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The Return of the Chickens

25 Jul

About three months ago, all residents of Shanghai and east China turned totally psychotic because of the resurgence of the avian flu and its mutation from H5N1 to H7N9. Four of our five friends coming to China were equally worried about the outbreak of the virus and regularly updated us about the number of dead in Shanghai. While we were vaguely following the news, we were not that concerned. As Shanghai residents we were not short of a food or health related scandal. In fact, at this specific time, we had:

  • The resurgence of the avian flu,
  • Tens of thousands of dead pigs in the Huangpu River (Shanghai’s main river). We never got to the bottom of this story,
  • Who knows how many mysteriously dead fish in the Huangpu as well,
  • People had received text messages about rotten beef meat from Suzhou.

And, to make it exhaustive, we should include the permanent air pollution we live in, our friendly neighbour Kim Jong Un then playing about with his nuclear arsenal and threatening to use it and the contamination of the Nongfu Spring water (apparently the most widely bought bottled water in China) with lead. Nevertheless we were trying to re-assure our friends by telling them that you had to be in contact with live poultry to have any chance to get the virus, that even if you ate an infected chicken it would be ok because the virus is killed when you cook the meat above 70 degrees Celsius…

In the meantime, I was secretly planning to avoid taking them on any road where I knew live poultry was sold (Chinese like to buy their poultry and fish live and have it slaughtered on the spot). However, within a week or so, we noticed important changes in our immediate environment. All the loose and caged chickens on the street suddenly vanished. It was as if the whole species became extinct overnight. On our street, the lady who sells vegetables and chickens didn’t have any. My Chinese teacher told me it was increasingly difficult to buy chicken meat anywhere. Where I work in Jiashan Market, we can usually see and hear the poultry live and then be killed at the daily wet market. I arrived one morning at the same time as about 30 policemen, coming to check whether there were any live chickens still being sold. Although I don’t usually tend to panic too much about these things, I have to admit I was reassured to see that there was a certain level of control as I still didn’t want to spend several hours about 10 meters from any live poultry.

April 2013 - Jiashan Market 2

Jiashan Market, some time in April 2013

Jiashan Market, that same day

Jiashan Market, that same day

Our friends’ trip went well, although we did come close to a living chicken somewhere in the countryside near Yangshuo in the south of China, but no one got sick. By now, the whole matter seems to have disappeared from public concerns as well as from local and international media. People consume chicken again and in fact, they are back at Jiashan Market, as if they had never been away, tucked in their usual corner and being slaughtered the good old-fashioned way. And as per all things food and health related, we will never get to the bottom of that story either.

Two days ago also in Jiashan Market

Two days ago also in Jiashan Market

The Avocado Lady

30 Mar

In more than one post I have referred to the Avocado Lady. Far from being an elusive character, she is nothing short of a celebrity for the foreigners’ community of Shanghai who regularly go fill up their fridge and pantry at her very unassuming shop in the former French Concession. There you can find all sorts of Western food products as well as fabulous vegetables at really reasonable prices. I think she sometimes has more on offer than expat supermarkets. I never went there to shop and not found what I was looking for! Polenta, couscous, fresh basil, fresh mint, fresh rosemary, parmeggiano, parsnips, San Pelegrino, very good dried fruits, red and green lentils and other pulses, tehini, De Cecco pasta, etc.

The shop is held by two Chinese ladies, but the one with short hair is the one in charge. Just Google: Avocado Lady Shanghai and you’ll see what she looks like. She speaks English or at least knows the English name of all her products and so you can ask her for whatever you want and she’ll find it somewhere in her tiny shop. She’s very friendly and will never hesitate to round down what you owe her which, amongst other things, makes her a great trader. I was told three years or so ago, her shop was half its current size but due to her success and being able to win the loyalty of many foreigners, she’s expanded into the next unit.

She’s been dubbed the Avocado Lady because avocadoes used to be a very rare commodity in Shanghai and she was one of the first to sell them. Now you can find them in many places but the nickname stuck, which comes in handy because her shop, like most fruits and vegetable shops of the city, has no name.

So next time you’re despairing over the expat supermarkets’ prices and complaining about not finding this or that, head to the intersection of Wulumuqi Lu and Wukang Lu and walk southwards on Wulumuqi Lu on the right hand side of the street. Just watch for the many laowai holding blue plastic bags and you’ll spot the place!

The Avocado Lady's shop

The Avocado Lady’s shop

Nopes, no way, can’t do it!

