Sunday, June 21, 2015

The oddly familiar: adventures at a Hong Kong grocery store

The results of a successful grocery store shop

Before I left for Hong Kong, I wrote about the many uncertainties surrounding my tenure here, and in the first few weeks I've answered several of those questions. English is everywhere; 98% of toilets are Western style; and although I drink a double-shot espresso every morning in the office, any local restaurant invariably goes the traditional tea route. But until recently the grocery store question remained unsolved. 

I've been staying this month in an apartment in Jordan, a neighborhood in Kowloon (the peninsula part of the city) famous for Korean food, and there's a grocery store belonging to the "International" chain just downstairs. Here's what I found when I went for my first proper shop, based on what I'd normally try to get at home:

Yogurt/butter/milk — Long-time readers of this blog will remember the remarkably terrible time I had with dairy products on the mainland in 2006, specifically a delicious Oreo milkshake in Lijiang that left me with the most horrifying food poisoning that I hope I'll ever encounter. Since then, I've always been suspicious of Chinese dairy, but so far in Hong Kong I've had no problems. Dairy is easy to find but exceptionally expensive here. Still, I've been able to have yogurt for breakfast, milk in my coffee, and cheese in my eggs with no problem.

Peanut butter — I was surprised at how easy it was to find the stuff here. I expected it to be rare and expensive, but it's neither. I've taken to making elementary-school style PB&Js to bring to work on my intern salary...

Deli meats — ... mostly because my standbys, salad and sandwiches, are impossible, given health concerns for westerners consuming raw veggies and the utter absence of deli meat anywhere. See you in the fall, turkey-on-wheat.

Bread — But bread hasn't been as much of a problem as I anticipated. In 2006 Kunming I remember buying "French bread," strangely spongy and sweet hunks of shrink wrapped sort-of-kind-of-baguette, to go with my hard-won peanut butter. Here, there's a whole bread section. It may not be Berkeley Bowl, but it's something.

Veggies — I'm determined to keep them in my diet, something I struggled with in Spain. That means lots of stir fries. So far, I've found no carrots or cucumbers. Red peppers are priced sky-high. So I've been leaning heavily on pea pods and broccoli, plus local celebrities bok choy and baby corn. Let me tell you, non-canned baby corn is a game changer: it's tender, sweet, and flavorful. And bok choy in a breakfast scramble isn't half bad!

Dumplings — As you might imagine, the frozen dumpling section of the grocery store is considerably expanded. I haven't tried frying up the selection I bought, but it's awfully promising. If it were up to me, I'd eat dumplings all day every day, so expect to hear more about this soon.

Breakfast — As I said, I've been favoring yogurt or been seduced by the red bean or barbecued pork bins sold on every corner along my commute. But the breakfast selection at International is still quite good. All sorts of cereals, muesli, oatmeal. The cream of wheat section is a bit of a departure, though. Cream of wheat is quite similar to traditional Cantonese congee, and the flavors, which start from shrimp and get more odd-sounding to my western ear, are proof of cross-cultural marketing success.

Dessert — I'm a long way from home, but at the same time... the dessert aisle of International is filled with Dreyer's products, straight from good-ol' Oakland. Having spent so much of my year this year reporting a story about Dreyer's (news of that forthcoming!), it feels like a little homecoming to see my hometown boys in the freezer and be reminded of how far we have both come.

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