Dubai grocery shopping is a world tour. Since i) not much is cultivated in this desert locale during short growing seasons, and ii) Dubai is an international shipping hub, and iii) something like 85% of the population comes from somewhere else, well, nearly everything at the grocery store comes from somewhere else, too.
Here’s a brief look at the produce section of Choitram’s, our daily haunt, where provenance is on the signage:
Among the fruits we find grapes and mangos from Egypt, strawberries from South Africa, nectarines from Greece, coconuts from Vietnam, small bananas from India and large bananas from Ecuador, rambutan from Thailand, and pineapple from the Philippines. A few items, like organic berries and d’Anjou pears and certain varieties of apples, come all the way from the U.S. in rigorous Styrofoam-plastic wrapping. Another thing about grocery shopping here: it’s not for the faint of heart, in terms of environmental concern.
Since moving to Dubai I have learned that Morocco and South Africa produce great blueberries, I’ve had my first rambutan (smuggled in a suitcase from Sri Lanka, not from the grocery store shelves), and I can say from experience that Hass avocados from Mexico are much worse for the wear after a very long voyage to reach the Gulf.
Let’s meander over to the vegetables.
Here, the climate change-sensitive among us find some relief: for much of the year, a collection of UAE-grown veggies are available, including cucumber, tomato, bell peppers, and lettuce. Indeed, I do most of my shopping through a UAE farm that retails (and delivers!) to customers.
In addition to those local products, there are fresh herbs from Kenya, spinach from Italy, cauliflower and very sad, very wimpy mushrooms from Holland, sweet corn from Australia, and curry leaves from Sri Lanka.
China dominates the ginger and garlic (and some other, sturdier-looking mushrooms). New Zealand has an absolute monopoly on red meat. Many eggs, mostly organic and free-range, come from Ireland or Denmark (and from UAE).
And I would be remiss not to point out that there is a great variety of vegetables that I had never previously heard of and/or don’t know how to prepare, and therefore don’t buy (although I should try them, and learn!), from some of the above-mentioned countries and others.
Dubai’s many British immigrants have familiar grocery chains such as Waitrose and Spinney’s available to them. The French supermarket, Carrefour (8th largest retailer in the world by revenue), is where we do the occasional “big shopping.” Every branch of this mega-store is frantic from open to close, but they have the widest variety of products at reliably low prices. They also have a roving robot, Tally, who counts inventory and scares the life out of
me unsuspecting shoppers.
Carrefour features something akin to an “ethnic aisle,” but a delightful inversion of that
woefully outdated more or less xenophobic U.S. grocery standard; this one features exotic oddities such as Crisco, Fritos, and Marmite.
In a totally inappropriate and probably highly inaccurate pseudo-calculation, you get a sense of Dubai’s expat segments based on the square footage allotted to their special goods in this aisle. Looking at those vertical units of 8 or so shelves, we see that the U.S. is afforded a single unit, the U.K. a single unit, the entire continent of Africa a single unit, and the Philippines… 7 units, packed to the gills with condiments, noodles, canned fish, Ding Dongs (yum!), and more.
But, don’t let this aisle fool you; the 825 brands and varieties of rice found here should give a sense of the scope (and buying power) of Dubai’s immigrant communities. The entire store is, essentially, an ode to cuisines of the world.
In case you’re curious, here’s a look at what some corporate buyer (perhaps not from the U.S.?) has deemed an appropriate representation of our national culinary identity (-ies), and evidently what immigrants from the U.S. demand from their grocers: various types of chips, and pasta sauce. There we are, folks, in all our glory. (In a meaningful politico-cultural statement, (Huy Fong Foods) Sriracha hot sauce was recently relocated from the “USA” shelving unit to the “Thailand” shelving unit. So there’s that).
Happy shopping! Don’t forget the Crisco!