International minutiae: Grocery shopping in Istanbul and elsewhere

We’ve been buying food in the little grocery around the corner, but today we ventured into a bigger shop. Before we started traveling, I would have called it a supermarket, but it isn’t quite that big. It’s a Carrefour Express — Carrefour is apparently a French chain — and I know from my UK experience that “Express” stores are usually smaller than full-size supermarkets. But it was still quite overwhelming enough for me.

***I’m about to begin a long ramble about food stores — feel free to skip this part if you only want to hear about shopping in Istanbul. I’ll let you know with asterisks when to tune in again.***

If you’d asked me about food stores, at home in the US, I would have broken them down into a few types. The smallest are convenience stores, like 7-11 or the tiny independently-owned shops you see on street corners in cities, selling necessities and nonperishables (milk, snacks, canned and frozen foods, toilet paper, cigarettes, condoms, and liquor). Their prices are high and you’d be silly to do most of your shopping in them; they’re meant more to tide you over when you run out of something. (Drugstores serve a similar purpose; they’re usually quite big, but they don’t really sell fresh food, just some overpriced dairy and lots of snacks.) Next are produce markets and small grocery stores, the latter stocked with most items you might need, but in a very limited selection; because their owners are often immigrants, they usually have some imported items too (Asian noodles maybe, or Russian breads). Depending on the owners, groceries can be very good and have specialty items or fresher produce than you can find elsewhere in the neighborhood, or they might just be bigger versions of convenience stores; the price, too, varies by the establishment.

Between small groceries and the large supermarkets there are… I don’t know what I’d call them, but they’re usually chain stores, and (at least where I’ve lived) they cater to a well-informed if not well-heeled crowd. I’d include Trader Joe’s (which sells good-quality and often specialty foods at mostly reasonable prices, mostly under its own label) as well as Bristol Farms (which sells high-quality and extremely expensive food) in this category. The El Cerrito Natural Grocery, where we used to shop a lot, is one of these stores too. People who like these stores do a lot of their shopping here, but you’d still have to go elsewhere for certain things: Trader Joe’s, for example, doesn’t carry, oh, yeast I think? Stuff like that. But I always preferred shopping in this kind of store. because they’re not as overwhelming, and the service is usually friendlier and more knowledgeable.

Then there are major supermarkets, which are nearly always big chain stores because no one else can afford to run such a business. There are discount supermarkets and luxury ones, and everything in between, including ethnic supermarkets like 99 Ranch or Vallarta. They usually carry everything from canning jars to patio furniture. Most people do their shopping in supermarkets for this reason. I guess there’s another category too: warehouse stores (is that what you call them?) like Costco, where you can buy in bulk for allegedly lower prices. Some people I know shop almost exclusively at Costco; I don’t know where they store those giant pallets of toilet paper, but to each their own!

When we started our travels I was surprised to find a much greater variety of food stores that fall into that medium category between small groceries and big supermarkets. I think it’s probably a city thing: where driving is a lot of trouble, people make more trips but buy fewer things in each trip, and so there are all kinds of food stores along every block. (It must be like this in pedestrian-friendly American cities too, but I’ve never lived in one. LA is built for cars, and I lived outside of SF.) In Toronto we shopped at produce markets, a Korean supermarket, an independent supermarket (a real rarity!), a specialty grocery (carrying mostly meats and dairy, but some baked goods and produce and a selection of jarred sauces), a natural-foods store, weekly farmers’ markets, and a smaller offshoot of a large supermarket chain. This last type is something I’ve seen quite a lot in the UK but not in the US (again, it could be a city thing). In the UK there was Sainsbury’s supermarket but also the smaller Sainsbury’s Local, Tesco supermarket but also Tesco Express and Tesco Metro, and Waitrose but also Little Waitrose. On Wikipedia these smaller versions are referred to as “convenience stores” but they are nothing like what I would call convenience stores at home, which are usually really tiny and don’t carry many fresh items. In Iceland we shopped at the independent store Melabúðin, which I would have called a small supermarket because it carries nearly everything and has its own butcher/fish counter, but our host introduced it to us as “not really a supermarket, more like a grocery store.” When I finally did go to an Icelandic supermarket I saw what she meant; Melabúðin is excellent but it doesn’t have its own bakery, and it is quite a small store (evenings and weekends were a total squeeze). But we were very happy with it, because up until then we had only been shopping at Bónus, which is a no-frills store something along the lines of Tesco Metro.

This is all just my experience, and I’d be really interested to hear if your food-shopping impressions differ from mine!

***That’s it for my digression. Now back to Istanbul.***

Even at home, I always preferred to shop in smaller stores rather than major supermarkets (Whole Foods being an exception), because (a) supermarket quality is usually not as good, and (b) I really can’t deal with fifty varieties of toothbrush; I have enough trouble making decisions as it is. If I had to go to a supermarket, my strategy was to just pick something and be done with it, getting in and out as quickly as possible so as to avoid distraction and decision fatigue. But on our travels, I have often relied on supermarkets because they usually have clearer price labels, and the larger selection means I can make better comparisons (which is important when I can’t read the labels; comparisons give me more clues what something might be). However, I’m still not used to the overwhelm. So many unfamiliar foods, so many options, so many labels I can’t read… foreign food shopping is fascinating, but also exhausting.

Today, at the Carrefour Express, I tried to keep it simple: I was going to get fruit, yogurt, bread, cheese, and maybe a snack. The fruit was easy.

Big yellow peaches

{as always, mouse over images for my notes, or click to enlarge}

I put three big peaches into a bag and was placing it into the basket on Erik’s arm when he said, “I think you need a sticker.” He gestured back to the fruit displays, and I noticed an alert-looking middle-aged man smiling at me from behind a digital scale. “Oh!” I said. He held out a hand and I gave him the bag of peaches, which he weighed, labeled, and handed back.

Big peaches in a labeled bag

Meanwhile I had put figs into another bag, so I gave him that, and he repeated the process. I thanked him and he responded with a smile and what I thought was merci. “Strange,” I thought, “but maybe French is the only foreign language he knows.” I found out later that mersi is one of the ways to say thank you in Turkish (along with teşekkür ederim and sağ ol) — though I don’t know when to use which!

Big black figs

After that we went to the yogurt section — I would say the dairy section but no, it was just yogurt; even the labneh was in a separate area — and that’s when my head started spinning. There was so much yogurt. Flavored yogurt, plain yogurt, yogurt in square containers, yogurt in round containers, yogurt in single-serve cups and yogurt in bigger containers than I’ve ever seen anywhere. And I couldn’t tell what anything was, except that it was all yoğurt. Finally I picked two small cups and just decided to try them both. I didn’t realize until I got home that they were both doğal, plain/natural, though that is fine with me as I prefer unflavored yogurt.

Two small containers of yogurt

At home I typed the words into Google Translate (with the help of TypeIt for the Turkish characters — it’s the same site I used for typing Icelandic characters) and discovered that the one on the right is “creamy” yogurt (whatever that means), and the one on the left is apparently for mothers. I don’t know what that means either — both yogurts are pasteurized — but the label (after typing and translating) makes much of the cleanliness of the production process. They cost the same: 1 TL, or about 55¢ or 33p. Which, since the “mother’s” container is 30g larger, actually makes that one the cheaper.

I reeled my way from the yogurt to the cheese section — well, one of the cheese sections — and that was even worse. I guess I can’t claim I couldn’t read anything — Gouda is the same everywhere — but still, it was insane. I finally picked one based on the picture on the package. Google Translate says taze kaşar just means “fresh cheese.”

Wrapped cheese

Rectangular pale white-yellow cheese

By the way, I found this great site today explaining Turkish pronunciation, and I’m relieved to learn it has definite rules. (I think Icelandic does too, but there are so many caveats, I never could tell how anything was pronounced.) Even though I still don’t know the words, it makes me feel better to know how they’re said. (And actually, as I found in Iceland, sometimes the pronunciation can tell me what something is; a word might not appear to be an English cognate from the way it’s spelled, but the sound could be similar. When I learned the Icelandic ð is pronounced like “th” in “there,” and saw Gullsmiðjan outside a jewelry shop, I recognized the word as having to do with goldsmithing.)

The bread section was almost as bad as the cheese. There were flatbreads, rolls, seeded breads, sliced breads… every kind of bread, really. I finally admitted defeat and just picked a plain brown toast bread. It occurs to me now that we don’t have a toaster… ah well, there’s always the oven.

wrapped loaf of bread

I also bought a wrapped pastry just because it looked so good.

Bun in a swirl shape

Rapata bun

I thought it would be something like a Danish, but I’m eating it now and it is nothing like I expected. It is firm, dense, and rather dry in spite of its glossy appearance and many-layered dough. I think it’s filled with helva and that’s why it feels so powdery-dry inside. I don’t think I’d get it again, though it’s probably nice with tea.

Eggs were easy to select, fortunately. The odd thing about them is that they come in cartons of apparently every size. I was looking for half-dozens but I found an eight-pack, a nine-pack (which I bought), and a ten-pack. Later Erik found the half-dozens. When I got home I discovered that one of the egg keepers in the fridge — a piece of plastic with holes in it, that fits into one of the shelves on the door — actually has nine holes (the other has ten holes). Hmmmmmm.

Nine-pack of eggs

The jam section was crazy again. I spotted an aisle with many jars in it and I thought that was the jam, but it turned out to be shelves and shelves of honey. Good thing I didn’t want to buy honey because I can’t imagine what all those varieties are, and I certainly can’t read their labels to find out! The jams were next to the honey and there were as many kinds, though maybe one-third of them were familiar brands (Bonne Maman, St Dalfour), so I skipped over those.

Apricot jam with label in Turkish

Apricot jam with ingredients listed in multiple languages

I was very amused by the “extra traditionell” on the label, but when I got home and spooned out some of the jam over my “mother’s” yogurt, I was delighted to discover it was full of dried apricots. The jam itself was quite thin, more like a jelly; I wonder if this is why a lot of cookie recipes ask for apricot jam as a glaze? This stuff would make a great glaze and the apricots themselves are delicious and fun to eat.

Yogurt with apricot preserves

We picked up one last item before heading to the checkout (which was like checkout anywhere — though you do bag your own items, like in Europe but not the US): garlic. They only had one kind and it was Turkish; I’m sure I understand “orjın: Türkıye“! I have never seen garlic like this before and I can’t wait to try it.

Bag of the smallest heads of garlic I've ever seen


And now… I’m off to make soup from the garlic. Erik has been a bit under the weather and I think garlic soup will be just the thing. 🙂