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Tips For Navigating Supermarkets In China

Jingkelong supermarket on Tianshuiyuan Lu in Chaoyang District, Beijing. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein

Jingkelong supermarket on Tianshuiyuan Lu in Chaoyang District, Beijing. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein

Chinese supermarkets are an all-encompassing sensorial experience and can be quite overwhelming unless you know how to navigate them. After seven years of exploring Chinese markets, I’ve come to appreciate the unique ways they diverge from Western groceries.

The first step into a supermarket in China is actually a prologue to the food, usually consisting of small shops offering supplementary services. However, my attention is often quickly drawn away from these salespeople by my nose, given that supermarkets in China are lined with stalls selling street snacks.

These stalls connect customers directly with the ingredients being sold. My current favorite fast lunch consists of liangcai, or cold food. The supermarket’s liangcai vendor mixes everything on the spot to your taste, first combining cold cuts, vegetables and noodles at your command, before mixing them with sesame paste, garlic, ground peanuts, sesame oil, rice vinegar, a handful of julienned carrots and cucumbers, and a bunch of cilantro. My local Jingkelong supermarket also sells cold rice noodles (liangpi), ground pork burgers (roujiamo) and fried crepe (jianbing) to be made on the spot and then eaten at home.

This Jingkelong, like other chains, boasts an entire chilled section dedicated exclusively to tofu. There are tens of types of tofus here: deep-fried, dried and shredded, spongy, skinned and in long sheets, smoked, spiced, soft, or served as imitation meat, to begin with. As if thumbing its nose at vegetarians, the tofu is usually unceremoniously arranged alongside packaged meats. These are of the plastic-coated, dried or cured variety. Plus shoppers find myriad animal parts like chicken feet, pork ears, or tripe on their way to the other sections.

Choosing fresh seafood

The fish section, usually offset in a semi-hidden back corridor, is very much focused on freshness. Customers can usually select marine life straight from tanks. When not available, the fish are kept on ice and I’ve noticed attendants spray them with water or even swipe them with the blood of other fish so they appear to have just been killed.

Sea cucumbers are found in a dedicated tank, as well as a special freezer, which I’ve seen locked in some cases, requiring an attendant to come with the keys and open it up. In the nearby Huapu grocery, there is a counter covered in red and gold silk embroidery and special gift boxes for purchasing dried sea cucumbers.

Unfortunately, my local supermarket does not have a frozen food section as good as the one at the Lotus I used to frequent as a student at Tsinghua University. I was always able to find vegetarian options from the endless array of freezers full of dumplings and baozi, or steamed buns with various ground fillings.

That is not a complaint, however, since I recently discovered a section with floor-to-ceiling shelves of bags of rice and flour, and troughs filled with legumes of all colors and shapes including my current favorite for making sweet, warm breakfast porridge, the inimitable red and green adzuki beans.

Supermarkets in China a 3-story adventure in food shopping

About half of the first floor of this massive Jingkelong, which has three floors, is reserved for breads. There is a fresh bakery stall with at least 100 types of cakes, cookies, breads, rolls and moon cakes. An imitation-Western bread section with overly-frosted birthday cakes and overly-squishy processed breads; and then, glory that be, a section with all the steamed, baked, fried, rolled and smoked breads freshly made that you can ever dream of.

My first explorations into Chinese supermarkets involved lunging headfirst into the candy aisles, where you can pick out squishy jellies, powdery bean cakes and chewy milk candies by the half-kilo (1.1 pounds, or a jin). I then graduated to nuts, my favorites being peanuts fried with dried red peppers and Sichuan tingly pepper berries for a satisfying kick. Sauces and seasonings, oils and vinegars, condiments and toppings came next and today I’m addicted to salty fermented soybeans, which add a smoky, meaty gravitas to steamed vegetables that need an added punch. I next plan to dive into the kimchi and pickled goods section.

