A trip to the supermarket – it’s one of those easy adventures to be had when traveling. Surely it will involve some element of confusion, surprise, delight, and perhaps a moment or two of stomach-turning disbelief. Above all, supermarket browsing in a foreign country is an eye-opening peek into a national way of life, a way to find out just what people in another country eat, drink, and spend on food.
Supermarket shopping in Buenos Aires may have some travelers confused at first. If this is Latin America, then why are all of the faces behind the grocery store counters Asian? A right good question. The estimated number of Chinese- and Taiwanese-owned supermarkets in Buenos Aires is around 2,400. Aside from the handful of megastores in BA’s tiny-but-bustling Barrio Chino that feature all kinds of imported Asian food, drinks, liquors, spices, and candy, alongside some of the best fish and seafood selections in the city, and all kinds of other mishmashed items that fall under the ‘ethnic’ food category, like falafel mix and peanut butter, most of Buenos Aires’ so-called “chinos” are smaller family-owned businesses scattered all over the city, in every neighborhood, dominating the supermarket scene. Larger chain shops abound, as well, but unless you are specifically headed to the local brand-name stores like Disco or Coto, or the international chains like Carrefour and Jumbo, chances are your quest for chow will wind you up in the hands of the Asians.
Chinos, located on just about every city block in BA’s busier neighborhoods, carry your standard neighborhood supermarket products in Buenos Aires, like pasta, bread, flour, crackers and cookies, and canned foods, and most have a produce stand and – the Argentinean staple – a deli counter than more closely resembles a full-on butcher shop as opposed to your typical cold cuts and cheese counter. Only hardcore carnivores will want to wander into the deli, as some of the sights may be shocking: pigs’ heads, cows’ tongue, and the dreaded, textured tripe (stomach lining).
Safer bets for the casual snack-hunter are the beverage aisle – where top-of-the-line Argentinean wines will run you around US$10 and the table wines (still delicious) a whopping $3-4. The pickings are so good that recommending labels would take forever – for your curious tourist purposes, just grab as many bottles of malbec, cabernet sauvignon, and torrontes as you can carry and try them all.
Most supermarkets have an entire aisle or section devoted to the unofficial national beverage, mate, a tea-like herbal brew sipped hot through a metal straw from a gourd. A big bag of yerba mate is cheap, lasts forever, and is a truly unique BA souvenir.
Produce sections are a fair bet, as well. Keep in mind that Argentina is mostly farmland, and has sky-high import taxes, ensuring that the beautiful, big, colorful fruits and vegetables found in supermarkets are most likely locally-grown and quite cheap – a kilo of strawberries out to run you around US$1.50 while a kilo of tangerines costs about $0.50.