Supermarkets in China: My Experience and Thoughts

Updated on February 2, 2017

Weather in China

Look at the weather today. Does it make you feel depressed? Do you, like me, long to be beside the sea, soaking up the rays? If you’re reading this from a beach; very upsetting. If you’re reading this from a cold, dimly lit room thinking those prisoners of times gone by in the Tower of London had it better; thank you. Actually, I believe Anne Boleyn had quite a nice time pre-decapitation – perhaps we could swap positions. Sorry. I digress. Again, look at the weather.

China's Supermarkets

Now you have an idea of what I’m dealing with today, I present the question: What should one do when the clouds are thick, the air moist and hands slow to move from the deep-set chill? Go to the supermarket! Of course! If you are at all interested, you’ll have noticed I reside in China. On this afternoon, then, I present to you my research (if you will) and experience of Chinese supermarkets. Sit back, relax, drink some tea and enjoy.

Supermarkets gloss the ever increasing number of commercial districts throughout China’s higher tier cities. There are the usual like Walmart, Metro, Costco, Sam’s Club etc. and some Chinese brands like Zhongbai, RT Mart and Luguang. Nearest to my home, however, is the French brand Carrefour. It is this store I write of today but anyone who has visited China will know all the supermarkets here follow the same pattern. Luckily, on the present day, we’re still enjoying the Spring Festival holiday so the supermarket was relatively quiet. On common days, you can barely move – like sardines in a can (many sardines in a miniscule can). Throughout I will deliver images and commentary on what you can find before providing my own conclusions on supermarkets in China.

The Common Supermarket

As a traveller, or newbie, what’s the first unusual concept of Chinese supermarkets? Inclining travelators (moving walk way). In my experience almost all supermarkets here have this function. Furthermore, there are commonly two levels in a supermarket: the first has household goods, clothes, toys, beauty products while the second is reserved for dry goods and produce. The two photos below evidence this.


Environmental Problems

Successfully one has made their way to the food floor. During this article, I will discuss the following areas of a Chinese supermarket, each distinctive from back home:

  1. Small snack packs
  2. Unusual meat packs
  3. Fruits and vegetables
  4. Meat and fish
  5. Tea.

Snacks, snacks, snacks. Without generalising, Chinese people love snacks. Really, they do. A colleague of mine often jokes: never stand between a Chinese person and snacks, especially if said snacks are free. To nourish this infatuation, each Chinese supermarket has a section dedicated to individually packed nibbles. For example, one can find a miniature cake, worthy of less than one mouthful, individually packed. Furthering this, miniature sachets of nuts (peanut, walnut, pecan, pistachio, macadamia) decorate a wall of large self-serving buckets. Last but not least, one can even unearth various animal parts macerated in varying degrees of spice and, you guessed it, packaged into bite size portions. To any Greenpeace supporters out there worried about plastic polluting the sea, China will likely induce seizures should you visit.


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Health Concerns

I don’t favour consuming the meat of other beings yet even I take particular interest in the unusually processed muscle available in China. The meat is reminiscent of luncheon meat – the kind you can find with an outline of a teddy bear’s face on. At least, this is how it comes in Britain. More importantly, it is only possible to locate this in the delicatessen with one choice; knowing as we do that luncheon meat is far from healthy. However, in a Chinese supermarket one can notice an entire aisle dedicated to such explicitly managed meat in all shapes and sizes. Some even come with kernels of corn! Another warning – if you have hypotension, avoid this on visiting.

Processed Meat

Beef, chicken, mutton. Prawns, crab, kippers. How about crocodile, rat or turtle? Does this get your taste buds tingling? For me, certainly not. However, this is commonplace within a Chinese supermarket. Indeed, it has been known to find live chicken (this, in a country where we oft have reports of human bird flu). Animal carcass is butchered for all to see and, in the summertime, often with flies and other such whizzing around. The stink is unbearable. Today though, as I bravely, almost knightly, in endeavour, entered the butchery, there was no such stink due to the sub-zero temperature outside. There is little good, if any, to report here. In fact, even some locals, refuse to eat meat of supermarkets. One colleague told me to never (not that I would) eat meat in China unless you saw the to be consumed animal slaughtered. If you’re interested, take a look here for information about shocking meat scandals.

China's Butchery

Let’s talk about sea life. you’ll find tanks filled with more fish than water, nevertheless, this is considered higher quality because you actually observed the fish breathing rather than buying a dead creature. Crabs, desperately trying to avoid the inevitable, running across defrosting ice tables. Even turtles primed for purchase. For me, I’m not sure what area is more disturbing when considering meat and fish. I believe it best for us to move swiftly on.

Buying Fish in China

So what of fresh fruit and vegetables? Both are seasonal. That means, to buy good quality, tasty produce you must buy when readily available. In general, the produce section of any Chinese supermarket is quite satisfactory, even at times, pleasing. The price is agreeable and one may even find a deal on a home comfort – AVACADO! Or in Chinese, oily cow fruit. You see here the price is just 6.9RMB for one. I have seen avocados priced as high as 30 RMB for one – around 2.5 GBP or the equivalent in dollars.

Plastic, Plastic, Plastic

The process is simple. You take a plastic bag (again, those from Greenpeace, sorry), proceed to fill it with the quantity of whatever you choose then take it to an aggressive woman (ever occasionally man) to be weighed. Usually this employee will bash the life from your apples and bruise your tomatoes. This, all in the name of labour creation!

Last I would like to talk about tea. China is famous for tea, and quite rightly so. You can find all sorts. If you like tea (as I do – currently breathing the scent of mint tea as I type), you’ll be happy here. Indeed, not only with the choice but the price. My pack of mint tea, and its reasonably hefty, cost under 5RMB.

This said, though, I want to introduce to you today an intriguing tea. First, though, I hurry to tell you about the gourd it is made. The name: bitter melon/gourd. The taste: extraordinarily bitter. I’m told this is only for old people. It has the taste only old people can suffer (repeat: suffer).

Given the apparent medicinal properties (just because of the horrendous taste – I was told again), what should one do with said bitter melon? Unbelievable – make a tea. I dare you to try this when in China.

A Supporting Video

When I travel, I like, rather love, visiting supermarkets. I understand the experience somewhat like viewing the internals of the local’s home. Certainly, the supermarket provides the daily fuel for us all. Therefore, the supermarket deserves, if we want to understand where we have visited, particular attention. To analyse, then, we can see that, in China, little thought is given to the environment or wellbeing of living creatures. I hope not to finish on such a glum note thus still encourage you to experience for yourself. I remember the shock and horror when I first entered a supermarket here but you adapt and learn.

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