Thursday, February 2, 2012

Grocery Shopping

I feel as though I’ve been remiss in not describing Sri Lanka in better detail. I had these delusions that I would go out with the good camera and take lots of pictures and show you. Then I remembered I have three kids, one of whom is generally strapped to my back and two who are holding my hands every time I go out, and I realized it’s probably not going to get crossed off my to-do list any time soon. How about I use the old method where I use some descriptive words and you use your imagination? As a reward, I’ll post a few pictures of food and things from our apartment at the end.

The first day we were here, we walked to a grocery store adjacent to our hotel. As we approached, the door opened seemingly automatically. In actuality, it was an old man in a flowing white outfit ushering us inside. Wal-Mart greeters be warned, this guy is gunning for your job, and he will be awesome at it.

My initial impression was that the store was dirty, crowded, and small. I sucked in my breath. I knew from co-workers that this was a good store to frequent. How was I going to make it through a year? The produce section looked like a slightly shady booth at a farmers’ market. There were wide open bins of grains like rice. There were fruits and vegetables I recognized, like apples, green beans, and bananas, and lots I couldn’t place, despite the fact that at one point in my life I watched the Food Network almost exclusively.

Past the produce were narrow aisles packed with things I couldn’t always identify. There was a large section of spices, some in little containers, but mostly in bags. Brightly colored cellophane bags of ramen noodles filled much of one aisle. The cookie aisle was called the “biscuit” aisle due to the British influence. The only thing I recognized was, blessedly, the soda aisle. There it was, not exactly the same, but enough to make me comfortable: The Coke Light. For 95 Sri Lankan rupees (rs.), approximately 85 cents, I could have a 500ml bottle of Coke Light.

I was confused when I looked at the freezer section. Down the center was the low kind of open freezer open on top, and it was almost completely filled with various kinds of chicken sausages. Really? Just chicken sausages? Yes. Turns out Sri Lankans love chicken sausage. Without speculating too much, I’d say it’s because they really don’t eat much pork here. The population is primarily Buddhist, followed by Hindu and Muslim. None of those folks really eat pig, which is dandy with me.

The one thing that still has me a bit frustrated is that there is almost no frozen or refrigerated food here. Nothing prepackaged. You can’t just pick up a frozen pizza or a pack of deli turkey. I really like to have frozen veggies on hand for dinner, but they really don’t have that here, either. Turns out when you live in a developing nation, electricity isn’t always reliable. So far in Colombo, we haven’t had problems with the power, but local grocers sometimes turn off their freezers and refrigerators at night to save money. Luckily, you can tell so you don’t shop there by looking for ice buildup on the frozen food. Unluckily, that means no shortcuts for me. If you want it, you’re making it from scratch.

Dairy is interesting. We buy our milk in the UHT boxes. Try getting your kids to drink that. I’ll admit to taking a bite of Cheerios and milk that Gertrude Bell walked away from. I didn’t exactly gag, but I did wash that bite down with a swig of Coke Light and a grimace. Fresh milk goes bad quickly, and cheese costs an amazing amount. Think $7 for a brick of cream cheese or $9 for a package of shredded cheese. Once we’re in our house I’ll definitely have to rethink my “normal” rotation of recipes.

We have found a few things we enjoy. Milo is delicious, and thankfully, even though it may contain a lot of sugar, it does claim to be low on the glycemic index. Whatever. It gets my kids to drink milk. We’ve enjoyed trying lots of different kinds of chips, called “crisps” here. Some have been better than others. One was called “Jays” and looked exactly like a Lays bag, but not. The International Man of Intrigue and I found an instant soup made by Knorr that we like. The best part was that it came in a three pack with a free bowl.

When I look back on that first trip, I think the only things we bought were Coke Lights and a couple of packages of biscuits. In the time since then, I’ve been to that store and another grocery chain many times. It doesn’t seem dirty to me any more. Maybe it’s because everything here is a little dusty. I’ve found things I like and tried new things that I didn’t care for. I’m a bit anxious to see how we’re going to manage to eat healthily this year and still have food we’re comfortable with. I’m all for trying local foods and really want to immerse myself in life here, but I do not have any desire to eat curry three meals a day, seven days a week. I have a feeling it’s a good thing we brought a year’s supply of peanut butter with us.

Gertrude Bell and Amelia Earhart drinking Milo.

Jay's- Betcha Can't Eat Just One!

Coke Light. Mmmm.

Not Pringles. Mister Potato.

Not Pringles quality control, either.

Our new fancy soup bowls. Hope the kids don't break 'em.

Bonus photo: Hotel water, because you can't drink the water in this country.

Oh, and I have no idea about the spacing on this post, and I'm too frazzled today to figure it out. So, if you don't like it, feel free to offer your layout and design services, or keep it to yourself. Also, I know my pictures aren't super blog perfect and worthy of Pinterest or something, but you'll have to wait until I'm done raising kids before I become an expert photographer.


  1. Your are priceless! The best time to become an "expert photographer" is while your kids are young. You have no end of cute moments and funny models to shoot!

  2. When I was a little girl my family lived in Seoul Korea for two years. I was in 3rd and 4th grade, so old enough to remember, but not old enough to eliminate the fairy tale fog that comes with the memories... But I do remember what we bought on our first trip to the grocery store, chips and soda :).
    Maybe you can start a little garden of sorts so that you can have your own 'quality controlled' veggies? I know you won't live there too terribly long but perhaps herbs?
    I think you're doing an amazing job and once you're in a routine I bet the pictures will come more frequently.

  3. Just discovered your blog!

    Don't worry about the photos. Your wonderful writing helps me picture everything just fine! :)

    I look forward to hearing more about your adventures in Sri Lanka.


  4. Ah, grocery shopping in a foreign country. Even though I did it in the Western World, it's a bit of a culture shock to not have the foods you are used to available. But it is fun to try new things out. I'm pretty sure my first foray into a foreign grocery store I left with cookies too.

  5. We can get a box together with food from hiredman's here in good ol Conway Springs, Kansas. Send us a list.