If you haven’t had the opportunity to travel abroad, you may have wondered what a grocery store excursion is like in other countries. Of course, the experience varies depending on the country you choose to visit. And while quick adventures in a new land do not usually allow for grocery shopping and meal prep, if you ever have the opportunity to immerse yourself in a new country for weeks on end where you can adopt the local shopping and cooking habits—carpe diem. Don’t even think about passing it up. The language of food is broad and fascinating—and even buying it in a foreign country will give you a new appreciation for its beauty and communal qualities.
On my recent Italian adventure, I discovered that Italians (ref: Malatesta neighborhood in Rome) often go to a number of specialty stores for specific food items. As opposed to the typical American who frequents the same supermarket for a one-stop-shop, buying everything from bread to fruit to meat, the Italians have a different way of doing things.
My local source told me that many shoppers form allegiances with certain store owners, and these ties run generations deep. This means that if Lorenzo’s mammina gets her produce from a stand that is three blocks away, Lorenzo (as a self-sufficient adult) is going to get his produce from said stand even if there is a bountiful produce stand right below his apartment. While this may seem counterintuitive to a shopper seeking convenience alone, let’s look at it from the Italian perspective. Why would they do this? Clearly, it’s not just a business transaction. It’s the comfort of knowing that my cousin’s produce guy “Mimo” will always ask what she’s making for dinner and then throw in whatever vegetable or fruit will best complement the dish. And down the street, my cousin’s butcher knows which cuts of meat each family member prefers and will start cutting the selections when he sees her walk through the door.
Though they do have supermarkets (Conad, Carrefour), they are typically for things not easily found in specialty stores—items like store-bought cookies, chips, and juice.
You won’t find a huge section dedicated to prepared foods (think Whole Foods prepared food section) in an Italian supermarket. There may be some premade dishes behind the counter, but they are more directed to at home eating rather than on-the-go consumption.
Another thing I learned is that Italians do not shop for the week, but for the day. Whereas in the states, we grab a cart and fill it with enough groceries to last a week or two, Italians take their small market basket and fill it with the fresh ingredients needed for that day’s meals. Anecdote: While studying abroad in Florence, I would go to the local Conad and pick up a week (ish) worth of food as I normally would at home. The checkout lady looked at all my food, then looked at me and said, “ Oh, wow, you really eat a lot, don’t you?” And that was my first sign I might be doing something wrong.
Undoubtedly, there are multiple ways to accomplish any given task. Most humans on our planet today purchase food to cook for themselves or their families and friends. And one way isn’t necessarily more right than another, although some ways may be more effective and sustainable than others. And I think that’s the point. Travel gives you new ways to look at things, perhaps challenging habits that need to be changed. Keep your eyes and mind open. Be willing to embrace something new—we all need to continue growing and learning from each other.
What about you?
Have you ever shopped for food somewhere (maybe just a different region of the same country you live in) that made you question your typical way of doing things?