After a few years living in China, most things that amazed/annoyed me during my first months here are now normal events in my life and I don’t think about them too much: kids yelling “hallo”, people staring at me, spending Saturday nights in the karaoke, crowded subways, crazy traffic, Chinese people insisting on speaking English to me even though I reply in Chinese, the parallel universe buzzling with activity that are Chinese parks…
But there is one daily activity that still feels tremendously exciting: going to the supermarket.
My Shanghai-based friend Y. hates going to the supermarket so she orders all of her groceries online and has them delivered home. While this is very convenient and I have sometimes done it (mainly when I was working), I prefer going to the supermarket, walking along every aisle, looking at all the products on display. touching everything and comparing prices before finally making my mind up.
C. is not very happy about this. He doesn’t like crowded places and supermarkets are invariably full of people, specially during weekends. So when I go with him, I try to get everything as fast as I can. If I go alone, I will take my time.
There are several supermarkets in our area. Some of them are pretty Chinese but we also have a couple of imported foods supermarkets (expensive, of course!). The closest biggest supermarket is Auchan, called 欧尚 oushang in Chinese. A few weeks ago I went there in the morning, so it wouldn’t be too crowded, and wandered around for a couple of hours, mainly taking pictures with my phone. Because there are a lot of weird and amazing things in Chinese supermarkets.
– Dozens of different flavours for instant noodles
I think I had eaten instant noodles a couple of times before coming to China. Spanish people don’t eat them frequently (I’d say only poor students would try them), but they can be found in supermarkets, although the variety is not great. In China, instant noodles are a must when you are a student and don’t have money to buy better food (or you prefer spending it on other things, like alcohol and cigarrettes). Instant noodles are also widely eaten when you are traveling, specially during train journeys. In this supermarket there is a whole aisle full of different brands and flavours, ranging from spicy beef to seafood.
– Fish, seafood and other aquatic species are kept alive
In Spain, we mainly eat fish from the sea and it is dead and kept on ice in supermarkets. In China they like their fish alive and kickin’. And not only fish: shrimps, toads, turtles… I think you can choose to have your purchase killed and cut or do it yourself at home (I’m not sure because I’ve never bought anything alive).
– Amazing variety of feminine hygiene products
In Spain we have at most 4 or 5 different brands of sanitary pads. In China you can choose between literally hundreds of them. There is a Hello Kitty brand. And another with mentholated pads. On the contrary, tampons are not widely used by Chinese girls so usually only one brand can be found (although I’ve started seeing a couple of new brands in Suzhou).
– Dried everything
Chinese people love munching dried stuff: fish, squid, meat, fruits… Basically anything can be dried and sold in supermarkets!
– Rice in bulk
Chinese people eat a lot of rice, so the bags for sale in supermarkets are huge. If you don’t eat much rice, your only option is to buy imported ones in smaller packages (expensive!) or buy in bulk whatever amount you need. The downside to this is that probably everyone in the supermarket has touched your rice: people love sinking their hands in the containers!
– The latest fashion
Well, I guess this happens everywhere: the clothes sold at supermarkets aren’t usually too pretty. But Chinese swimsuits are so ugly they would deserve a blog post of their own (and I would tell the story of how I ended up buying one, haha).
There are many more things I didn’t take pictures of. The crazy flavours of potato chips (lobster, cucumber, lima, Italian beef…), the thousands of different cookies, the glass jars with strange sauces I’ve never tried, the cooking oils made from many different things (in Spain we just use olive and sunflower oil)… I discover new things with every visit to the supermarket!
What about you? Do you like going to buy groceries in person or do you prefer buying everything online? If you have lived in more than one country, do you find supermarkets very different in each place?
you also have that ‘poor students eat instant noodle’ thing? :D wow! and don’t get me wrong but I like my food to be dead, I saw momzilla killing shrimps, and even though they were awfully delicious I felt kinda bad (and full at the same time ;) ) and I can’t imagine I would have to do it myself. don’t need a super fresh product ;)
Haha, yes, I feel the same. I never buy anything alive in the supermarket, I wouldn’t be able to kill it myself.
Sometimes we have been to restaurants where you choose shrimps, clams and other seafood from water tanks and boil them in a little hot pot in your table… Poor things.
Wow! I don’t know what I was expecting, but I *wasn’t* expecting live toads, or large containers of rice you can fill your bags from. :o I wonder why there are so many different types of sanitary products? Even in Japan there aren’t that manyーbut similar to China, tampons are not popular.
I prefer buying groceries in person for the most part, as, like you, I like taking my time (if it’s not crowded). Supermarkets are definitely quite different wherever you go. In Sweden there’s usually a fresh baked bread areaーand the meat section (depending on where you live) often has deer, moose, rabbit, reindeer etc, depending on the season. What are the opening hours like? Are they open late, or even 24hrs?
Here it is very difficult finding good bread! Chinese bakeries suck…
For supermarkets I think the opening hours are 10 am to 10 pm. For 24 hours shopping we have Family Mart and a medium size supermarket chain called Vanguard.
