At first glance, an Argentina supermarket is like any other. Then you notice the whole aisle devoted to yerba mate, a vegetarian section that consists only of cardboard-like soya milanesas, and – as one blogger has noted – an astounding number of variations on tinned corn.
Exotic fruit at a Carrefour in Buenos Aires – Photograph by christine592
If you are looking to get under a country’s skin, you need to get to know its supermarkets. In Argentina, the big ones are Coto, Disco, Jumbo and French mega-chain Carrefour. These are the big strip-light, no-window places, where you’ll find cosmetics and home goods alongside your groceries. The fruit and vegetable sections tend to be fresher than small neighborhood supermarkets, but may not match your local verdulería (selling fruit and veg only).
If you’re craving variety, the huge Jumbo in Buenos Aires’s Palermo (Bullrich 345) is the place to go. It’s been nicknamed the ‘international supermarket’ for its range of imported products, although you will pay a premium for these (it’s also worth noting that locals, quite frustratingly, bend their own rules here and do pronounce the ‘j’ in Jumbo. Don’t make the ‘Humbo’ mistake).
There is no such thing as quickly ‘popping out’ to a big Argentina supermarket. As one friend points out, “Babies have been conceived and born quicker than a trip to buy a bag of milk in a Coto on a Thursday evening.” Why? Not only does a national shortage of small change cause checkout tailbacks, but also most customers are shopping as if they could be under house arrest from tomorrow. They pile those trolleys up to the brim, safe in the knowledge that they can request home delivery at the till. If you want to give it a try, go to the special ‘envío a domicilio’ checkouts, where your goods will be packed into crates and delivered your door. Sometimes this free, sometimes there is a fee; check in advance and be sure to tip on arrival.
Some other linguistic points to note: when an Argentinian says they want to get to the ‘disco’ before it closes, unless it is close to dawn they are probably not going to a nightclub; instead they’ll be heading to the supermarket chain of the same name. Similarly, when someone says they are going to get something to eat from the ‘chino’, don’t expect them to come back with chow mein. They are referring to the small neighbourhood supermarkets that are typically run by Chinese immigrants.
Cooking on the street in Barrio Chino – Photograph by Alfredo Miranda Kleber
Buenos Aires’s Chinatown (Barrio Chino in Belgrano) is another good place to add some variety to the usual meat-orientated, spice-free diet. Supermarkets, like Casa China, are a joy to explore and you’ll find not just Asian products, but a range of ‘ethnic’ foods that even spans as far as Branston’s Baked Beans (priced at a shocking 20 pesos per can. And they’re not even Heinz).
Finally, whatever part of Argentina you are visiting, don’t miss the small neighbourhood shops for a real taste of Argentina food. Your local carnicero (butcher) will often be happy to talk you through the different cuts, and at the panadería (bakery), you can get a sugar rush from cakes loaded with dulce de leche. For months, I was buying dried pasta in a plastic bag, until I discovered an old-fashioned (and incredibly well-priced) pasta specialists, making fresh spaghetti through hand-wound machines.
Shopping from store to store may take time, but you’ll often get plenty of banter to help you along the way. And rest assured that it’s probably still quicker than getting stuck in the home-delivery line at Jumbo.
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