Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Shopping We Will Go

As promised I am going to use this entry to explain the grocery shopping experience in Colonia.  As you can imagine there are no Fred Meyers’s or Safeway’s or any sort of large chain grocery store here.  All stores are locally owned and operated.  There three different types of food stores. There are the “larger” grocery stores dedicated to mainly grocery shopping, usually with a small house wares section as well (pots, pans, pillows, fabric, etc.),the medium sized store that has groceries, but may not be its focus, and the smaller community stores similar to a convenience store located in the different neighborhoods.

The two largest and most reliable stores are called YCA and EMI -or Blue Lagoon (It has taken us a lot of time to figure out that many stores have two names, one an acronym of the company name (we think?) the other is what people actually call it). Let me take a step back and redefine the word “reliable” by this I mean they are big enough to have direct shipments sent to them, are where all the little stores buy their products, and the meat is… as good as it gets.

YCA is about the size of a larger Walgreen’s at home. It is the most Americanized grocery store. By this I mean it has linoleum flooring, bright florescent lights, and well defined and organized aisles.  They are the only store with a dedicated produce section, regularly consisting of locally grown produce. So far I have gotten lettuce, Chinese long beans, and cucumber. They also have betel nut (of course), okra, chili peppers, tapioca, taro root, and a few other so far unidentifiable items. Other produce is also available when it comes in by ship. These include potatoes, onion, carrots, celery, apples, oranges, etc.  The store has several aisles of canned foods, including an entire aisle of canned meats and fish.  I have yet to see anyone buy much of this, and question how long it has all been there.  Who would buy canned tuna packed in oil for $1.30 when you could go get an entire 3 lb tuna fresh from the fisherman for $5 just across the street? YCA is located in the middle of town and is a hang out for local men during the day. So be sure to watch out for betel nut spit on the ground, and as I learned from our neighbor, if you walk between to people having a conversation, to duck low and say “suro” which means excuse me.  But if you can walk around them instead, you should.

The midsized stores - Ace’s Mart, Pic-n-Sev (yes that is spelled right) and Angel’s Market all have groceries but are not as large as the other two. 

Pic-n-Sev (said Save of course) is the store with the most American brands, but it is quite a trek on foot to get to, a good 1.5 miles(?) from our house.  Here you can finally satisfy your craving for Rice-A-Roni (for $2.95 a box) Tostito’s salsa ($4.50!) and many cereal’s (I haven’t even looked at the price, I’m scared!) They also have cans of green chile which we have already used a few times. This is also the store where Mike bought his scooter. So in a way it is one-stop shopping! They will often have something is everyone else is out, since they are a little further out of town.

Ace’s Mart has a little bit of everything. There are clothes, house wares, and some food.  It is a cramped store with every inch of space being utilized.  They have good house ware items. This came in handy when we were waiting for our final piece of luggage to arrive. I found a huge aluminum pot for $7.40. It is fairly close to our house, maybe 3/4 a mile

Angel’s Market is located in the center of town and is very similar to Ace’s.  When the last ship came in Angel’s bought up all the garlic on the boat, so it is currently the only place with fresh garlic (3 small bulbs for $1.50).  I try to only go into Angel’s if I know I need something, and have heard they have it.  The store keepers follow you around as if you plan to shoplift.  They also have a car repair shop and rent and sell cars.  It seems most places have multiple business ventures. It has the feel of a store in the International district of Seattle.

Our smaller neighborhood store is called Gilmar’s.  These stores are handy because even if the larger stores have run out of something, they may still have some in stock since they get less business.  For example, recently I went to all the above listed stores looking for flour. Everyone was out, and a boat had just come in.  I was starting to panic, but luckily found it at Gilmar’s.  Of course I had to pay a little more, $4.45 vs $4.10 at EMI, but when no one else has it, its worth it! It is not uncommon for me to have to visit many of these stores to find what I need. Gilmar’s is also only about one city block away.  They also currently have the best deal on pasta sauce. Its amazing how important this info has become to us!

So now that you have an idea of the stores we have to choose from, let me give you an idea of the experience of shopping in Colonia.

