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Scaling the Great Wall
Shopping for a month at an Asian supermarket can open your eyes to wonderful foods, cause a lot of confusion, and yield some interesting discoveries about how we choose what to put on the table.
By Tyler Cowen
“Abstain from your routine, and your natural ability as an innovator flourishes,” says Cowen, an economist. Photograph by Scott Suchman.
Comments () | Published May 3, 2012

Most of us are familiar with the American supermarket--maybe too familiar. The Safeway or Wegmans or corner market supplies a lot of convenient food--and a lot of those aisles are full of things that are only a rough approximation of food--but that very convenience can make the local supermarket a rut. The deadening hand of routine takes over our shopping lives: We know what we want, where to find it, when to get it, and what to do with it. These habits can be the biggest obstacles to discovering new regions of the food universe.

But abstain from your routine for a week or so and your natural ability as an innovator flourishes. An innovating consumer has a profound effect on the marketplace and the food economy. After all, maybe the American supermarket, for all its conveniences, isn't actually the best way to sell--or buy--food. At the very least, maybe it's not the best way to do it all the time.

With that thought in mind, I conducted an experiment. For a month, I'd refrain from buying food from mainstream supermarkets and instead choose--exclusively--an ethnic grocery store, in this case a big Chinese/Asian market in Falls Church called Great Wall.

Full disclosure: During the experiment, I still traveled to other cities and ate in restaurants--supermarkets have never completely dominated my food life. In any case, for a month I'd go cold turkey on traditional American supermarkets, and for every day out of town I had to do an extra day shopping at the ethnic market.

The idea behind this experiment grew out of my economic approach: Food is a product of economic supply and demand, so try to figure out where the supplies are fresh, the suppliers are creative, and the demanders are informed.

When it comes to ethnic markets, most of the shoppers are well informed. They come from cultures where food preparation receives more attention than in the United States. They're also largely immigrants or children of immigrants. Either they hail from cultures where most food prices are lower than they are here or the immigrants have lower incomes themselves, or both.

It seemed natural to select what's probably the world's oldest and perhaps most sophisticated food culture, Chinese.

Great Wall Supermarket is in the Merrifield area of Falls Church, about a 20-minute drive from DC in a part of Fairfax County with plenty of Chinese immigrants. The Chinese-owned store, in a strip mall, has ten long aisles as well as some side spaces.

The most daunting task is finding something. At first, even though I'd been there many times and I'm relatively familiar with Chinese cuisine--by Western standards at least--it could take me 20 minutes to find just one or two items. It felt like walking into a labyrinth, even with my savvy 21-year-old stepdaughter helping out.

Many of the jars are labeled in Chinese characters, with the English small and hard to find. So if you're told "aisle eight, in the middle, on the right," it's a help but not a solution. You're still confronted with an array of hard-to-distinguish jars. Even if you know something about Chinese food, "bean sauce" comes in a number of colors and varieties, and the store has dozens of soy sauces. Once I moved beyond the highly visible items such as meats, I struggled to find what I wanted--at least at first.

The dried goods and candy were hardest to browse through. Not everything had an English label. Often I didn't know exactly what I was looking for, if only because the name of something in a book or cookbook didn't correspond exactly to the name on the package. Was ya cai the same as "pickle mustard vegetable" or "pickled mustard green"? I still don't know for sure, although I think so, and that's assuming I can find the English inscription at all.

What's more, when I entered those aisles, I sometimes had the feeling people were staring at me, thinking: What does he want here? I learned quickly how dependent I normally am on background cultural knowledge and simple rules of thumb.

I decided to consult a Chinese graduate student at George Mason University, where I teach. Rong Rong is studying for a PhD in economics and is from a region near Shanghai. She has a friendly manner and is possibly the sharpest student in her cohort. Rong Rong told me to try the double-mushroom soy sauce, which she claims tastes just like what her mother serves in China.

I asked Rong Rong if she had trouble finding items in Great Wall. The answer was no, although she did admit to being confused at Giant, despite almost five years living in the United States. She found Giant's cereal aisles the hardest to master, and even though her English is very good she can't read all of the labels nearly as fast as I can or recognize from a glance what an item is going to taste like.

Another obstacle in using Great Wall is asking for directions to sought-after items. By all appearances the staff works hard, and finding an employee isn't difficult. The problem is that virtually all of the workers are--oddly enough--Spanish-speaking, most likely from El Salvador, with varying abilities in English.

