People travel for different reasons. Some are interested in history, others in art and museums. Some want to sample the food and wine, others drink in the natural beauty of the place. Still others are interested in the people they see on their travels. What are the lives of the locals like ? How different are they from ours? I belong to the last category. I am interested in food and history and museums, but my overriding interest is in trying to understand what life is like in the country we are visiting.
One of the ways I do this is to visit local supermarkets or food stores and see what the locals are buying and how much. No matter where we go, I always do this. Consequently, I have been to the a supermarket in Zurich, the Central Market in Kyoto( the most beautiful I’ve seen), the fish market in Pune (India) and markets in Tokyo, Beijing, Barcelona, Athens, Istanbul, Bury (U.K),Puerto Vallarta( Mexico), St. Lucia (W.I), Jamaica, and Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. All of them have been eye-openers.
No matter where we went, it was obvious that the price of food was higher than it is in America. Meat, in particular, is much more expensive and people in other countries buy it in far smaller quantities than we do. They also use every part of the animal, unlike here where most offal ( that’s ” variety meats” to you) is either discarded or converted into animal feed. On the other hand, people abroad enjoy a much broader variety of fresh vegetables though Central and Latin America may be different in this regard. The Dominican Republic is a relatively poor country and in Santo Domingo I noticed that the prepared foods were overwhelmingly made up of the lesser cuts of meat while the range of vegetables was limited. Two reasons for this : 1) Like non-vegetarians everywhere, Dominicans prefer meat over vegetables and 2) Because so much of the land in the D.R is given over to growing cash crops( like sugarcane), vegetables are comparatively scarce and expensive. I’ve noticed this preference for meat in Mexico and am told that it is also prevalent in Argentina and Brazil though, of course, the last two countries mentioned are large cattle producers and steak is the meat of choice there. A meat-loving friend of mine who visited Buenos Aires and Rio de Janiero told me that, towards the end of his trip, he was heartily sick of meat and longed for some fresh vegetables.
About the variety of fresh vegetables available abroad: To a visitor from the U.S, it was simply amazing. In the markets of Asia, I came upon drumsticks ( horseradish tree pods), amaranth, kailan( Chinese broccoli), celtuce ( a hybrid of celery and lettuce), breadfruit, jackfruit, ridge gourd ( turai), snake gourd, shiso leaves( perilla), a dozen types of mushrooms, kombu ( dried kelp), burdock and fresh wasabi to name only a few. And the prepared foods! Tofu in all its myriad forms and pickled or stewed vegetables in such profusion that you cannot believe it; you have to experience it. The most amazing variety of raw and prepared foods, vegetables and meats, was in the Central market in Kyoto. They were displayed and arranged so beautifully that they looked like jewels; I could happily have spent a whole day there instead of just a couple of hours. Mexico and Latin America had their own specialties including jicama, nopales (cactus paddles) and umpteen kinds of tubers and hot peppers. Even in the market at Bury I came across some vegetables that I’d not seen before.
In contrast, here in America many of us are content to stick to the same few vegetables and think of them mainly as a side dish to the main course of meat. Many years ago, at my New Jersey supermarket, the girl at the checkout counter was mystified by one of my purchases and had to ask what it was. It was a cauliflower and she had not seen it before! Imagine that !! Things are different now particularly in the metropolitan areas where the influx of immigrants has resulted in many different ethnic supermarkets and a more sophisticated palate. However, I wonder what it is like in middle America. Are there still people who do not know what a cauliflower looks like?
How much ( or how little) local people buy is a clue to their lives. In Tokyo, I noticed that prepared foods at the local konbini ( convenience store) contained a preponderance of fish, some vegetables and a lesser quantity of meat. This is a reflection of the cost , which was very high by American standards. I also saw that the office goers who were shopping for take-away lunches contented themselves with very modest portions. of course.It was because of the high prices but also a mark of their disciplined nature. I hardly saw an overweight Japanese, let alone an obese one.
Visiting food stores in foreign countries also affords me the chance to sample local specialties and I take full advantage of it. For instance, in Bury, I sampled black pudding. It was something had read about in a nursery rhyme in my childhood ( about the man who was granted three wishes and asked for a string black puddings; how his wife was so incensed that she wished for them to be attached to the end of his nose and how he had to use the last of his wishes to remove them). Unfortunately, I found the taste of the puddings and too strong ( the main ingredient is pig’s blood) and I could not eat it in spite of the accompanying hot mustard. On the other hand, I loved the baked goods; the steak and kidney pudding, the Cornish pasties, the jam tarts and cakes. My favorite was the Battenberg: pound cake layered with raspberry jam and encased in a coating of marzipan and composed in a distinctive checkerboard pattern of pink and yellow. I could write about the other foods I tried, like the croquet monsieur in Paris but it would make this already long post twice as long.
If you, like me, are interested in life in other countries there are two excellent books I highly recommend. Both are by the writer-photographer Peter Menzel. In A Material World ( 1994) , he had families around the world stack everything they owned ( furniture, appliances, furnishings etc) in front of their house and pose for a photograph next to their worldly goods. In a later book, Hungry Planet: What the World Eats( 2006) he had families with one week’s food supplies. Both books are highly interesting to adults and children alike and remind us of the abundance of America and how fortunate we are to be living here.