No matter where I go in the world, I make a point of visiting the grocery store. I can spend hours perusing the shelves, identifying exotic ingredients and local delicacies, imagining what I could prepare with them.
Sometimes my grocery store tourism is justified by the desire to please a loved one — like the time I spent an entire half day touring every grocery store and roadside stall in Accra, searching for attiéké and Jumbo cubes, or the time I meticulously searched a grocery store in Dakar for just the right millet to make degué with, even enlisting the support of a grandmother I found in the aisles. Other times, I justify my grocery habit by the desire to have a few snacks and drinks on hand for the kids.
The truth is, I look forward to these supermarket rambles. Lately, though, I’ve been asking myself why I have this strange habit. What is it about groceries that tugs at me, and compels me to search out the store and spend time there? Is it my love of food? My passion for cooking? Or, is there something more I get out of these visits?
Some of my favorite souvenirs have been groceries. I pull them out of the cupboard (occasionally, years later) and, as I savor a favorite bottle of pepper sauce or a cup of fragrant tea, it inevitably evokes poignant memories of the places I’ve been, the things I’ve seen, and the people I’ve met along the way.
You can tell a lot about a country by its grocery stores. In more developed countries, the stores are more sophisticated, selling bottled sauces and packaged foods, while in less-developed countries or remote areas, you find little beyond an assortment of dry goods and, perhaps, some cans of soda.
You also learn a lot about local eating habits in a supermarket. In South Asia, for instance, grocers sell a rainbow-colored array of legumes in every imaginable size and shape, and there is inevitably an isle filled with large bags of fragrant spices and endless boxes of spice mixes. East Asian grocers, on the other hand, carry a wide variety of soy products — from sauces and pastes to tofu and spring roll wrappers. They also feature a seemingly endless varieties of pickles.
I’m still not altogether sure why I’m so fascinated by grocery stores. One thing I am certain of, though, is that I’m not about to stop touring them. If you ever need to find me in a foreign city, try an aisle in the local supermarket. You’re likely to find me there, hunched down, checking out my latest grocery treasure.
Do any of you have a strange travel habit or obsession? If so, please share it in the comment section, below.