Here in our little piece of Shanghai, my wife and I have probably eaten at only a tenth of the restaurants and toured maybe half the parks, but we know every fresh market, supermarket and convenience store inside and out. We still don’t have a good map, a lick of Mandarin, or bicycles, but if there’s one thing we go about with earnestness and urgency, it’s finding a steady supply of food. We require it good, fresh, cheap and clean. Fulfilling that constellation of requirements has consumed great swathes of our time here.
From the construction worker living in a sheet metal shack to the man driving his Ferrari down our most unworthy street, Shanghai food stores must service a tremendous range of incomes and appetites. For the young expatriate couple, this can be quite confusing. Where do we fit in on the spectrum? What are we willing to pay to recreate our diet from home? Where do we draw the lines of extravagance and hygiene?
We started with Carrefour because we didn’t know any better. This megastore offers the complete range of qualities within it’s own four walls. Each of the produce, meat and seafood sections offers three distinct grades. There’s imported/organic, “high quality” (the store branded) and bulk. Bulk produce is just dirty or irregular, but bulk meat and seafood can be a shock for the unaccustomed eyes, ---thoroughly frozen chunks of chicken, ham or fish sitting totally exposed, to be roughly selected with hands or tongs. Three feet down the counter, however, is imported Aussie steak or salmon filets running well over $20 a pound. We buy the middle, the store-line beef that still comes swathed in a comforting layer of cellophane. Beef and grains are the only food items we still get at Carrefour, simply because they’re otherwise hard to find. We plan to stock up in one monthly trip because the store is an absolute madhouse. Imagine a regular Safeway stuffed with a Costco sized crowd buying Costco sized quantities, but doing so one item at a time and often paying in cash.
The top of the “food chain” is CityShop. This supermarket is proximate to a massive foreign compound that borders on a golf course, with products and prices to match. If one is looking to recreate an American or Japanese pantry in toto, CityShop is the place to do it. They offer everything from Bisquick to Tide, costing two-to-four times their price at home. I was appalled to find two similarly sized bottles of Gatorade sitting on their shelf. One bottle was labeled in Chinese and cost about 60 cents, the other was labeled in English and cost about $3.00. This place clearly was not for us. I will admit, however, that I bought some obscenely overpriced olives from here but ---my goodness people--- a man has to live.
Our neighborhood streets are often spotted with the other end of the spectrum: produce vendors selling their wares from threadbare blankets on the ground. Believe it or not, the eggplants and peaches have little discernible difference from those sold elsewhere, but I can’t bring myself to buy them. One of my favorite sights is watching a transaction with one of these grocers, who often employ a handheld balance to weigh their goods.
A few blocks from our apartment complex is a permanent wet market. About thirty yards long and twenty wide, the interior of the market is filled with grocers selling vegetables, fruits, and grains. The outer edge is lined with spartan fish and meat shops. It is a Chinese market fit for a travel show, from the tapestry of produce cut to the tremendous sacks of spices and rice, do an interview the angry man forever slitting eels, and visit the stall where you can pick the clucking chicken you’ll have for dinner tonight. Alas, the travel shows don’t include the awful stench and flies, a terribly unpleasant by-product of the market’s diversity and freshness. While it is endurable as a tourist, it is less palatable as a resident. We aspire to buy our produce here and hope the smell and flies will fade with summer.
Past the entrance to the wet market, an oddly placed hospital and a lonely salon, is our supermarket. It is part of a local chain, Hualian, which should not be confused with Lian Hua, an inferior rival. The aisles aren’t stocked with the familiar, but they aren’t dirty or smelly either. It’s not empty, but I’ve yet to get hip-checked or prodded with a cart. It is almost totally local products, the only regular import is the Starbucks frappucino bottle, which neither of us drink, even in the U.S. Hualian won us over with its excellent produce and juice selection. Our basket this week included carrots, two kids of tomatoes, cucumbers, asparagus, eggplant, bok choy and radishes. The yogurt is good, though soupy, and they stock the right kind of frozen dumplings. They sporadically offer Western cuts of meat or fish, which is enough to keep us comfortable, but their frequent absence gives us a little push to branch out.
So after a month of effort we have our shopping routine down pat. While we recognize the futility of cooking Chinese dishes at home, there’s an adventure to be had in re-creating our favorite meals with Chinese ingredients. If we simply must have a wedge of brie or a new can of anchovies, we know where to go. For the daily goods, however, we know the imports are just not as enjoyable or economical. My bottle of olives, from CityShop, cost $12. From Hualian, however, we bought our produce, juice, and chicken for most of the week, for about $20. In short: Trader Joe’s it isn’t, but for us, that’s the point.