Under the bright lights of an Oslo grocery store I held in my hand what seemed to be my personal holy grail: a tube of bacon paste. I repeat: Bacon. Paste. I imagined a smoky, salty pâté that could sit nicely on a cracker or be the beginning of a most epic sandwich or even salad dressing. No time to cook bacon? Bacon paste. Don’t want to deal with bacon cleanup? Bacon paste. Literally unable to bring home the bacon? Bacon paste. No wonder Norway is one of those countries that ranks highest for quality of life; they have figured out how to distill one of the ultimate foodstuffs into something shelf stable, portable, and spreadable. I added it to my basket along with myriad other Norwegian treats, contemplating whether I would give this one away as a souvenir or keep it to myself. Did I mention it was bacon paste?
So turns out it was bacon-flavored mayonnaise, my inability to read Norsk preventing me from knowing this while I relied on label graphics and packaging for interpretation. But thus begins the tale of one of my favorite ways to experience a foreign place: through its grocery stores, convenience stores, and markets. And turns out I am not the only one who feels this way. There are those that dream of Greek Isles and those who dream of Greek aisles. (Okay, I dream of both. So. Many. Types. Of. Feta.) Beyond restaurants, food tours, and street vendors, the experience of handling the produce and perusing the condiment selection in food retailers from rural farmer’s markets to Paris’s equivalent to Trader Joe’s has started to take on a life from those that seek truer cultural immersion when abroad.
With help from the Chowhound editorial team and other intrepid travelers, I give you a list of reasons to make time to take in a little casual aisle-candy during your next international adventure, from Hannover to Hanoi.
Live Like a Local
Going shopping for groceries, even window shopping, is one of the most non-touristy activities in which to engage when traveling. No crowds, no covers, no problem. Just a genuine experience of what it feels like to be among the citizenry, without dodging around other travelers’ staged photographs. (And if you do happen to find that happening, you’ve definitely found traveler kinship.) David Watsky, Assistant Chowhound Editor chimes in: “I had a blast in the outdoor/night markets in Asia where a lot of people do their food shopping. I love the concept of one purveyor for each sort of food—it was like this in Israel too—with an expert to explain and help you make the best decisions, if you can negotiate the language barrier.”
Speaking of both language barriers and of Israel, take caution: I once came home with a full kilo of za’atar. I meant to indicate “one,” as in, “one small, normalish bag for occasional, single-person, non-restaurant-owner use.” Instead, one kilo happened. (That was 2009 and I’m almost through it.) But the language barrier is definitely part of the fun. I don’t remember much about any restaurant where I ate in Tel Aviv 10 years ago, but I’m still (literally) enjoying my trip to the market. You also get a good sense of cost of living through grocery stores, if, like me, you invariably daydream about what it would be like to live in whatever place you’re traveling through.
Familiar Made Unfamiliar
I like the things that traveling makes me think about, for instance, where did the “cool” in Cool Ranch Doritos come from in the first place? Is it supposed to mean coldness? Mintiness? Dispassionate, cosmopolitan swagger? This comes to mind because in the snack aisles of Europe, where “ranch,” even translated, does not evoke a singular aroma other than maybe horse manure, the name becomes Cool American. (Because apparently Dehydrated Buttermilk, Onion, and Herbs was understandably confusing. Also John Wayne was a cool American and he probably had a certain barnyard aroma, so…maybe?) And I realize I just haven’t given enough thought to the “cool” of Cool Ranch. Maybe we keep the cool in Cool American because one of the coolest things we’ve developed as a country is ranch? (Proud Midwesterner here.)
Regardless, one of my personal favorite experiences is seeing how American brands are transformed elsewhere. Grocery store as modern art museum meets sociology experiment. You’ll notice similar fonts, colors, and graphics, but then “Lays” becomes “Sabritas” in Mexico, “Walker’s” in the UK, and “Chipsy” in Egypt. Frankly, I’d totally go live in Germany just for the opportunity to clean house with Meister Proper. (Mr. Clean.)
