Sunday, January 25, 2004

I'm Lost in the Supermarket
I once commented elsewhere that grocery stores in China are pretty much like those in the States, except that they have live fish, snakes, turtles and assorted aquatic-related creatures in the seafood department. (And let's not forget sea cucumbers, which resemble undulating strips of urine colored Velcro...)
But that's not exactly true. There are other differences. For instance, most everything is smaller, including the aisles which, at the corner grocery I frequent when I'm too lazy to walk 10 minutes to the more upscale one, are often blocked with employees standing legs akimbo and delicately balancing on the edges of the shopping carts which they use to reach higher when stocking. Actually, it's two employees. One who does the balancing act and stocking and another one who slowly pushes the cart along the aisle and presumably also acts as the spotter in case the acrobat tumbles.
You also don't see many people shopping in their pajamas in the U.S. - especially during the noon hour. While it might warrant some polite queries from a psychiatric social worker or a cop in the U.S., public pajama wear is not uncommon here. I've seen families, singles and couples of all ages wandering the streets and stores clad only in their cotton PJs with no one except an unenlightened foreigner gawking.
The meat selection isn't exactly the same either. Chinese don't butcher their pigs, fowls and cattle in any fashion recognizable to someone looking for say, a plump chicken breast or juicy T-bone. If As far as I can tell the method is completely random, resembling more the standards set by the Texas Chainsaw Massacre than the USDA. One picks through the odd, small hunks and chunks of meat on white foam trays and covered with plastic wrap, squeezing them and eyeing them in hopes of something reasonably tender. You know it's pork if it's pale and beef if it's red but poultry is another matter.
It's been chilly in SZ and I thought a pot of homemade chicken soup would hit the spot yesterday. I found carrots, onions, potatoes, dried mushroom, garlic - wrapped them in individual plastic bags and then jostled with other shoppers at the weight station to have them priced. The weight station isn't at the check out counters and in the case of my corner store, it seems to move of its own accord every four or five days to a different area.
If it's crowded, few stand in line - they just put their bags as quickly as possible one at a time on the scale, while elbowing others trying to do the same thing. A clerk - sometimes two - reads the digital readout, punches some buttons and affixes a price sticker to your bag which you're simultaneously reaching for while trying to throw another one on the scale before Grandmother Mei beats you to it.
With that out of the way, I went to the refrigerated poultry bin and began picking through the randomly cut chunks of chicken carcasses.
I found one especially large one that looked like part of a breast and an oversized wing, thanked the poultry gods and went home to begin the soup.
After stuffing the pot with the produce, I threw in a package of powdered chicken boullion that had inexplicably been taped as a promotional item to a bottle of shampoo I'd bought a few weeks ago and pulled the "chicken" out of its foam tray. It was suddenly clear why the breast part and wing were so generous.
There was a neatly severed turkey head - wattle and all - underneath the dismembered body part. A bonus that I quickly wrapped in an old plastic sack and heaved into the communal apartment garabage pail across the hall from me.
Where the drumsticks and rest of the breast were, gawd only knows. Where this turkey was during Christmas when foreign barbarian coworker Jeff was bemoaning the lack of turkeys in SZ, is yet another question for the ages.
But the soup bubbled up fine and I'm still enjoying it today.

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