Monday, March 8, 2010

variety but I got nothing

Last week in England, I found myself trying to explain to people that the supermarkets here in West Sumatra are very well-stocked, reasonably large, and have a big variety. But that they seem to not have anything I like. How can this be?

As an attempt at justifying this statement, I thought about heading down to the local supermarket and doing an inventory. But it's a 30 minute walk each way, so that's only really an option on the weekends and I'm out of town two weekends in a row. I could go to the smaller version right down the street, but it's been raining all day. I know, life is just too hard.

But I myself am perplexed by this realisation. Wide variety and nothing that fits my definition of good food. I wonder if Indonesians feel the same way when they enter a supermarket in the US or UK. They walk into the neighbourhood Safeway/Sainsburys and walk up and down aisles and aisles of food. Then they leave empty-handed because there was nothing there they really want to eat.

Because that is what happens to me here. I usually pick up a packet of Oreos, though. Once in a while I may find something else that catches my fancy.

So what is it that fills entire supermarkets, such that someone such as me, the queen of exotic food tasting, can't find anything to get excited about?

For one, there's powdered milk. Boxes and bags and more boxes of a dozen different brands of powdered milk. Plain, chocolate flavoured, strawberry flavoured. Supplemented milk for babies and low-fat for grown-ups. Milk in a box, milk in a bag, milk in a single-serve pouch. This might parallel the cereal aisle or the bread aisle in a Western market, but bigger.

There are also canned beverages. I don't know what all of them are, but there's a whole line of seaweed flavoured drinks and another selection of drinks with chunks of jelly floating in the can. And sodas made from some fruits I'm not familiar with. They're all highly sweetened. There are lunch-sized boxes of fruit drinks. These are rather tasty, although they are considerably sweetened beyond the original fruit. There are also lunch-sized boxes of milk, although it's more likely you'll find strawberry or chocolate milk than plain-flavoured. I guess the beverage section in Indonesia rivals the beverage section in the West, both the soda aisle and the juice aisle. It's really full of enormous variety!

The chips and crisps section is also usually well-stocked. I have never seen such a wide array of snack foods in my life! There are potato-based, rice-based, cassava-based, prawn-based, onion-based, fish-based, seaweed-based, other-stuff-based that I don't know. Within each of these genres, of course, there is further selection. There are the big swollen discs, the woven round pretzelly figures, the ones that actually look like potato chips, the little tiny chips that look like flakes of Frito-lay, little balls, coils, cones, you name it they have it. Then there are the colours. White, yellow and pink are the most common but there are others to be found! All these tend to come in huge transparent plastic bags, think the size of half a garbage bag. So that takes up a good bit of the supermarket space.

There is also always a very extensive selection of biscuits where Oreos are a staple. So I can pick up some of those, surrounded by milky sweet chocolate biscuits, crackers with fruity fillings, cheese-chocolate sweet-and-salty snacks (I actually do like those but I fear they are terribly unhealthy), and biscuits which look exotic on the wrappers but I have no idea what's inside.

The other sections of the supermarket are a good bit smaller. Oh there's usually a big baked goods section, with both sweet and savoury pastries, oozing with butter or wrapped in banana leafs. And a wide variety of plastic utensils and paper goods. But what I've described thus far already has the potential to take up a hundred or two square metres of prime retail space. But all I've picked off the shelf so far are the Oreos.

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