Ha, same here. I miss bread you can really sink your teeth into. “Balloon” bread is quite popular here. :/
I enjoyed this – I lived in China about ten years ago, and seeing your photos brings back memories of the supermarkets in Dalian.
I’ve never been to Dalian! But I guess supermarkets look the same all over the country :D
Chinese supermarkets are some love and hate thing for me. I absolutely hate the meat section and alive animals as well as the terrible smell which is coming from the fruit area where the durians are being kept but I love most of the rest.
After seeing these pictures I really feel like going to China again, kind of weird though that I start to feel like visiting a country again after seeing supermarket pics…
But I agree, chinese swimwear products are sooo ugly. Everytime I go to a swimming pool and there are girls and women with these ridiculous outfits I have to suppress to laugh out loud. Especially these kind of fringes as if they would wear a skirt on the suits are damn ugly…and no wonder they can’t swim, I bet these things suck in so much water that even I would drown!
Have you ever tried a Chinese men swimsuit? They are not very pretty either hahaha. And you can wear it so high it covers your belly button :D
Oh yea, forgot about those pretty men swimsuits :)
Yum, instant noodles. Haha, so many interesting things about shopping in China…
As far as getting ‘international food’, even in a big city like Shenzhen I’ve found that the past few years has had more and more of a selection grow. I used to go to the Carefour in the middle of the city and check out their small western section for spaghetti and bread and cheese and cereal, now it seems every corner has an entire luxury supermarket like Ole.
I get angry when I go to the international supermarkets, everything is way more expensive than in Spain! And is it really because of logistic and customs costs? Imported Chinese food is not that expensive in Spain!
Well, on the one hand you are certainly right: Prices are customer-oriented. Western customers can be expected to be more wealthy, so if they crave their “soul food”, they’ll pay for it.
Prices are also market-oriented: If there is not much supply around, you’ll charge higher prices.
But then again, prices are obviously also cost-oriented. So, when you say that prices of Chinese food in Spain are nowhere near the prices of Western food in China, you have to keep in mind production costs (material, resources, labour etc.) and the exchange rate.
Not to mention “things that go into Chinese food, but which shouldn’t be there”… Fake eggs? Gutter oil? Toxic milk powder? Here we go (Dear Chinese, no offense, just my media-influenced conception…).
Fabian makes some good points. I also think it depends where you buy imported stuff. I’ve actually had pretty good experiences using taobao.
Oh yes, Philippine dried mangoes are cheaper in taobao than when you buy them in the Philippines… hahaha.
However I had a bad experience buying food on taobao recently so I am a little bit reticent. We bought a large bag of dog food and after a few weeks I was shocked to see that there were a lot of worms in the bottom on the bag!!! I took pictures and we sent to the vendor, guess what his reply was, nothing at all, he completely ignored us. (The bag had been tightly closed after opening).
Luckily our dog didn’t have any problem, but I don’t know for how many days she was eating those worms as I don’t know if there were all over the bag or just in the second half :(
Thanks for your comments Fabian! Everything makes sense. And let’s not talk about the “things which shouldn’t be there”… Either I have an iron stomach or I have been very lucky until now :D
That is terrible! Poor puppy. Coincidently, I just had my first bad experience buying food on taobao, too (right after I commented, the irony!!). It’s the first time in a year, so I guess that’s not so bad. But it’s important to be careful.
Guauu, qué de fans te has hecho por aquí…
Marta, no sabía que te gustara tanto ir al super. Cuando dijiste que lo pasabas bien no te creí, pensaba que simplemente no te importaba ir, pero estoy viendo que es casi una pasión.
Sólo compro las verduras y algunas frutas en el mercado de en frente de mi casa. (Tesco manda verduras y frutas mierdosas, y Citishop demasiado caras) Lo demás ya todo online, mucho mejor.
Es que me entretengo mucho en el super, jajaja.
*jaja* Lo mismo me pasa a mí – soy de Alemania, pero ahora vivo en México y el súper aquí tiene cosas que la gente en mi país nunca compraría… Sin embargo, cuando vivía en Asia fue aún más impresionante, ya que México todavía tiene mucha influencia “occidental”, mientras que China, Tailandia, Japón… son totalmente otra cosa. Y me encantaban los productos. A veces me pregunto por qué los convenience stores en Latinoamérica son tanto peores que las maravillas allá en el continente oriental…
Jajaja, síiii, Family Mart, 7 Eleven, etc… en España no hay! (O al menos en las ciudades en las que yo he vivido).
Hello Kitty sanitary pads? :o haha. I’m a huge Hello Kitty fan! haha. I wouldn’t be too surprised if I asked my boyfriend to do the shopping and he bought me that lol… And the rice in bulk! haha. My mom would love that :P We eat rice almost every day lol.
You can get a complete Hello Kitty outfit, accesories, home appliances, etc when you come to Asia :D There’s even an egg boiling machine… I wonder if a Hello Kitty face would appear on them!