Increasingly, supermarkets in China feature an imports section, which never fails to surprise me in its breadth of chocolates, olive oils and alcohols. It’s clear Chinese are getting into Guinness beer, imported wine and whiskeys. I’m skeptical about their quality, so I skip these. Instead, I’m starting to pick my way through the Chinese tea, herbs and medicines section.

What I have yet to understand is why the medicine department is situated alongside the cigarette and baijiu (sorghum alcohol) aisle. From the Chinese perspective, it might be an extreme illustration of yin and yang, though in my Western eyes I’ll simply say that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

Top photo: Jingkelong supermarket on Tianshuiyuan Lu in the Chaoyang District of Beijing. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein

Zester Daily contributor Manuela Zoninsein is a Brazilian-American reporting on sustainable food, travel and business from Shanghai. A former dining editor for Time Out Beijing, her work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, ClimateWire and Newsweek. She writes about her passion for healthy, interesting and sustainable food at

  • Liuzhou Laowai 7·29·13

    “Tips For Navigating Some Supermarkets in Shanghai or Beijing” would be a better title. Your description is nowhere near anything I’ve ever experienced in 20 years in China.

    “supermarkets in China are lined with stalls selling street snacks.” Never seen such a thing.

    ‘roujiamo’ doesn’t mean ‘ground pork burgers’.

  • BODAJINGSHEN 8·10·13

    Laowai, You should get out and see more of China. It’s changed a lot in the last 20 years.

    Ms. Z, I like your description, my Jinkelong is identical. I think the reason for the placement is because these are all a step or two above basic food needs, and relevant to well being. Like smoking and drinking and having medicine broths simultaneously at a feast. They go together.

  • Liuzhou Laowai 8·10·13

    Thank you for your suggestion Bodajingshen.

    I am in China and have spent the last 20 years documenting China’s changes, thank you very much.

    The article is as I described it.

  • Manuela 8·10·13

    Liuzhou Laowai, thanks for your thoughts. Just wondering, where do you live and which supermarkets do you visit? I’d like to know how your experiences have differed from mine and to understand why. Every supermarket I’ve ever visited throughout the country in rural and urban areas — in provinces that include Anhui, Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Hainan, Hebei, Henan, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Shaanxi, Shaanxi, Sichuan, Yunnan, Zhejiang as well as the municipalities of Beijing, Chongqing, Shanghai and Tianjin — all, without fail, had small snack and street food stalls selling food to-go. In fact, this one of the main reasons I stop into supermarkets everywhere I go!

    As for roujiamo, the literal translation would be “meat – squeezed/pressed – steamed bread” so you’re correct that it doesn’t mean “ground pork burgers” (and it isn’t always necessarily made with pork, even, but with beef or lamb in Muslim areas). Keep in mind, my words aimed to outline the most rudimentary essence of the food, and not to get into semantics. Alas, I can see how my description fell short of the actual deliciousness of the dish, thereby lacking the diligence it is due exploring the history, various means of serving, cooking techniques or other background material for this awesome food. It’s a choice, as a writer facing a word count, that I had to make. That said, I hope you appreciate the pithiness of the writing to maintain my focus on the issue at hand: the mind-boggling variety of options available at Chinese supermarkets!

  • dabizaren 10·31·14

    Manuela – I realize this article is over a year old and perhaps you are no longer even reviewing comments but anyway just in case…your article was very well written, the descriptions of food were easy to sense, and I applaud you on your ability to turn lemons into lemonade by responding to criticism in such a positive way. That is a very rare skill, and sets you above the common run of humanity . I myself lived in HK for 10 years, out in a rural farming village back in the 70s and 80s (although I worked in Wanchai) long before HK was integrated back into the mainland. I have also been involved in biofuels businesses in China in recent years and have spent my share of time visiting supermarkets. I, like you, find them endlessly fascinating. I hope you have a wonderful time discovering more of whatever it is that makes life fun for you. Good luck. Dabizaren.