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.
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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