I have to be quite honest here, grocery shopping in Shanghai is pretty great. I want for few things. It is China after all, where they manufacture and grow just about everything under the sun. That is not to say you may not miss some things. For example if you are a die hard fan of Trader Joe’s or Amy’s Enchiladas or the shrimp and avocado sushi rolls they make at the deli at Whole Foods, then you are gonna have to do without. But with a few adjustments you can find most of the things you need and want. Sure, sometimes you might pay through the nose for your must-have items (see my earlier post) and other times you might have to set aside some of your food safety and security concerns.
I generally shop at four supermarkets, all within a half mile radius of my apartment. The one I patronize the most is the City Shop supermarket located in the basement of my apartment complex. Located in one of the swankest addresses in town (voted several years running as one of the top serviced apartment complexes in the city), the prices are not going to be the most competitive, but I am all about paying a little extra for convenience. And being able to stop in on my walk home, or during lunch, or a quick visit before the nanny heads home (i.e. without my daughter) is worth the extra money to me. I will also go with my daughter. They have child-sized shopping carts so the kids can help out, which C generally loves to do. They also sell, right next to the front cash register, medium-sized jars filled with water, plants, and tiny fish that serve as mini aquariums or a bunch of cheap plastic kids toys with candy — either of these items will keep my daughter entertained while I shop. And when all else fails (i.e. C opts to roam free at the supermarket — though not in the fish tank aisle, which she is afraid of because sometimes the shrimp jump out of the tanks), I know my daughter is safe there as all the staff know her.
Once or twice a month we head across the street to the Olé supermarket. This place is so swank that they have an accent over the “e” in Ole. Reportedly some 70% of their items are imported and their places reflect that. If I buy a single can of Diet Coke at City Shop it costs me 2.5 RMB (US$ 0.36) but I can get what appears to be an identical can at Olé for 9 RMB (US$1.30) because it is imported from South Korea. Still their fruit section is dazzling. I may not want to spend 80-100 RMB (US$12 to $14.50) for a few pints of raspberries or some white cherries, but sometimes I like to look at them stacked up beautifully in the section and wonder about the people who do. There are times though that City Shop’s fruit section is sometimes wanting and a trip across the street will mean acquiring the strawberries or pomegranates I know are in season. Olé also has this super-delish Italian-imported vanilla gelato made with Madagascan vanilla bean that makes my heart leap. I do not often eat ice cream, but when I do, I forever want it to be this kind of creamy goodness. Olé also has better seasonal – i.e. Halloween and Christmas – selections when those times of year roll around. C sees heading to Olé as a real treat – she often asks at odd times, like 9 PM at night, to go to the “across the street supermarket” because they have carts in the shape of cars and sell miniature hot dogs baked in bread. Dreamy.
Then on the rare occasion I also shop at Pines, a mom-and-pop kind of enterprise that tends to have imported goodies you can find no where else. I have found Country Kitchen pancake syrup, Betty Crocker cake mix, and some Chef Boyardee. OK. I realize that some people might have just balked at calling these “goodies” but it is all a matter of perspective and upbringing. For me, these preservatives in a bottle/box/can remind me of my childhood and America. I do not buy them often, but sometimes I feel better knowing they are available if and when I want them. There is also a supermarket in the basement of the Westgate shopping center (梅龙镇广场 or Plum Dragon Town Square if you were to translate it directly), where the U.S. Consulate visa section is located. It is part of the Isetan Department Store and so has lots of Japanese imports. Fruits are often astronomically expensive but so perfectly beautiful that at some price points I cannot help but buy.
