Back in Part Two of my Shameless Foodie on A Mission, Adri and I stumbled into a Walmart-style Peruvian mega store, which was actually called Mega.
In Part Three we venture into a Peruvian market. Ah, El Mercado!
Here in Peru, Mercados are vastly different from the Super Mercados. This was something I also saw when I lived in China. Size has nothing to do with it; mercados can take up an entire street block or a building the size of a 7-11, but they are generally laid out much more like a farmers market than a Walmart.
Individual vendors fill small units of space and usually specialize in selling one thing. One person will sell fruits, another vegetables, another fresh fish, another chickens and ducks, and yet another spices and herbal teas.
3 Things that Distinguish Mercados from Supermercados
#1 Freshness I found that both in China and in Peru, freshness is prized.
Freshness is a term I never really used much when describing food until I went to China. In the US we generally talk about food quality in terms of factors that are determined by labeling, like organic, natural, gluten-free and so on. However, in China all I heard was people chattering about how fresh this or that was. Butchers would offer discounts on their meat by 2pm because people wouldn’t pay full price for meat after noon. Customers would scrutinize vegetables, not for blemishes or insect bites like we do in the US, but for signs that the produce was not fresh, like shriveled skin or thirsty looking greens. Fish for dinner? Get ready to pick one right out of the tank (or the little kid blow up pool) and have your purchase be its death sentence.
The Chinese word for freshness, xin xian, was flung around everywhere I went, in restaurants, mercados, even Walmarts (although here people were often complaining how not fresh something was). People would chat with the vendors, basing their recipes for that nights dinner on whatever the vendor claimed was freshest.
The customers in China demand freshness and their main complaint about Supermarkets is indeed the undeniable lack of freshness. You can tell by the color, the appearance, even the sound (a fresh zucchini should have a slightly hollow pop when you tap it, like that of a watermelon). Get intimate with your food before you buy it, and pay no attention to the weird looks people might give you. In most other countries this is the status quo so you can tell onlookers you are simply cosmopolitan.
Similar to the Chinese I know, for Peruvians freshness matters!
Here in Peru, its not much different, ok minus the live fish, oh and you hear the word fresca instead of xinxian. The mercados are colorful and crowded, filled with fruits and vegetables that look like they were picked close to that morning, and meat that looks like…well you know… lets just say there was no time wasted with packaging. And nothing wasted at all for that matter. Pigs feet, entire limbs, ribs, reproductive organs, intestines, you name it, they have it. Sorry for the pictures vegetarians, but I just think the carnivores need a visual reminder where their neatly packaged and pruned meat products come from.
The supermarkets stock their food all at once and the turn over is not as high, so the produce is often lacking in freshness. Sure the supermarkets apply certain methods to try and preserve that fresh allure, like plastic wrap, wax on apples, and chemical sprays that preserve freshness (superficially). Not everyone is fooled so easily. My friend Alfonso told me that he goes to the Supermarket for things like toilet paper and cereal, but when it comes to fruits and veggies mercados are far superior.
#2 Diversity: Diversity is the next major thing between the mercado and the super mercado.
At the Mercado in Lima I found fruits I had never seen before, whole flounder fish fresh off the boat next to entire octopi, and so many vivacious vegetables and flamboyant fruits of every size, shape and color you could easily mistake yourself for being in a gay pride parade. I found things I had never seen before like dried fish eggs (caviar but still connected by the sac membrane), fresh aguaymanto (a fruit often sold dried in the US as a super food called goldenberry), and oca (a uber-nutritious tuber that looks like a bright orange fingerling potato but tastes both sweet, nutty and a bit tangy).
In addition to the potato look-alikes, there were dozens of varieties of potatoes in the markets as well.
One kind of potato was particularly mysterious, and thanks to my wife striking up a conversation with a lady selling them, I now have a vague idea of how these ghostly looking potatoes, called Moraya, are produced. Our Spanish is not great, and we must have looked bewildered as our minds tried to make sense of the bits and pieces we comprehended, like “we stomp on them until the peels come off, they can be stored for over 15 years, and you have to put them in the river to freeze them.”
After some further research, I have found out that yes all of that is true, but the chronological process is more or less as follows: put the potatoes in a cold river for about a month until they are completely saturated with water, then they are taken out and stomped upon until the skins come off and all the water is expelled, and finally they are left outside for an additional 2 weeks where the hot days and cold nights finish the dehydration process.