LOL :P Now I REALLY need to go there. :P LOL. I know there’s a Hello Kitty airline even :P My boyfriend wants his sister and I to go on it since both of us are crazy for Hello Kitty :D haha.
we had a kind of saying with other thai students that went like “we shouldn’t worry when 家乐福 is in front of us”, because to us it was like Disneyland, there’s so much to see and to do in there, it’s crazy!
Hahaha, yes, it’s a non-stop source of entertainment!
It sounds the same as a typical Taiwanese supermarket as well. I was also amazed by the aisle of noodles on sale and the amount of dry food available. Personally, I think the thing that surprised me the most was pizza with corn and without pizza sauce. Oh, and pastries that tasted nothing like I thought they would.
Pastries and cakes are a big disappointment in China :( They taste all buttery and greasy…
I don’t know if I have tried pizza with corn. But when I eat pizza outside I always have to tell them not to put green peppers, all the pizzas here have green pepper and I hate it!! (Last Sunday we had pizza, I asked the waiter I didn’t want the onion, and he replied: But this pizza has onion, so I said: Can the cook just not put it?, and he said again: But this pizza has onion, so I just choose another one… how hard can it be to NOT put onion on my pizza? hahaha).
I was thinking about this recently. It’s strange what you can find entire aisles of in Chinese supermarkets vs. American ones. In the US,, we have an aisle for cereal and oatmeal. We also have one for soda (soft drinks) which I’ve noticed is now becoming the norm China too. When I first came to China there was a rather limited variety of soda and juices but now you can find all sorts of crazy flavors.
Oh yes, in Spain we also have a greater selection of cereals, but Chinese people don’t eat them that much. They don’t drink so much milk either. (And Chinese produced milk sold in China is double the price of Spanish produced milk sold in Spain!).
When I first came to China, there wasn’t much of a selection of milk or yogurt, but they keep growing in popularity. It’s nothing compared to my home state in the US (known as “The Dairy State”). We have an incredible selection of milks, cheeses, yogurts, and butter, etc. I miss that stuff a lot, though it’s probably better that I don’t eat it that much anymore.
Hey Marta, do you know whether Chinese people actually like milk but don’t drink much of it because not much of it is available? I heard that the Chinese are starting to drink milk and consume dairy in general in greater quantities, and this has created an economic boom for dairy-producing countries like New Zealand.
Incidentally, I recently learned that not only does milk do nothing for bone health but it actually contributes to bone loss, which is why osteoporosis is more prevalent in Western countries with high dairy consumption compared to Asian countries where people don’t consume much dairy and are mostly lactose intolerant.
Milk is widely available, from both domestic and foreign brands. However due to the frequent food scandals (the most famous one being the tainted baby formula back in 2008) most people prefer buying imported milk. I have seen and bought imported milk from New Zealand, France, Germany…
And I think yes, Chinese people are drinking more milk, specially young people.
I have also read that drinking milk is not too good. These past years I started drinking soy milk, and recently I tried almond milk (not bad!). But I still use cow’s milk to do my homemade kefir :D
I’m thinking about switching to almond milk. At first I turned to soy milk, but then I found out that soy milk has phytoestrogen, which can make a guy grow man boobs. :/
But I guess you would have to drink A LOT every day to get those side effects, right?? I have never seen Chinese guys with boobs, unless they are fat :D and they drink and eat many soy products…
Yeah, you’re right. I’m a huge fan of tofu (mapo doufu FTW!) myself and I haven’t developed boobs yet. But still, finding out about the phytoestrogen has made me sad.
italian beef potato chips are my fav in fact;D
love your post, although auchan is my least fav supermarket, i prefer vanguard or carrefour in suzhou :)
I have only been twice to Carrefour, the biggest supermarket closer to where I live is Auchan. Vanguard is kind of small, right? Or is there any big one? Recently I tried Metro, they have very cheap pasta :D
Hmnn, there are some small vanguards, but just next to where I live there is a big one, maybe I like it cos’ it’s close hahaxd Metro is great, unfortunately quite far away :)
I LOVE Chinese supermarkets because of their variety! Like you said there is so many selections for feminine sanitary products, and there is huge selection for noodles, chips, dried stuff. Since studying abroad in Shanghai, I feel so limited in the US with only 4-5 brands of any given thing. I’m looking forward to more supermarket adventures when I go back to China in a few weeks!
Talking about variety, isn’t it fascinating how the 7-11 stores or even McDonald’s ice cream selection is far better in China than it is in the US or other western places?
We don’t really have those convenience stores in Spain so I can’t compare, haha. You’re coming back? To stay or for holidays? ;)
I’m coming back to Teach English in Jinan.. As well as make my obligatory visit back to Shanghai to visit some Chinese friends. I’m excited!
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i would like to sell food products from russia. where should i do it?
I don’t really know the procedures as I have never done it, but I guess the easiest would be to open an online shop in Taobao.