I speak Spanish, but this isn't always much help. I don't know some of the words for Chinese items in Spanish, but more commonly there isn't a good translation. Salsa dulce de los frijoles doesn't carry the same connotation as "sweet bean sauce" and requesting it in Spanish didn't get me where I wanted to go. Dulce y agrio does map directly into "sweet and sour," but that simple translation is the exception. It's not easy to find out the Spanish word for pickled fresh bamboo shoots.

In most cases, the Latino staff knows neither the English nor the Chinese words for what's on their shelves. Entering the store is like being robbed of part of one's linguistic facilities. Another Chinese graduate economics student, Siyu Wang, noted that the prevalence of Spanish speakers among the workers was one of her biggest surprises when she first visited Great Wall.

There are some Chinese staff, including most of the cashiers, but their English is limited. One strategy that does work, when it can be applied, is to bring a Chinese cookbook containing the characters for the desired items. Show the relevant characters to someone who works in the store. If you can find a Chinese employee, he or she will lead you directly and enthusiastically to the right place.

Mostly, I learned where things were by walking down all of the plausible aisles and then looking in places that seemed logical. Over time, that worked better as I got to know the market.

With each visit, I increasingly divided the store into "parts I use" and "parts I don't use." Those I used included the produce, the meats and fish and tofu, and the spices and sauces, plus the frozen goods, the dumplings, and the different noodles, dried and fresh. I didn't do much with the American or Latino goods, the bags of dried fish, the cans of condensed milk, the Asian sweets, or the cookware.

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  • kenny carpenter

    Hey Professor, I lived in Beijing for a summer and your article reminded me a lot of the markets there. I too, enjoyed all the greens. I am surprised you did not mention "Hot Pot" as part of your cooking. Although it is a bit of work, the hot pot or Chinese fondue is a great way to utilize all those different greens, mushrooms and sauces.
    Another thing less prevelant in chinese markets is bread, I really missed crusty bread and cheese while living there. "steamed pork buns are, however, one of my favorite breads"
    Wal-Mart in China had all of the live seafood you spoke of along with big pools of live turtles. I often cook bamboo steamed fish on a bed of different greens, a drizzle of chili sauce and steamed rice is quite a healthy tasty meal. One theory on the asian and latin markets is by shopping daily, even for each meal, acknowledges that these cultures do not have the same types of suburban sprawl of the USA or the abundance of home refrigeration devices.

  • sd goh

    Incidentally, I just finished almost half a kilo of juicy rambutans (it's the season in Malaysia at the moment) and afterwards read your article and spotted the mention of this exotica besides durians (more on that later). During the time of British rule here, the expats used to call this 'hirsute' fruit, "hairy balls", perhaps because of their shape which looks a bit like the male gonads, albeit giant sized ones. Their choice of this simile is hardly surprising, in keeping with the prurience which afflicted the Anglo-Saxons of the Victorian era when 'brittannia rules the waves." ! Strange that you omitted to mention the "stink" which the durian emits and that puts off many a person who has never encountered I before. This thorny fruit is said to "stink like hell but taste like heaven" and some grades command quite a hefty price here in Malaysia. Next time you shop at the Great Wall, do get some 'lap cheong' (chinese sausages which most shops, if not all, in any Chinatown sell), a claypot (if they also sell this), dried mushrooms, chicken, sesame oil and make yourself claypot chicken rice. Bon appetit, monsieur.

  • Prof. G. Leonard

    Bravo! If you wish to emulate Prof. Cowen, the two new foods my non-asian students enjoy most have been Jian Dofu and Chinese duck sausage. Jian Dofu sounds awful but if you're a chili lover, you'll love it: fermented bean curd stirred with chili. Beijingese put a touch of this spicy stuff on anything to bring it to life, or spread it on crackers as a dip. (Do not attempt Cho Dofu, literally Stinking Bean Curd. Too advanced.) There are hundreds of kinds of fresh, fatty duck sausage-- very sweet like Italian sausage. Don't eat it raw, of course. Add a few slices on top of a pizza, like pepperoni, bake for twenty minutes, and it leaks wonderful spices and a hint of sweetness onto your pizza. My students have liked both. You probably already know mochi, but if not, that's dessert. Enjoy! -- from Prof G Leonard, San Francisco State University.

  • Matthew W

    For the pork belly: no need to slice, just slow-roast the whole joint of it, with some moisture around it the seasonings you mention. 2 or 3 hours on low heat and it'll come apart effortlessly and oh so tender because of all the fat. Best thing ever.

  • DJ

    To add to this, if you want to slice, refigerate overnight in saran wrap after roasting. It will slice easily and you can reheat like bacon or add to any chinese sauce for cooking.

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