As The World Snacks
A truth that unites us in humanity: the world over, people will always crave crunch, and there is much to savor in the pursuit of the world’s oddest chips. “I love seeking out new chip flavors that I’ve never tried before,” says Bridget Kearney, bassist for Lake Street Dive, a touring neo-soul band that has rightfully reached most corners of the globe. “I trace my attraction to artificial flavoring back to the part in Willy Wonka with the gum that creates an experience of a 3-course meal (and then turns poor Violet into a blueberry.) I think it’s so incredible that some powder on a chip can give you such a full and nuanced flavor experience! Recently I found a bag in Belgium that was burger flavored, and in one bite of a chip, you could taste the beef, the ketchup and mustard, the cheese, the sesame seed bun…it was incredible! It’s one of my favorite parts of traveling.”
And that’s just in a flavor as familiar as cheeseburger. Never mind the possibility of stumbling upon similar adventures in layered flavors such as Braai Lamb Chops (South Africa), Winter Berries and Sparkling Prosecco Crisps (England), or Pilsner Urquell Hops Flavored Chips (Czech Republic). As Watsky succinctly summarizes his experience in Asia: “I could have spent a whole day in the chips and snacks aisle.”
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Element of Surprise
Call it the “Bacon paste effect.” “I especially like to buy things in languages that I don’t understand so that it’s a surprise to everyone when they open them up and consume them,” offers Joey Skladany, Chowhound Editor-at-Large. Part of the joy and personal growth of traveling is putting yourself in unfamiliar circumstances with the possibility of eating things you’re not sure what they are, and groceries and snacks allow for that to happen in a safe space.
“It’s incredible how wildly different things can be that appear super similar to something we’d find in the U.S. but would have one element that totally changes it,” offers Watsky. “Like I remember mixed nuts with some sort of shrimp paste seasoning.”
In Beijing I spent an afternoon in pursuit of that which appeared to be some sort of corn dessert cone. I mean, it looked like corn, but was definitely frozen and on a stick. The biggest difficulty my friend and I had was getting the convenience store clerk to understand that I was trying to pay for both mine and my friend’s together. (Apparently they like to go Dutch in China. Makes sense.) But that was the beginning and end of the difficulty, as I am now petitioning Good Humor to create a corn-flavored ice cream treat with a corn-wafer shaped coating.
Sweet (and Savory) Souvenirs
“Not only did I delight in all of the great new-to-me snacks and pantry ingredients I’d get to enjoy upon my return,” describes Hana Asbrink, Chowhound’s Executive Editor, of her love of shopping in France’s Monoprix, “I was able to stock up on the best gifts I knew my friends and family back home would appreciate.”
What better way to extend your vacation (see “za’atar” above), and share it with others. In the grocery store you’ll also get a way better deal than at the airport, and delight your friends and family with consumables rather than the last-minute snow globe that will inevitably find its way to the donate pile.
“Perhaps my favorite thing to buy is chocolate since it’s universally adored, but prepared in so many different ways,” says Skladany. “I can tell you that I once bought chocolate-covered durian from Vietnam and found it very enjoyable, despite its bad rap.” Also file “durian” under “element of surprise” should you find yourself in Southeast Asia.
Where Everybody Knows Your Name
If I’m being honest my love of international grocery stores was born at a more tender age, closer to home, in Canada, the first place I visited outside of the U.S. Lo and behold, my otherwise uncommon last name was emblazoned on all manner of individually packaged snack cakes. I suddenly understood what Little Debbie herself must feel like, and have been lurking around the planet’s packaged goods aisles ever since. If you take this advice, as you venture deep into the dustiest corners of the world’s grocery stores, may you, too, also find your personal Vachon Snacks.
Vachon Ah Caramel! Cakes, Package of 12 for $15.95 on Amazon
Imagine yourself 12 years old and finding out that a Canadian snack cake is named after you.
Header photo courtesy of Caiaimage/Paul Bradbury and Getty Images