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.

This article was originally published in the May 2012 edition of Washingtonian

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.

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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