The journey of learning and gaining knowledge is an important part of my life. I find that my knowledge comes from many sources-dining, reading, and cooking. However, I have found one alternative way to learn about food. I have a passion for walking down the aisles of groceries stores around the world when I travel. It is mind-blowing what you may see. Retail malls are the same around the world; it’s just one global brand after another-Riyadh, Warsaw, or Shanghai, it’s the same stuff. However, grocery stores and corner markets have a completely different vibe and for me really tell the tale of cuisine in the country I am in.
I can’t tell you how many great moments I have had walking through the streets and just stopping to walk through a grocery store. My wife has gotten used to my madness. These are my own learning moments, and the teachers are the shelves and display cases. I have other moments, like seeing whole tuna being sliced at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo and watching a butcher make blood sausage in Luxembourg. They are snippets of cuisine that I will always cherish and are very personal experiences, but they are not as impactful in your understanding of food and cuisine. In a supermarket, I am being taught by these raw ingredients and products on shelves and in display cases. From Skokie to Manila, there are some amazing things to see while those cans, bags, and boxes teach you something.
If you think about it, why are these products on the shelf anyway? Someone must want to buy them. I am not advocating mass-produced canned goods and shelf-stable entrees in a bag. It’s the idea behind what they are representing at that moment in time as a true reflection of national cuisine. There are thousands of culinary learning moments down the aisle and in the freezer case. You just have to look.
Why are there so many types of soy sauce in the Asian section, canned sardines in every flavor imaginable, and what’s with the jarred roasted red pepper spreads from Eastern Europe? I don’t know off hand, but I will take the opportunity to figure it out and make it a learning moment. Teaching moments are good but can get messy when other people are in charge, especially if they don’t know what they are talking about.
How does walking through a grocery become a learning moment? Buy three weird things you have never tried, taste them, and then figure out why they are there, who eats them, and their significance in the country of their origin. Pushing through pages of fancy cookbooks is one thing, but opening a jar of pickled fish or weird-looking paste can take you to a whole new world. Modern cuisine is born in the minds of a few talented chefs whose food is bought by those with the means to pay, but world cuisine lives in the market places, freezers, and shelves of the store. This is what we really eat as a global society.
What I do is then try to replicate these flavors and concepts with fresh ingredients to support the cause of fresh, sustainable cuisine to a point and pay respect to the food’s relevance in a specific cuisine. Not all things are best made from scratch. Worcestershire, gochujang, and Vietnamese fish sauce easily come to mind as things you should not have festering in your basement. In addition, these items are the backbone of many cuisines and need to be cherished for what they are, not what a certain group of foodies think-that they shouldn’t be “commercial.”
Ranch dressing is here to stay; it’s one of the few things that packs umami and fat that we can relate to in the US. If you don’t know, umami is already the fifth taste, and fat will soon follow in sixth place, so get used to it. Please go shopping!
We just found this in a big box store in Michigan. This big cloudy double IPA with oats and wheat in the grain bill with hop juiciness from the seven hops used in the boil and dry hopping.
Some grocery stores let you drink in the aisle, so watch out; the 10.8% ABV will catch up to you, and you may never know what will end up in your cart.