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Our very first day in South America, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, my sister and I made a grocery list and walked to the market down the street, only to find that the first 3 items on our list—peanut butter, oatmeal and plain yogurt—were nowhere to be found. Instead they had an entire aisle devoted to dulce de leche and about a thousand varieties of pasta and crackers. Living outside of the U.S. makes you realize that supermarkets vary wildly by region; personally, I strongly prefer the supermarkets in Colombia over those in the rest of South America.
First, though, it’s important to know what your typical Colombian supermarket isn’t good for. They aren’t good for baking supplies, and you won’t find the variety of whole grains, nuts/dried fruits and imported foods that can be found at American supermarkets. The first time I entered one I didn’t recognize half of the fruits and vegetables for sale, which some people might find problematic but I consider a fun challenge, especially once you realize that many of the unknown ingredients are pretty damn fantastic.
What are Colombian supermarkets great for? First of all, they are super clean and organized, the employees are always very friendly and helpful, and the lines move quickly, which is nothing to sneeze at, as my mother would say. What else?
Fruit: high quality, inexpensive, delicious fruit—several varieties of mangos and guavas (did you know there were different types of guava? My favorite are the little yellow ones called guayaba coronilla), dragon fruit, melons, citrus, granadilla (my absolute favorite Colombian fruit, seen in the picture above next to the mangoes) and a ton of others used to make juice. Plus loads of different varieties of plantains, separated by stage of ripeness, important for cooks because plantains are prepared completely differently depending on how ripe they are.
Fruit pulp for juice: if you happen to be too lazy to prepare fruit to make juice any given day, tons of fresh, unsweetened fruit pulp is available, ready to use-- guanabana (soursop), lulo (the orange fruits at the bottom of the pictures above—the pulp is the green stuff up top), passion fruit, strawberry, grape and the blackberry-like mora, and fruit purees from the Pacific coast like tamarind and borojo (one of my absolute favorites, which tastes kind of like tropical gummy bears)
Legumes and vegetables: freshly shelled cranberry beans and peas, corn in many forms, dried beans (especially the enormous red ones, called frijol bola), and papa criolla (my favorite potatoes in the world) as well as tubers like taro and yuca
Copious amounts of fresh herbs: lots of which I still don’t know what to do with, alongside the usual suspects—cilantro, parsley, thyme, etc. Also fresh aloe and many plants used for teas and medicinal purposes.
Arepas: in the refrigerator case, premade arepas—white, yellow, cheese filled, and sweet, in varying sizes. And, por supuesto, a wide selection of areparina, the flour used to make arepas.
Chicken and eggs: as a matter of course many supermarkets sell yellow, farm-raised poultry (called pollo campesino) alongside the more industrial kind, and in general always sell very fresh, orange-yolked eggs.
On site bakeries: many supermarkets have adjoining cafes/bakeries, and it’s common for the bakery to announce over the loudspeaker when hot pandebono and other traditional Colombian breads are coming out of the oven. Many people will begin or end their shopping trip with a café con leche and a couple of piping hot cheese-enriched rolls, a practice which I can only highly condone from personal experience.
Though you can find frozen, pre-packaged meals, the majority of the space in supermarkets is occupied by produce, dairy, a very helpful meat counter, and dry (non junky) goods. When it comes down to it, what I most love about the supermarkets in Colombia is that they sell high-quality ingredients inexpensively to a population that expects everything fresh and knows exactly what to do with it. Which means that even if you don’t know what to do with an unknown vegetable, the lady next to you will be more than happy to tell you.