Thursday, May 28, 2009
The Auchan Experience
No matter where you live you have to buy groceries, there are always local markets, but more and more we buy the necessities of life at a supermarket. When I first arrived in Suzhou, I walked down the street to a little market and a small grocery store for the essentials. You know orange juice, bread, eggs, beer, important items that civilized life requires. I was determined to cook my own meals and eat Chinese food, so I had to determine where everyone else shopped. Gordon, my roommate, another Canadian from Calgary came to my rescue and said, “No problem, you just need to have the Auchan Experience!”. He gave me directions and lent me his bike and I was off.
Now I have shopped in supermarkets all over the world, and seen some large stores, but this was without a doubt the biggest. It didn't look like much from the outside, and you couldn't see the actual store. You park on the ground floor and go up an escalator to the actual store. As you rise into the world of Auchan, your first sight is rows and rows or scooters for sale – I wondered where they all came from. Canadian Tire back home might have a few little motorcycles for sale, but here they have every possible size, colour and variety of Scooter (Or E-Bike I am told is the correct term). You have to walk a ways just to get into the store, but stepping inside you cannot help by be amazed at the size of this place. This being my first experience I walked right to one end to explore the whole thing. From all the way at one end you actually cannot see to the other end – it is too far away.
Ok, now, starting at one end they sell, computers, Televisions, washers, stoves, pots tents, plants , shoes, clothing, dog food, books, Cds & DVDs, bicycles, and . . . . . . oh, forget it , I think they sell everything, yes, there are the car parts, and the tools, and I still can't see the other end of the store. They don't have everything, and you can certainly find cheaper things on sale elsewhere, but in two months in China I can only think of one thing I couldn't get there, a roll of metal strapping to fix my bike, and it was available next door at the Chinese Home Depot B & Q (They even wear orange aprons).
Like Costco back home, this place is dangerous. You are always finding things you didn't realize you needed so badly. I found black cotton Chinese shoes for 10 RMB ($1.50), I found an electric kettle for 24 RMB ($6.00)I found some really nice journals – oops, I came here for groceries and I had to carry all this back on the bike; some of this stuff will have to wait.
When you actually get to the “grocery” section in Auchan, it is like entering a different world. Coming along the back of the store you come first to the meat department. There is an in-store butcher, so all the meat is fresh and packed in the store, but I had to go by looks, because there is no English on the packages. The first thing you notice is the variety of meat. They have way more “cuts than I was used to, and I quickly discovered that the Chinese eat the meat that us westerners throw away, and the lean cuts we favour back home are not popular. I could always get nice lean cuts of pork, beef or chicken, whereas the chicken necks, pig feet, beef intestines, or duck heads were usually pretty well picked over. Although there was always lots of choice on the shelves, the Chinese seem to prefer their meat fresher than fresh, and are willing to stand in long lines to get the butcher to cut something special for them. There was always a long line-up in front of the butcher, and walking by you could hear the customers yelling their orders at the cleaver wielding men behind the counter. They really do not waste anything, and it seems that the Chinese have found a tasty way to prepare any part of the animal. When I discovered the whole duck heads neatly packaged, I thought this must be purely a decorative item, but after questioning one of the teachers, I discovered that it is in fact a real treat – one however that I will pass on I think.
The vegetables are wonderful in China. They are always so fresh and tasty; so much better than the ones that have to be shipped from Florida, Mexico or California all the way to my city in Canada. The variety is amazing with whole aisles of peppers, mushrooms and greens. Now if I could only figure out what everything was. The peppers, potatoes, broccoli, and the tomatoes I recognize, but what on earth is that white thing, and who knew they could grow beans that long. Those carrots have got to be Genetically modified – I have never seen a carrot so big! There is a whole aisle full of what looks like herbs, but I can't see or smell anything I recognize. I quickly decided that I would try something new every trip, and have brought home lots of mystery vegetables to be introduced to my stir fry, Chinese soup, or curry. Most have been very welcome additions to my diet.
