Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I Went Shopping - Old Kent Food Centre

This is the inaugural post in a new series called "I Went Shopping."  Slate has recently discovered the thrill of sharing your purchases with other people.  Puh-lease, I had the idea for a blog dedicated to pictures of sharing shopping years ago.  I think the nucleus for the idea began in 2007, when a friend and I returned to his apartment, displayed, and photographed the bounty of our trip to Hyderabad.

India inspires great feeling towards purchases because the voyage out is long, the shopping itself uncovers new things (and even new categories of things!), and often, you don't know when you will return.  On my trip to India this past winter, my sister, our friend and I nightly took out our purchases and laid them out to narrate to each other the work of that day.  Of course we had been with each other continuously, it was not only about showing what we had bought, but also reidentifying with those objects by telling why they were desired.

Here in London, I've been feeling disoriented by the time changes and the distance from homes.  I spent yesterday organizing my life and then went shopping to fill my cupboard.  I first went to Tesco, and the items I bought there were necessary and not so interesting.  But at the Old Kent Food Centre, a favorite of mine, I just wandered the aisles and marveled at the range of products.

The Old Kent Food Centre is a halal butcher shop and grocery store.  The above picture doesn't adequately capture its treasures--just in this aisle, there were pickles from Turkiye, Iraq and India, fish sauce and chili pastes from Thailand, and this treasure from the USA I found at the far end.

Crystal's Louisiana Hot Sauce, bottled for the Arabic-reading world, and sold in London.  I didn't pick any up today, but here's what I did get:

The produce there is so beautiful, the herbs especially are so fresh and green that I wanted to pick up some cilantro and mint too, but resigned myself to this big bunch of parsley only.  I bought some white wine vinegar, canned tomatoes, hot red chillies, pickled gherkins, lemon roasted almonds, sesame crisps, cerassie tea ("Old traditional folk tales of the Caribbean suggests Cerassie tea to be a good cleanser of the blood, giving a healthier, fitter and stronger body."), cardamom tea, and jasmine hair oil.

So far, the real winner is the Ahmad cardamom tea.  It's delicious, and with milk and sugar, tastes like an Indian sweet in liquid form.  So good!  The white wine vinegar made a delicious dressing for my salad, and I have yet to try anything else.  Except for the jasmine hair oil which doesn't smell like anything.  Oh well.

In the Old Kent Food Centre, as I heard the men talking without understanding a word, spoke with a woman about the best brands of tea, and took in the world of pickled vegetables, I felt content.  A feeling similar to the one I had the day before in Monmouth Coffee, a local roaster that buys their beans from organic producers around the world.  They did not have my favorite coffee in stock, and when I asked why, the bean man explained that this year's crop had only just come in, and they hadn't tasted it yet to see if they liked it.

I've been thinking a lot about these two experiences and why we shop.  When shopping, we experience the tension between desire and fulfillment.  I wanted the Balmaadi Estate coffee, but it is unavailable to me at this time of year.  I have limited resources, and yet in the market I am overwhelmed by goods, all packaged and bright, and potentially delicious.  I know nothing about these foods, I can read the label, but I have to make hard choices and take a risk with each item.  Both of these experiences opened me up to the bigness of the world, the ways in which we are connected through the chains of supply and demand to people far away and yet also the limited ways in which we participate in the world.  It may only be as a customer in a shop, but even without spending, we have the chance to see the world, which is so often shuttered from us in our everyday lives.

I say see the world, but not necessarily because of the origins of the particular products I bought that day.  It's not the series of food items like a parade of nations that inspires the feeling.  This is not an experience to be had at the supermarket, which is a timeless space of limitless fulfillment.  There, the fruits and vegetables are the same regardless of the season, and the foods, whether Lincolnshire sausages or ginger from China are available to the point where they lose any sense of their origins.  The unavailability of the Balmaadi coffee beans at Monmouth makes the coffee I had there in the fall all the more precious, and the cup of coffee I did have on Monday, produced by Familia Mamani Mamani in Bolivia, more precious too.  The Old Kent Food Centre also inspires the feeling that the foods come from somewhere, and mean things to the people they were originally produced by and for, which remain beyond my understanding.

But not beyond my enjoyment!  More soon after I try the pickles...


  1. ME TOO. I think that you might be onto something here, since we all know grocery is the best kind of shopping. AND I love nothing like a foreign grocery store. Best!!!

  2. You guys are both so welcome to post an I Went Shopping post anytime!!!