12 Dec

I recently got overly excited about an online “premier” “safe, high quality” grocer called Fields. Their website is very well done and they’ve got quite a large variety of fruits, vegetables, meat and pantry products, which they deliver to your home. This is primarily why I was so interested. As a foreigner, you probably find 90 to 95% of what you need here to cook the dishes you are used to. The trouble is you have to go to a few places to get them. I get my meat from Yasmine’s, an Australian butchery or from some specific supermarkets renowned for their good products (mainly Metro). For pantry and dairy products (and anything else really), you could go of course to City Shop but it costs an arm every single time. So I usually go to the Avocado Lady (on whom I still need to dedicate a full post), on Wulumuqi Lu/Wuyuan Lu, who just has everything you can think of at very reasonable prices. But, it sometimes feels like a mission to get all you need, hop on a cab, get to the other place and hop on a cab again to go home.

This is why Fields sounded brilliant. And it is! I had my first delivery last Saturday. The vegetables, most of them organic, look fabulous. I had ordered, amongst other things, their value pack which is filled with all sorts of vegetables (including green and purple kohlrabis, which I need to experiment with), as well as 10 organic eggs and a free-range chicken. When I received the package, the chicken was frozen in its bag. It looked small and I tried to figure out if it was a whole chicken or two legs or… I couldn’t so I simply put it in the freezer and only got it out yesterday to be defrosted for today’s dinner.



So here I was just a few minutes ago, enthusiastically getting some spices out and opening the bag to start marinating the beast before putting it in the oven. I get it out and find out that a) it is a whole but really small chicken and b) it still has its full head and two feet!* I got a squeamish “eeewww” out and put it in a dish. I froze for a while, took a deep breath and thought: come on, this is your dinner, man up and just chop the neck and feet. With two fingers I grabbed a leg and, as the neck and head unfolded from under the body, the full head appeared and a black eye, mostly pushed into the head but still able to peak out through translucent skin, gave me a horrible deadly look. That’s when I thought, ok no way, can’t do it… I froze again, wondering if I should throw the animal or what, then decided better let the āyi (cleaning lady) do it for me tomorrow. I’ll give her the feet to munch on** and have pasta tonight.



* That’s how chicken are sold here – see the post Chop the head yourself!

** Chicken feet are a big delicacy in China.

New years

18 Jan

So now that Christmas and New Year have gone by and we’re all nursing away our holiday blues, it feels like it’s a long way until the next time off. Not in China! Even though the Bund was filled with people on December 31st and there were nice projections on historic buildings (see picture below, courtesy of my Italian friend C.), the Chinese don’t really give a toss about the Gregorian new year, at least until now. That’s just entertainment for them, and in fact when midnight hit, nothing happened. No countdown, no fireworks in the country that invented them and in a city where there are fireworks any given day and during daytime.

The Bund on the 31st of December 2011

They’re saving themselves for the really important thing which is just about to start over here and in much of southeast Asia. We’re about to celebrate the Chinese New Year (xīn nián in Mandarin) on the 22nd of January, and not just any new lunar cycle, the year of the Dragon! The dragon is the only animal in the Chinese horoscope that doesn’t exist. (The other ones being, in no particular order: rat, monkey (me incidentally), dog, pig, horse, rooster, snake, tiger, ox, rabbit, boar and sheep). This means that the Dragon is a tad more special than the others in this 12-year cycle. Dragon years are meant to bring prosperity to all and it is considered to be especially good auspices to be born or get married during the year of the Dragon.

With all this fuss about it and remembering how colourful and eventful, even though generally contained, Chinese New Year celebrations used to be in London, I was expecting more visual manifestations of the build up to the event in Shanghai: street decorations, mighty and live dragons everywhere, some sort of Chinese carols or the equivalent. None of that. Compared to Christmas decorations (even in non-religious China), the Chinese New Year so far is quite a modest affair. True they have hung small red lanterns in most places, like building or restaurant entrances, banks, or something a bit more overstated in my local supermarket. There are also special edition packages, on the Danone yoghurts, and some other products that I don’t know. Yesterday only, the fruit vendors started displaying special fruit baskets and selling fireworks of all sorts in their shops. My same friend C. received a cute dragon from her bank. And, apart from some palpable tension prior to a big holiday (and one certainly well deserved for Chinese workers who have a meagre yearly holiday allowance and live far from their families) in office mostly, that’s about it.

