Food shopping is a treasure hunt

In Canada, we often take for granted just how convenient life is. Large grocery stores with just about anything you can imagine are generally found in most neighbourhoods. More urban centres have some sort of shopping area where you can find independent shops so you can wander from vendor to vendor in a logical manner and pick up what you might need to make a meal. And most of these places have the holy grail – consistency. Not so in Penang.

There are a couple of grocery stores here that seem to adhere to a more Western aesthetic, stocking Waitrose (a UK based brand) products as well as Australian and limited America brands.  But truly – that is an illusion.

Consistency of product stock and delivery is completely hit and miss.  A favourite yoghurt brand may be there one week and not there for three weeks after.  In addition, items are often stocked in the most bizarre areas of the store – with cough lozenges in the candy aisle but not anywhere near the cold medication.

One feels these little thrills of excitement when something you happen to love or use suddenly appears on a shelf.  And as you experience the highs and lows of product availability – a weird kind of insanity sets in.  Hoarding.

Recently I saw for the first time Mrs. Ball’s Chutney hidden on the lowest shelf in the condiment section (they got that one right).  My hand quivered as I reached out to grab a bottle.  Then my brain kicked in.  What if this is never here again?  What is the expiry date?  Maybe I ought to get a couple more – because well – it may not be here again!  So I bought three bottles.  I was quite chuffed with myself when the following week that same shelf was empty.  Good move I thought – I have outsmarted the grocery store pirates who stock this item.  Then the following week – the shelf was restocked and has been so for the past 5 months.

I am heartened however, as a small community of us support one another as we see products come in we know others want.  Text messages go out “Bulla yoghurt in stock”, with immediate replies of “Get me two – I’ll pay you back!”

The only way I have found that I can cope with this is by following a few simple procedures:

  • Never go grocery shopping with your partner – you don’t want a full on domestic in the middle of a grocery store.  Trust me on this.
  • Wander, scan and search for different or new products.  Read labels – google translate can sometimes provide instant hilarity on product names and wonky translations are worth the giggles.
  • Try to find something new to try every week (seaweed crackers called Wanna Wanna have become a big hit).
  • Randomly talk to strangers in shops to find out what they are buying and what they use the item for – though I still can’t get my head around dried squid jerky as a delicious snack food.
  • Get to know the shop keepers.  My fish lady texts me with “salmon now come” and I can reserve some and pick up that day.  Given the aforementioned hoarding – this is a classic defence move to ensure you get what you need.
  • Plan dinner parties with at least three menus and be prepared to switch things up – because well – stock may be there or not!
  • Map the shops in your head so if you are in the area you can pick things up.  Conveniently our “nut lady” is located near the best pharmacy in town…and Baskin & Robbins.
  • Reward yourself with ice cream!  Food shopping is arduous work that may take all day – there needs to be an up side.
  • Be in the treasure hunt mindset.  Thrill in the victory of finding just what you need with a happy dance and don’t let the inability to find quinoa at three stores deter you from the ongoing hunt for it.
  • Live for the Happy Dance in grocery aisles!
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