Ever since I learned to cook in my 20s, when I lived in Vancouver, British Columbia, and bought groceries at the Chinese greengrocer down the street, I’ve found foraging for food one of life’s sensory pleasures. Nowadays, I shop primarily in the two towns where I divide my life: Eureka, on California’s North Coast, and Guanajuato, a UNESCO World Heritage site in central Mexico, where I find the process especially pleasurable. Here are seven ways food shopping is different in the two cultures.
1. Getting There
I’m a walker, and I love doing errands on foot. This is easy in Guanajuato because the streets in el centro, where our house is located, are pedestrianized, colorful, and lively. Since the places where I buy food are only a few minutes away, I shop most days of the week. Everything is nearby, so it doesn’t matter if I forget something.
The main place I shop is a small grocery store three minutes from our home called Ahorrema$* (which translates to Save More — and the Mexican symbol for the peso is the same as the symbol for the U.S. dollar). If I can’t find what I want there, I go to a similar shop another five minutes away. The city also has two chain supermarkets, Soriana and La Comer, which I reach by walking through one of Guanajuato’s famous tunnels. I also occasionally shop at the Mercado Hidalgo, with its beautiful clock tower on the rooftop, designed by Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame.
No matter where I’ve lived in the U.S., on the other hand, it has never been simple to go food shopping on foot. In Eureka, I’m happy that my favorite economy supermarket, Grocery Outlet, is only a 10-minute walk from our home in historic Old Town, a neighborhood studded with Victorian mansions. Unfortunately, the only way to get there is by crossing Fourth and Fifth Streets, also known as 101, the north-south U.S. highway that cuts right through the city. These six-lane, fast-moving thoroughfares are busy with cars, buses, pick-ups, RVs, and even logging trucks. Walking to buy food in Eureka simply doesn’t offer the same sensory pleasure as it does in Mexico.
In Eureka, I also shop at WinCo, a large chain supermarket about 10 minutes away by car. WinCo is neither aesthetic or hip, but it offers a wide selection, it’s unpretentious, and the staff is friendly.
2. Mom-And-Pop Stores
Mexico is a country where small businesses still thrive despite the inroads of the nationwide convenience store, OXXO, and big-box stores like Walmart and Costco. While many expats belong to Costco, a half-hour drive away, we aren’t motivated to be members since we don’t have a car and we don’t buy food in large quantities. Our Mexican fridge is smaller than the standard U.S. type, and we don’t have a separate freezer.
Ahorrema$ has much of what we need. It consists of three narrow aisles packed with fruits and vegetables, canned foods, snacks, condiments, meat, and dairy. I also shop at a health food store minutes from our house, where I buy homemade granola, basmati rice, chili-garlic sauce, hoisin sauce, miso, and delicious ginger cookies.
3. Just One!
At Ahorrema$, eggs are sold in bulk, so I can ask the employee behind the meat and dairy counter to bag just one egg if I wish. I can also buy just one stick of butter for the bolillo (roll) that we like with soup. As is common in Europe, in Mexico, we buy freshly baked bolillos at a dedicated bakery, the panadería, not at a general grocery.
Since Barry and I don’t eat much dairy, buying just one or two eggs at a time and one stick of butter is brilliant. Ahorrema$ also sells small store-bagged dried fruits and spices like oregano, thyme, ginger, cumin, and sesame seeds at much lower prices than at the supermarket.
Unlike what they sound like, fruterías sell not only fruit but also vegetables. I love buying mangos, papayas, mandarins, and prickly-skinned tunas (a sweet pear-like fruit, not fish) to make fruit salads and smoothies. Because these fruits are native to Mexico, they taste especially sweet and juicy. I buy less fruit in the U.S. because I find it bland.
5. Availability And Selection
There’s definitely more selection in the U.S. — sometimes to the point that it’s overwhelming. In a typical American supermarket, for example, you’ll see a huge range of peanut butters: crunchy, creamy, low-fat, organic, natural, unsweetened, unsalted, and so on. In Mexico, you’re likely to find just one brand of plain peanut butter. The same is true of many other goods. You won’t find tomato sauce in six flavors.
That said, the availability of foods in Mexico has increased so much in the last 20 years that there’s little I miss from the U.S. Unlike in 1999, when we first visited Guanajuato, I can now buy brussels sprouts, leeks, spinach, parmesan, blue cheese, feta, balsamic vinegar, coconut milk, hummus, and many Asian condiments. Both La Comer and Soriana now offer “Gourmet” sections, where vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and international foods are sold.
Availability, though, can be very hit and miss. If I like a product in a Guanajuato store, I’ve learned to buy more than one of it because it may not be in stock the next time I visit.
There are a couple of foods I wish I could get in Mexico. At WinCo, I buy a packaged soup called Organic Roasted Red Pepper & Tomato, sold in a box — great for a fast lunch when I don’t feel like cooking. I love Tasty Bite Indian packaged foods, too, but I’m not going to schlep either of these to Mexico! We do bring down small, lightweight items that are either unavailable or more expensive in Mexico, like our favorite teas, vitamins, ibuprofen, and sunscreen.
Since Barry and I are not meat eaters, we don’t spend a lot of money on food in either country. Still, we save money in Mexico, where most produce costs 50 to 60 percent less than in the U.S. Imported products often cost more but are still easily affordable for expats — less so to Mexicans, who are vulnerable to the current rate of exchange.
7. Speaking Spanish
Shopping offers me the perfect opportunity to talk with locals. I buy bulk Chiapas coffee at a café a few minutes away, where I chat with the barista, Francisco, while he grinds the coffee. And at the liquor store where I buy wine, I talk with Nico or Pati, who know my favorite brand, Don Simon. The last time I was there, they invited me to join them in the back for a tumbler of tequila, and we chatted for an hour.
I like food shopping so much, I’d probably enjoy buying groceries on the moon. Any time, anywhere. But in Mexico, it’s especially easy, fun, and personable — a whole-body experience that lifts my spirits.
Editor’s Note: For more on Louisa’s adventures, consider her take on Pueblos Magicos and how to explore the magical small towns of Mexico, the 10 reasons she and her husband prefer a camper van to an RV, and her tips for keeping a memorable travel journal.