Anytime I go to a new city, I find a supermarket to scope out. Supermarkets reveal the soul of a city: what its people eat, how they shop, how they interact with their cashiers. Is the atmosphere quiet or bustling? Is everything plastic wrapped and perfectly arranged, like a museum of food, or is the food exposed to the open air, an interactive display you can touch, smell, and sense? Do people haggle or does everything have a set price? Do people talk to their fellow shoppers, or is the air terse? The supermarket is a microcosm of the life of a place, a primer on the rhythms of life in an area. And best of all, there’s food there.
The supermarket in China is always bustling. People yell questions to cashiers, haggle, share opinions on the freshness of produce. Young bachelors share aisles with aunties and families with young mothers. And the store is itself busy. Soy sauce in in every shade of brown commands shelf upon shelf, finally ceding to dried mushrooms and fish and who knows what else, vacuum sealed and crammed in aisles. Finally, the back of the store, where the real excitement happens. Live fish and turtles in tanks, pigs’ feet in the open air, and fresh tofu by the block compete for attention. The scent of spices wrestles with fish still in purgatory and fresh-cut fruit, sending your nose a million places. The Chinese supermarket, like the land it feeds, is loudly and unapologetically alive.
You may be excited at the prospect of all the goods to be had at the Chinese market, or you may want to hightail it to the nearest foreign supermarket or Walmart (beware though: though China does have Walmarts, they look precious little like the sterile beige-tiled monoliths you might come across in, say, Arkansas. For example, last time I checked you couldn’t buy a whole live cuttlefish at a Walmart in Little Rock). I highly suggest that even the most faint of heart take a gander at a Chinese supermarket, though. It’s not only an enriching experience, it might also be home to your new favorite ingredients.
I’ve compiled a few of my favorite goods to buy at Chinese supermarkets here, so you can navigate the aisles with a little more confidence. Don’t be afraid to try something new that looks interesting too, though. Even if it doesn’t taste good, you’ll be only the wiser for your experience.
1. Dried wood ear mushrooms (mu’er / 木耳)
I’d never bought any dried foods before I came to China, but it didn’t take me long to figure out how easy and convenient it is to cook with dried vegetables. You can soak dried wood ear mushrooms for as little as 30 minutes, and then squeeze the excess water out and they’re ready to use! I like to combine them with tofu strips and cucumbers for a delicious salad, but you can also put them on noodles or enjoy them plain with some vinegar as a snack!
2. Lao Gan Ma (Old Godmother, or 老干妈)
This sauce is seriously magic. I put it on everything: eggs, tofu, meat, noodles, rice, salad, you name it. The sauce is a chili oil with little flakes of chili and beans in it. Oily, subtly spicy, and fragrant, it gives any food the punch it needs. I pile it on, but even my mother, who hates spicy foods, has started dabbing it on everything from veggies to omelets. This sauce will, with no exaggeration, change your life. Plus, all your Chinese friends will think you’re cool when they see it in your cupboard.
3. Baijiu (白酒)
Yes, it’s a liquor that’s either disgusting or a refined taste, depending on who you ask. But it’s also the secret to cooking meat through at lightning speed. My Chinese friend showed me how to pour baijiu into a wok full of strips of pork or beef to create a flame and cook perfectly tender, done, and flavorful meat in seconds. Top your meat with some Lao Gan Ma and some sliced green onions and you’ve got yourself a delicious meal.
4. Goji berries
In America they’re super hip and cost a million dollars, but in China they’re a staple. You can usually find goji berries dried, just like wood ear mushrooms. They taste delicious in sweet porridges, soups, teas, and desserts. And if you believe the hype, they’re also super healthy. They’re credited with everything from aiding weight loss to lengthening your life. Don’t miss out on the chance to buy a delicious and healthy berry at a super reasonable price while you’re in China.
These are just a few of the items to be found at the Chinese supermarket. The aisles abound with confounding, delicious, and downright strange items.