The most striking difference, other than having lots of Chinese food, is how much of the store is devoted to greens. Once you push your cart through the door, those are the first things you see, and lots of them. They’re fresh and cheap, and there’s a more attractive selection than in any other area supermarket. The greens are the store’s signature, and once you’ve tried them you know you’ll always have reason to come back. Even the other local Chinese supermarkets don’t compare. Great Wall deals with special farms in New Jersey, New Mexico, and Texas to keep the supply flowing.
The greens are also the store’s “loss leader”–what brings in customers, who go on to buy higher-margin items. In an American grocery store, the loss leaders are likely to be staples such as milk or whichever sale items are advertised in the circular or on the Internet.
The greens at Great Wall include Chinese garlic chives, sweet-potato vines, baby Chinese broccoli, chrysanthemum greens, snow peas, green beans, baby red amaranth, yam tips, white shen choy tips, baby yo choy tips, and many others. Where else can you get six or more varieties of bok choy?
True, true, true! When we lived in Dallas, I’d get up to the big Asian supermarket near Frisco from time to time. During Lent, when I ate a vegan diet, and therefore lots of greens, it was not only money-saving, but deeply pleasurable to shop there. You can’t imagine the variety and quantity of fresh greens available at Chinese markets — and, as Cowen says, they’re really cheap compared to what you would pay in standard American supermarkets.
(Incidentally, a chef friend in Dallas shops at Fiesta, the supermarket chain catering to Mexicans. Same quality food as you find elsewhere, he said, but a lot cheaper.)
In the piece, Cowen talks about how disorienting, in an interesting way, it is to shop in a Chinese supermarket, in part because it makes you realize the way we are conditioned to understand a supermarket layout is culturally specific. This, to me, is what makes shopping in an ethnic supermarket — Indian markets too — so much fun (that, and the pleasure of discovering something new and delicious). I think there are people who find the idea of a shopping trip to an Asian supermarket fun, and those who would freak out at the idea. My guess is that you can tell a lot about their general approach to the world by how they’d react to this prospect.
My particular weirdness: I’m a cultural conservative who loves the idea and the experience of an Asian supermarket, in part because of delight at variety and delicious food, but also in part because I like to think about how a culture is expressed in food tradition. In other words, I like the Asian market not in spite of being conservative, but because of the kind of conservative I am.
I think of my late sister, who would sooner have crawled over glass than go to an Asian supermarket, not because of any particular animus towards things Asian, but because it would never occur to her to eat anything that our people don’t normally eat. She was a Burkean at the supermarket: If what we have here is working for us, why would you want anything different? What’s wrong with you? Why do you seek innovation when none is necessary?
Because she could see no reason why any sensible person would do such a thing, she would assume that it could only be for discreditable reasons, e.g., food snobbery. This was a conflict between us of very long standing, this conflict of conservative temperaments between us (and of course, this has very little to do with political conservatism). She’s no longer around to ask, I’m sorry to say, but I wonder what she would have thought of the local farmer’s market. It’s the kind of thing that gets me excited, but my guess is that she would have thought it was another one of those Bobo affectations that afflict our culture. I could say all I wanted to about the quality of the produce, supporting local farmers, and building a local food culture … and I can hear her saying right back, “It’s more expensive, and besides, who cares? It’s just food. I can get all that stuff at the grocery store in town.”
Anyway, if you like greens, and I devoutly love them, go to your local Asian market. You’ll be surprised.