This little expat went to market…
I’ve talked about grocery shopping in malls before, here and here. Recently a friend from home commented that she liked hearing about the grocery store and that she finds foreign grocery stores really interesting. I started thinking about it and realized we have had some grocery store adventures, probably enough to write about! Because we don’t have a lot of space at the hotel, we don’t keep a lot of food on hand and I find myself at the grocery store a few times a week. I am definitely becoming very familiar with the ins and outs of grocery shopping!
We have 3 stores that are within reasonable walking distance. One of them is at Pavillion, the mall that is a little farther away. Mercado, the store there, feels bigger and is set up like most grocery stores I have ever seen in the U.S. The other two stores are in the mall at the Petronas Towers, which is only about 2 blocks from our hotel. I have a definite preference for one store, Isetan, over the other one, Cold Storage. I spent some time at Cold Storage earlier this week to see why I didn’t like it. I don’t really have an answer- they sell similar products at comparable prices- I just like Isetan better. Both of these stores feel different than U.S. stores to me, but I can’t totally identify exactly why that is. Part of it is that the aisles aren’t laid out in neat rows, it’s more like blocks of aisles. The space between the racks in the aisles is very narrow, too. Isetan is also a department store. It feels about comparable in price/quality to JC Penney- not a high end store, but it’s not a really cheap discount store either. Two weeks ago, I went into the women’s department, bought a sun hat, and then went downstairs to go grocery shopping. So not only do I grocery shop in a mall, I grocery shop in a department store. Weird.
We were prepared to be flexible about what we would find at the grocery store. Isetan has a wide variety of food, but it is true that they don’t have many Western products. The first time we went grocery shopping, the first day we were here, it was a little overwhelming to stand in an aisle and not really recognize any of the products. But it has gotten easier. We have never been tied to a specific brand of anything, and we don’t eat a ton of processed food either, so this hasn’t been an issue for us personally. If I want crackers, for example, I might not be able to find Wheat Thins or Triscuits but I can definitely find crackers in general. (I like Jacob’s brand. They have the buttery taste of Ritz but the delicacy of a water cracker, if that makes any sense.) We can also buy pork products and alcohol at the stores here, which is something we were concerned about.
Because Isetan is in the tourist mall, they cater to a wide variety of nationalities. They have a Korean grocery section and a Japanese grocery section where I can’t read any of the labels and have to guess what the sesame oil looks like. Still haven’t identified anything that I think might be sesame oil. They have Australian groceries, which is where the quinoa is, for future reference. Actually, it seems like they get a lot of products from Australia and New Zealand. We bought Australian beef last week, and I bought honey from New Zealand a few days ago. They have a cafe so you can eat there and they sell prepared food to go at a very reasonable price. In general, the prices are fairly inexpensive. Prices for meat of any kind seems about on par with what I was paying in Texas, but produce prices are really cheap. I bought a bag of about 10 large carrots for the equivalent of $1 USD. Since the bulk of our grocery budget has always been produce, this is great!
“The rules” of grocery shopping are a little different here. By “the rules,” I mean the little things that you just know how to do because it is ingrained in the culture of grocery shopping and it wouldn’t occur to you to do something else. I bought pork the other day and took it to the register with the rest of my items, like I did with beef the week before and like I would in the U.S. Apparently, one has to pay for non-halal items at a separate counter. Oops. Another rule I have struggled with is buying produce. A lot of the produce comes pre-packaged with a bar code on it somewhere. That isn’t so tricky to buy. If you choose to select your own produce though, and put it in one of those flimsy plastic bags yourself, you have to take it to a weighing station to get a sticker with a bar code on it. Then the cashiers just scan the bar code, rather than weighing the item and keying in the secret code to get the price. I actually really like this idea, my favorite Texas grocery store does this, it speeds up the check out time immensely. But it helps if you know the rules about it. The first time I selected one dragon fruit and tried to pay at the register, I learned I needed to use the weighing station. There were several people in line behind me. Of course there were. Fortunately, the employees are used to having people not understand “the rules” and have customer service folks willing to help out. I’m sure I have annoyed some of the other customers behind me with my transgressions, but the employees are always kind and helpful.