Then there was the black wood ear fungus. One of the teachers, Catherine, gave me a recipe for lotus root with black wood ear fungus. Now that has got to be the least appetizing sounding item I have heard in a long time, but I trusted Catherine, and wanted to try her recipe. I however, had no idea what Lotus root in it's raw form looked like, and black wood ear fungus is definitely not on any grocer's shelf back home. Now Catherine offered to buy it for me, and her mom kindly picked up the lotus root, but I wanted to do this on my own. Once I knew what the Lotus root looked like, I was able to find it at Auchan, and low-and-behold, there right beside it was a package of decidedly fungusy looking stuff that actually resembled black ears. No matter how disgusting it looked I bought it, and brought it home. I took the label off, took a photo of it and sent the photo to Catherine asking if I got the right stuff. Unfortunately she did not get back to me in time, so I took a chance and following her recipe, cooked it all up for supper. Not too bad actually, and she e-mailed me back (after we had eaten it) to confirm that I had indeed purchased the right thing. When I get home I wonder what Pete Luckett will say when I ask him for black wood ear fungus?
The seafood department is not even close to the meat department so it took me a while to discover it. There is some frozen seafood, and you can buy very expensive salmon fillets, but there the familiar ends. All other fish is sold whole, and most is sold live. The seafood department is a series of large tanks full of live fish. Each tank has a nice dip net attached and you simply choose your seafood, scoop it up in the net, and put it in a bag. Don't worry it will stop thrashing around by the time you get to the check out. You can also buy live turtles, eels and frogs – and I don't think they are for pets (That's at the other end of the store). Just don't choose that one swimming upside down. My dear father did his duty and took me fishing long enough to discover that I found it boring, and we never got to the “cleaning the fish”, lessons, so I'm afraid that seafood will remain out of my diet until I get back to Nova Scotia.
Back home I always keep eggs in the fridge, and here I find myself with time to prepare large breakfasts every morning, so I needed some eggs. In Halifax I have a choice of white, brown or outrageously expensive organic eggs, but here in China I have to choose between probably 30 different varieties and packaging all at different prices. I'm afraid I stuck with what I know, and brought some nice brown eggs home. The most popular choice for the Chinese was the Fresh eggs bought from large bins full of straw and bought in bulk by the bag. There was always an Auchan employee selling bulk eggs, and I never saw the lineup to get them less than 50 people. One day the line to get fresh eggs stretched half the length of the store and turned the corner into the wine and beer section.
It is always entertaining to just wander around Auchan looking at things. You can buy seaweed Soda Crackers, orange juice with sparkles in it, or Cookies made with Onions. The choice of Soy sauce is mind boggling, and the snack section is a constant source of wonder. How about Vanilla Olives, Broad Bean Cookies, or Fresh Cucumber Pringles? I have also discovered that I have become part of the Auchan experience as well. I am always catching the Chinese peering into my cart to see what I am buying. They don't even try to hide it. It is no sideways peek, this is an intent examination of the contents of my baskets. “Lets see what those foolish foreigners eat?” I think in most cases they are probably disappointed, because I have made a point of buying Chinese style food, and I pass most of the “Western” section quite happily. I can however imagine them laughing at my selection of meats, “Looks like the foreigner couldn't find the chicken feet, necks or wings, he picked up the cheap old chicken breast instead, must be on a limited budget.”
Just getting around this store is an experience. At first I just picked up a basket, because I only ever bought enough to comfortably carry home on the bike, but I quickly discovered that no matter how much you buy, a cart is essential, because carrying the groceries is only it's secondary purpose. The main reason to use a cart, is for personal protection against other carts, so of course you can figure out the other purpose. Without a cart, you are constantly being run into by someone who wants something where you are standing. If you are standing where someone wants to go, they simply try to move you with their cart. There is no “Excuse me?” or “Opps, sorry!”, the world of Auchan, is a dog-eat-dog world, and the most aggressive shopping cart gets the best buys. I quickly adopted to this technique, and I must admit, I've gotten pretty good at it. I think even the little old ladies who used to take advantage of the unknowing foreigner to push me out of their way are impressed with my acquired technique of edging my cart in at 45 degrees to wedge them out of the way to get those promotional broad beans or oranges.