just can’t get over the smell. My first experience with Durian was in a milkshake in New York’s Chinatown. It made the area between my nose and lip tingle uncontrollably and tasted like plaster and aluminum. Construction material flavored burps plagued me for hours. It’s certainly worth trying once, but that’s usually enough for most people.
And if you don’t know durian, you also likely don’t know dragon fruit (Huǒlóng guǒ - 火龙果): This is a nice easy one for foreigners to like. Dragon fruit is a beautiful flame-skinned fruit with a creamy white interior flecked with black seeds. There's also a variety with purple flesh. In Chinese they’re called “fire dragon fruit”, which makes perfect sense when you their beautiful exterior. You don’t eat the peel and the fruit inside seems boring in comparison, but it’s a refreshing and unusual treat when added to a green or fruit salad or just eaten plain.
In conclusion, Chinese supermarkets can be overwhelming and off-putting. My local supermarket has TVs all over the store showing videos of their meat being chopped up. While this is meant to assure customers of quality and hygiene, the men in white jumpsuits brandishing band saws does little for my appetite.
You can, however, find some really great, fresh and interesting produce in Chinese supermarkets. Explore further and you’ll find shelves upon shelves of unexplored food stuffs. The range of leafy vegetables and mushrooms is amazing, tofu lovers have plenty to try, and there are all sorts of freshly made breads and buns. I suggest buying one item you’ve never seen before each trip. Who knows, you might find something you can’t live without.
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Keywords: Chinese supermarkets Chinese supermarket
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