There are also tons of little family run stores, often for fruits and vegetables. Urumuqi North Street is one not too far away that has dozens of these along its length, including the famous “Avocado Lady.” If I happen to be walking back from the main Consulate building, located on the same street, I will pop in for some bargain priced locally-produced fruit. Some people make an effort to head out to wet markets to buy their produce. If you scroll up to paragraph two you will note that I shop very close to home. Some might say I am lazy but really I am just a time-strapped working single mom who chooses time-saving proximity to less time conscious bargain-hunting (!). Wet markets also tend to be places where one can buy “fresh” meat, sometimes so fresh it is still alive, and live seafood. C does not just avoid the seafood aisle of our City Shop due to spontaneously jumping shrimp, but because she also has a history of sudden, um, illness when she sees crabs, lobsters, and such. Not really my idea of fun.
There are also other grocery experiences for those who want something different. Hunter Gatherer is an organic, farm-to-table, restaurant/grocery or a “seed-to-table ecosystem that serves and celebrates real food” according to their website. In addition to store shopping you can also order online at one of numerous places like Kate & Kimi, Fields, and Epermarket. I used to do the online grocery shopping and delivery when I lived in Washington, DC as a childless hipster. (Okay, when I was childless because I do not think anyone would have ever called me a hipster) However, I was really slow to catch on in Shanghai. While I had colleagues who had ordered their first grocery delivery within a week of arrival it took me, oh, I don’t know, 18 months? I received an online invite to join in the grocery delivery revolution, and all I had to do was order my first order and I would receive a welcome basket of seasonal veggies for free. I ordered something like 250 RMB (US$36.20) of groceries to give it a go. Imagine my surprise when they were not only delivered on time but the box of free stuff was enormous!
Shopping in Shanghai is not always bliss. Although I prefer to head to one supermarket each one has special things that the others do not. One will have Japanese soy bean rice crackers. Another will have frozen raspberries. A third will have Tartare, the French cream cheese with fine herbs. Yet another will have Tostitos. Or at least they will some of the time. There is always the chance that a store that has a favorite import today will not have it tomorrow or next week or maybe ever again.
About six months into our time in Shanghai, C and I are on one of our trips visiting Olé when C spies a box of chocolate Lucky Charms. She has never had them before but declares suddenly she must have them. I am reluctant to spend US$12 on a box of cereal she might only eat two bites of, but I find myself buying it anyway. She loves it. I buy a second box. She wants to eat it for breakfast every day. I go to buy another box, they do not have anymore. Not that week, or the next, or months after that. I buy a couple of boxes while on Medevac and again on R&R and bring them back in our suitcases. Friends bring a few boxes when they visit. But I do not find it at my supermarkets again.
There was also the Great Cheese Shortage of 2015, followed by another Lesser Cheese Shortage of 2016. It was the first that prompted me to first consider writing a blog post about grocery shopping in Shanghai with this title. It was right around the National Day. In mid-September the once full shelves of cheese began to empty out. Little by little the good, imported cheese was gone leaving only “cheese” cheese — you know, the kind of cheese that has to be put into parentheses. I took the photo above of the limited cheese selection and another of a depleted imported processed meats section and a supermarket employee tried to stop me. Seriously? Yes, seriously. I was approached and told to stop taking pictures and she tried to swipe my phone. I guess the Great Cheese Shortage was supposed to be kept under wraps, not shared with the outside world. But now you know.
I cannot remember how long the cheese shortage lasted either year but they did not appear to be isolated incidents because the cheese selection diminished in all the shops I frequented. This past year I thought I might circumvent the shortage and order my cheese from Epermarket, only to find that they too reported that the items I wished for were currently out of stock. Yet eventually the stocks returned and appeared even more bountiful than before. Huge bags of Monterey Jack cut into cubes for the ridiculous price of US$20. I will leave you wondering if I bought them or not.
It has taken me far longer to get around to writing this particular post than I had anticipated. And here I am nearing my time in Shanghai. This puts things into perspective. I know how good we have had it here. I am ready to have some extended time back in the US during home leave and training to get my fill of all those food items I have missed and a good ole US of A prices, not high-import-taxes prices. But then we head to Malawi and I think about what might be in store (or not in store, get it?) for us there. I have heard about some food shortages that make my complaints here seem especially petty. I am really not sure what to expect, but I still hope they have cheese.