I start by making a wish list, not a shopping list.  I write down everything we need and will need soon.  I then usually start with EMI as it is the closer of the two bigger stores.  I walk there, maybe 1/2 a mile.  I go in, grab a basket, probably bought in the early 90’s and hasn’t been washed since.  And start trolling the aisles.  There are 4 aisles at EMI and a frozen and chilled food section, none of which are marked, and I question the logic behind how they are organized.  Luckily cleaning supplies are kept separate from food items.  Say I find something I need- vegetable oil for instance.  I then have to compare prices, not between brands, but between bottles.  Some bottles will be marked $3.45, and if you look some may be marked $2.85, for the exact same product.  It appears each shipment may be priced differently. Then there is of course trying to keep track of this between stores.

If the ship has just come in a few days ago, finding what I need isn’t too difficult. Of course this is a very different experience than going to the store and just grabbing a few weeks worth of food.  I still get sticker shock at pretty much everything I pick up. Peanut butter is $5 and up for a small jar! But be sure to check expiration dates! EMI currently only has baking soda that expired in 04, and 05. Luckily YCA has current baking soda.

The frozen food section at EMI includes all meats, cheeses, butter, ice cream, and various other unidentifiable Japanese food products.  Now the way I am describing it may be a bit deceiving.  When I mention cheese, I mean they have say four 5 pound bags of frozen shredded Monterey Jack. That’s it. I spent weeks trolling the stores waiting for cheese to come in, hoping for mozzarella. But you know Jack works alright for pizza too. Or just chocolate ice cream, but 15 containers of it! I have only stuck to prepackaged ground beef and chicken drumsticks so far. There are cuts of meat, but honestly I can’t tell what half of them are. They are all frozen, and look like they were back during the last ice age.  Meats are also only marked with the price per pound, but not how much they weigh. So its a guessing game till you get the the cash register.  The chilled section includes a beer section that would make any college student drool, not in variety, but sheer quantity.

Nothing is organized and many things do not have prices on them.  The cold section has a sheet of paper taped to the doors with a list of items supposedly in the section, the price paid by the store and the price per unit. These paper’s still confuse the heck out of me, and I can often be found staring at it for minutes on end, only to find what I was looking at isn’t to be found in any of the coolers.

With all of this being considered, it initially was a huge challenge to figure out what to make with what is available. With the help of other expats I am slowly getting better at this.  We eat a lot of spaghetti, as it is easy, cheap and covers 3 food groups if I throw in ground beef.  I have also become pretty proficient at making homemade pizza. I don’t know why I never tried this at home, its so easy.  Luckily I can get pepperoni in bulk at YCA and freeze it, canned mushrooms and olives are also easy to find.  I have added lumpia to the list, and several ways to cook fresh tuna, including not cooking it at all and eating it as sashimi.  Instead of ordering out on extra hot or lazy days we make those Japanese spicy soup bowls. They are cheap and super easy. I also have added salad to the menu several nights a week.

For snacks our new favorite is popcorn, old fashioned made in a pot. How do those microwave popcorn companies stay in business? Old fashioned is the way to go! We have also been incredibly lucky when it comes to care packages for snacks from home. (A care package post is sure to come at some point). Also Pringles are always available on island and luckily there is a decent selection of flavors.

Fruit is not always available in the stores, but there is a fruit stand at the bottom of our hill. though usually the only thing I recognize are bananas. There are some 20 types of bananas here, or something like that.  But what is even better than that is the fact that once a local you know finds out what you like it starts showing up on Mike’s desk at work. We have gotten many bananas this way that I made banana bread for the office with. We have also tried another fruit from the banana tree. It is the fruit that grows below the bunch of bananas. Though the name escapes me now. It was tasty, like a super yellow banana shaped like a mango. We are currently watching the mangos on our three trees in our yard get bigger by the day. We will soon have mangos coming out of our ears!

So there is a little taste of what shopping and cooking is like in Colonia. I am glad my fears of how to obtain dairy products, eggs, and milk were relieved as they are all available here in some form. Sorry this is so long, but it is a pretty complicated subject, and since we haven’t been posting as regularly as we thought, this makes up for it!

Eat your heart out Pizza Hut!



  1. And just think, in two years' time you will have become an expert at shopping and won't even need to make any kind of list...

  2. Mangoes make REALLY good pies, especially if you can get honey on the island. Just simmer sliced mango and banana with some honey and a wee bit of flour, dump it in a pie shell and let it chill. It nearly tastes like a peach pie. :)