So have they managed to escape the commercial exploitation typical of Christmas and New Year and keep Chinese New Year a family affair? Or do they just celebrate wildly on the D-day – there’s so much fireworks it feels like you’re under siege for literally the whole night – then spend a week resting and go back to their workplace? Where’s the beef? It’s too quiet…

At the entrance of my compound

The entrance of my building

In the lobby of a hotel

At the supermarket

Yoghurt pack


Chop the head yourself!

7 Dec

Going to the supermarket, except for Carrefour as you may have read in a previous post, remains a constant source of amusement. My local supermarket is called Lian Hua. It’s not very big but it offers a really good range of products, including a very decent selection of European goods. It’s only to buy meat that I go to the fancy City Shop, which sells Australian meat.

Somehow, until today, I had never been to the very back of the shop at Lian Hua. That’s where you will find meat, fish and poultry. Again, the choice is wide. You can get live fish. It may respond to the (Lebanese) anxiety for freshness when buying fish but the water did look like it needed changing. The fishes were trying to gulp air from the surface.

It also appears that it is quite popular for Chinese (or Shanghainese?) people to eat many more parts of the animals than most people in the Middle East or Europe do and that they are especially fond of animals’ heads… Chickens and ducks are sold with their heads. On the streets, you will find ducks’ heads sold separately. Fish heads are also either sold with the fillet or on their own. No wonder that they use and sell these really scary knives everywhere. It’s to chop the heads (and in some cases feet) yourself!

Joli canard :s

Like for the dogs’ attires, there’s often a culturally cuter side to things, like forks and spoons being sold individually!


6 Nov

Anything I do these days, anywhere I go, almost anyone I meet generates some sort of amazement, wonder or intense puzzling. The supermarket perhaps even more so as it is meant to supply you with something as basic as food.

So far, I’ve had two supermarket experiences. The first one was comical, the other one started in a fun way but ended up in utter repugnance. So much so that the second time we’ve resorted to online delivery (and overspending to make sure we hit the minimum spending amount to be delivered).

The first supermarket experience was at a local Tesco Express (Le Gou in Mandarin). We wanted to buy some cleaning products and some food on the very day we moved into our flat. Our idea of a quick shopping trip was cut short when we realised we actually couldn’t make informed decisions about most of the products because it was ALL written in Chinese… A few examples below:

Which one's the shampoo and which one's the conditioner?

What to choose?

The second experience was at the gigantic Carrefour (Jia Le Fou) to the west of town. I needed to get a hoover machine, a kettle, a hair dryer as well as more food, that we could recognise one way or another until we start knowing and mastering local products and foods. I started with the house appliances section and was immediately and aggressively greeted by 7 or 8 salespersons throwing themselves at me. One lady even took hold of my trolley and would not let me go any further, until I firmly shouted some mono-syllabic word at her. All these people started selling their products in Chinese. Why did they bother so much I don’t know because obviously I don’t speak the language, second what do I really know about hoovers? The situation did make me laugh, it was so ridiculous. I had to shout a big “ok, wait!” and to wave both my arms laterally to shut them up and start having a look. Once the hoover was chosen, the shouting started again for the kettle, and again for the hairdryer. Apparently, all these people are not employees of the supermarket but of the different brands and get paid by commission. You could find other salespeople in the cleaning products and food sections.

The rest of the shopping experience became gradually horrible, trying to find different things such as coffee, sugar, tea, pasta, cans of tomatoes, corn flakes, olive oil. However, I was very amused on a number of occasions when I came across interesting products (see below) and things I just couldn’t figure out, like why ALL of the instant coffee pots were sold without their lids… It started being annoying when, as in the first supermarket experience, I couldn’t recognise some products because the packaging would NOT tell you what it is in English, but would stress in English that “[The producers] adhere to strict standard of high quality for remarkably delicious taste.” Obviously, it’s only at the very end that I discovered the “Western” section of the supermarket, tucked in a corner, and it became clear why I found that there were two sorts of “western” customers: those who looked very purposeful and focused and the completely bewildered and frustrated species like myself…

Anyway, hopefully never again now that we have all appliances and that the rest can be found more locally, namely at City Shop on Nanjing Road and at the legendary Avocado Lady, who deserves her own dedicated post. Watch this space…

Papaya and ginger perfumed cleaning products :)


This is not seaweed, this is tea! Bought it but didn't try it yet.

Don't want to hurt anybody's feelings, but I shall pass on this for now...

Aargh but what is it??? Milk, yoghurt, soya milk, rice milk???

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