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Scaling the Great Wall
Comments () | Published May 3, 2012

The store takes less care than an American supermarket to put the most important items at eye level. There are also fewer highly visible corner displays and promotions, and the overall organization is more cluttered.

Then there's getting your cart down the aisle. The main aisles fit two carts side by side, barely. It's hard to get down the aisles, and that discourages browsing. My initial tendency was to search the empty aisles, if only because I knew I could get down them without much delay. This obviously isn't the best strategy, and it led me to spend too much time looking at the highly durable items, which are purchased less frequently by other customers. Overall, I felt far less mobile than in an American supermarket. I started going later at night and avoiding the weekends to circumvent these problems.

Tyler Cowen's Favorites
at Great Wall

Baby bok choy
Great steamed with dumplings. Picking out greens randomly (how I found this) has never steered me wrong.

Cooked hanging ducks
In the back, left-hand corner of the store. The butcher sells uncooked whole ducks as well.

Young garlic shoots
In the produce section. Cut off and wash the tips, then toss them into a stir-fry for a fantastic, fresh taste.

Chili oil
Smear it on steamed dumplings or almost anything. Aisles six and eight have the oils, sauces, and condiments.

Frozen dim sum
There's an entire aisle of it, to the left of produce. Start with the pork dumplings and steam them.

Green bell peppers
Entirely ordinary but cheaper than what you're used to, with no loss of quality.

Fresh sardines
Before broiling, brush with soy sauce, fresh ginger, and Chinese wine or other combinations.

Pork-floss cake
Think of a dim sum cake with dried pork in a cotton-candy-like role. Tastier than it sounds. In the on-site restaurant.

It's common to see a Great Wall customer spending a solid minute or two inspecting the quality of a pineapple, thereby blocking that portion of the aisle. The customers who seek green peas go through the bin pea by pea. One woman became entranced picking out the best garlic chives, and a man asked for sales help in selecting the best clams--by what standard he judged them I'm not sure. No one was much enamored of the scooping technique for filling a plastic bag.

So much for shopping. What about the contents of Great Wall?

The most striking difference, other than having lots of Chinese food, is how much of the store is devoted to greens. Once you push your cart through the door, those are the first things you see, and lots of them. They're fresh and cheap, and there's a more attractive selection than in any other area supermarket. The greens are the store's signature, and once you've tried them you know you'll always have reason to come back. Even the other local Chinese supermarkets don't compare. Great Wall deals with special farms in New Jersey, New Mexico, and Texas to keep the supply flowing.

The greens are also the store's "loss leader"--what brings in customers, who go on to buy higher-margin items. In an American grocery store, the loss leaders are likely to be staples such as milk or whichever sale items are advertised in the circular or on the Internet.

The greens at Great Wall include Chinese garlic chives, sweet-potato vines, baby Chinese broccoli, chrysanthemum greens, snow peas, green beans, baby red amaranth, yam tips, white shen choy tips, baby yo choy tips, and many others. Where else can you get six or more varieties of bok choy?

Most of the greens are in large piles, look very fresh, and are attended to frequently by staff . My dominant impression of the store is of seeing rows of endless greens, broadly similar in appearance, and not being sure which to buy. But they all turned out to be tasty and easy to cook, if only by steaming.

You also can find cabbage, broccoli, spinach, green peppers, kohlrabi, leeks, cauliflower, and squash, among other vegetables, so you don't have to give up American favorites. The quality of these items is also above average, and the prices are much lower.

The greens section is also the busiest part of the store. Often mainstream supermarkets put the most commonly bought items in corners or on the back wall (think dairy), to force long walks and thus to stimulate impulse purchases along the way. Great Wall puts the greens up front. Everyone comes in and stops to look around at them. The traffic jam starts right away.

Once I started shopping at Great Wall, I began to eat more greens, and to enjoy them more. I never had to tell myself they would ward off cancer, make the earth a better place, help me lose weight, or ease animal cruelty. I wanted to eat them, and the purchases felt virtually free of charge, given the low prices. I could try any new and unknown green without investing much money.

There wasn't much of a learning curve--I made this shift by my second or third visit of the experiment. If nothing else, I would steam some greens whenever I was making dumplings. Each time I visited, the main question was which green I'd try next and whether I could remember the ones I'd already sampled (often I couldn't). Each of these leaps into the dark was delicious; that I wasn't once disappointed is remarkable.

It was this kind of lopsided reward that got me thinking about the need for a new kind of food revolution and how it can be accomplished.

The nearby fruits were also good, although they can't compare to the greens. Great Wall has better-than-average grapes, standard American fruits at lower prices, and a touch of exotica, such as durian and rambutan when available.

The second notable section of Great Wall is the seafood, which has a far more extensive choice than would an American supermarket. One day I counted 51 bins for distinct seafood items, including crabs, clams, octopus, mussels, and fish. The seafood section is crammed to accommodate this variety, with fish tanks running both below the main counter and on the wall behind the workers.

Just about all of the space is used to store and present creatures living and dead. The impression is one of a cornucopia of items that are too bony, with too many scales, or too reeking of the sea to satisfy most American appetites.

I asked Rong Rong about the fish, and she expressed some disappointment, at least compared with China. She's used to live fish in tanks, and she didn't always find the displayed dead fish tasty when she cooked them.

At Great Wall, many of the fish need to be scaled. There are some filets, but most of the seafood is whole--bones, eyes, and all. I often prefer whole fish, especially if it's accompanied by a good sauce, but I know I'm the exception to the rule in this country.

It's a splendid section for constructing a seafood stock, but I never got the hang of how to convert the dozens of choices into easy-to-make, easy-to-eat meals. Bringing home a bunch of small whole mackerel made me long for the good canned product at Whole Foods. Eating a steamed small mackerel with chopsticks isn't much fun for me. I like the taste--it just feels like too much work.

Most of the shrimp are in their shells. The octopus and squid and mussels all look as if they were just pulled out of the ocean--tentacles and everything. Sometimes not-yet-dead fish have been pulled from the tank and flop around on the ice, but no one seems to notice.

The seafood section emits a strong smell. The scent serves as advertising to Chinese customers, but it puts off many non-Chinese patrons. My wife and stepdaughter object to this smell--one reason they don't like to accompany me to Great Wall. At first they'll cite pragmatic reasons why we shouldn't go, but if I continue the debate, sooner or later they come back to the smell.

In the online reviews at Yelp, the smell of the fish and meats comes in for repeated criticism from reviewers who, judging by the photos, appear to be non-Chinese. Personally, the smell never bothered me--I even found it a convenient navigational aid.

Great Wall was recently charged by authorities with "selling wildlife," which is illegal in Virginia. Store managers maintain that the bullfrogs, crayfish, swamp eels, and other items the store sells are farm-raised and should be exempt from the prohibition. If the legal questions aren't resolved in the store's favor, some of its vaunted diversity in seafood may be on the way out.

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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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Posted at 02:15 PM/ET, 05/03/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles