Global Spam (and Skippy, too)

a jar of genuine American Skippy peanut butter sells for $58.60 (about $8) in Hong Kong!

A couple of years ago, a fellow American expat told me about a little-known basement-level supermarket here in Hong Kong called Gateway, that sells nothing but brand-name American supermarket staples, and junk food, to homesick expats.

I tucked that information away in case I ever woke up in Hong Kong with a craving for Cocoa Puffs or Kraft's Macaroni and Cheese. But it hasn't happened. In fact, I spend an unhealthy amount of time wandering the aisles of Hong Kong's giant gourmet emporium, CitySuper, where you can find amazing foodstuffs from all over Europe and Asia.

Talk about choices! It sometimes takes me more than an hour to work my way past the jars of Taiwanese garlic and chili flavored dipping sauces for hot pot feasts, the eight different kinds of Japanese soba noodles, each made from a different grain, the fully stocked sake section. Who needs Joy or Dove to wash your dishes when you can choose between Hong Kong's own Axion, Japan's LiOn, and Britain's Waitrose?

Me, I've become a huge fan of the Hokkaido milk that CitySuper imports from Japan's northernmost island--the milk is said to be sweeter because of the climate and the Japanese cows that "grow in Nature at ease."

Come to think of it, Hokkaido milk would probably be fantastic over a bowl of Rice Krispies...

In my January Real Travel column, I wrote about how visiting supermarkets in a foreign place is great way to get a quick immersion into local culture. Many of you wrote in to agree--and to share your stories about the unusual gifts and inexpensive treasures you were able to pick up in foreign aisles.

Given the amazing variety of super supermarket stuff available in Hong Kong, I couldn't imagine at first what would draw customers to Gateway, a badly lit basement--sort of a mini Sam's Club-- filled with corrugated boxes of Pringles, Kool-aid and jumbo-sized boxes of Tide.

I scouted around to see who was shopping. Three customers were in Gateway when I was there, an Indian couple and a Chinese housewife. The checkout staff and the manager were all Chinese.

It suddenly occurred to me that the all-American supermarket staples offered by Gateway might be as thrilling as a Taiwanese garlic chili sauce to someone who hadn't grown up in a Land o' Lakes and Birds Eye frozen vegetables. Thousands of miles overseas, my nation's supermarket staples are exotic transmitters of a "sense of place" far away from their familiar surroundings.

And maybe more than that. I secretly hope that the Indian customers are adding their crumbled Pringles into their Channa Chat snacks, Filipina cooks are dicing up SPAM to toss into their pancit, and that Hong Kong housewives have discovered that Skippy makes the most perfectly smooth peanut sauce for Sichuan cold noodles.


  • Trackbacks are closed for this post.

  • 2/10/2010 10:03 PM Cynthia wrote:
    I too have found it enlightening to navigate the supermarket aisles when I travel. I believe this started when I visited my former in-laws in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There was an entire aisle devoted to tomato products of all varieties, temperatures, consistencies, and persuasions which was a revelation to someone who grew up in the Midwest.
    I am also amazed at how universal our American foods have become - like Skippy and Spam in Japan. When I was visiting Buenos Aires in 2004, I had taken two tubes of Pringles Potato Chips with me as late night snacks because the tubes traveled well. I took one of the tubes with me to snack on during the afternoon one day in a break between tango lessons. The young woman instructor was quite excited to see the Pringles potato chips because they could not be obtained any longer in BsAs because they were too expensive to import at that time. I gave her the entire tube as a tip.
    Reply to this
Leave a comment

Submitted comments are subject to moderation before being displayed.

 Name (required)

 Email (will not be published) (required)

Your comment is 0 characters limited to 3000 characters.