Moraya can be kept for years without going bad or losing any nutritional value. So what do they taste like? We were lucky enough to find out when our vendor friend directed us to the only lady in the whole prepared foods area that sold a chicken soup containing it. Turns out Moraya is like a super potato, I don’t know how to describe it except that it is more “potatoey” than any potato I have ever had. It tasted so good and I felt so nourished!
Peru–the birthplace of the potato. Over 2,800 varieties!
Diversity in supermarkets doesn’t even measure up. I mean, how do you feel when you walk into an average supermarket? Like you have neat, organized and manageable choices? Well thats nice I guess, unless you’re like me and you like to be overwhelmed by abundance and compare one vendors strawberries to another to ensure you get the very best. With supermarketization comes a loss in variety, and unless the customer demands diversity our food will become increasingly homogenized from seed to table.
In Peru, the birthplace of potatoes, there is said to have been 2,800 varieties cultivated, with at least 1,500 varieties being preserved today. The potato plays an integral role in Peruvian culture, there are ceremonies around the various growing seasons, many species are used as medicine, and some communities living in high altitude mountains trade them for other crops like corn with their lower-living neighbors.
A diverse diet is not just important for our health, it is also the fabric of any intact food culture, and if you ask me food culture is the backbone of culture, period. I mean, what would Spain be without its tapas, what would Italy be without its eccentric grandmas cooking canoli all day?
What happens when commercialized agriculture fails to see the value in all this diversity? Supermarkets are concerned mainly with consistency and presentation. It is not in their interest to sell 30 different kinds of potatoes, some of which can only be harvested a few months out of the year, and are only grown by indigenous groups living way up in the mountains.
The question is, will the full rainbow of food varieties continue to be grown if there is no mercado? Mercados are often fairly accessible to vendors, requiring limited overhead and licensing. All the red tape that goes into food sales at supermarkets in the name of food safety, ends up limiting who can sell what, and as a result favors large-scale farms and big-ag businesses. This trend isn’t good for diversity, so keep that in mind next time you decide to buy Idaho potatoes at your “local” supermarket.
#3 Packaging: A lot versus little to none
Nothing at the mercados are packaged (ok except for the Maca powder with a picture of a vivacious man on the package); fruits and vegetables are stacked atop one another and hunks of meat wait to be cut upon the request of the customer. If anything there will be a bunch of strawberries in a wooden palette. None of the fruits have labels on them (this means no sticky residue from when you peel off the sticker!) but you could just strike up a conversation with the vendor if you want to know where its from.
The vendors make full use of their space with creative hooks and sidewalls so that every inch is covered. Don’t like the first mangoes you see? Just go over to one of the other 20 vendors selling mangoes and you are bound to find one that fits your fancy. You pick out your fruit or vegetable, the vendor weighs it, puts it in a plastic bag (but you can bring your own!) and then you pay. It’s that simple.
In contrast, supermarkets package, or at least label, almost everything. How often do you get to just pick your strawberries from a palette at a supermarket? Instead they are neatly pre-packed into plastic containers. In Peru it’s no different. The supermarkets followed a global standard, packaging anything at risk of being bruised. But bananas? Do they really need to be saran wrapped around styrofoam cartons when they already come with their own natural wrappers?
So why do supermarkets add all these extra materials? Well one reason is that unlike in the mercados, the “fresh” produce in supermarkets often has to survive traveling enough miles to earn some serious frequent flyer points. You too would need to be protected by a hard plastic case if you were a strawberry traveling from Chile to some suburban supermarket in middle America. I am not saying all the food in mercados comes from the farm right outside the city, but there is certainly no imported goods, and a lot of the produce gets transported on one truck, or sometimes just a wheelbarrow. The amount of fuel used to transport foods to major supermarkets is grandiose compared to that used to bring food from neighboring farms to mercados.
Supermarkets also create greater food waste because they select only the “prettiest” foods. I noticed that there were no bruised fruits in the Supermarket, but the Mercado in Lima had plenty, and they still tasted great. Supermarkets throw away more spoiled food because they overstock to keep their shelves looking full.
I witnessed this first hand when I volunteered with a food bank in Denver, where we received slightly expired food by the ton. When greens start to wilt or carrots start to lose their luster, vendors at mercados shout out discounts and the aging veggies get swept up just in time! In mercados there is such high turn around, and each vendor is only bringing a small amount each day, that significantly less food waste is created.
I know! It makes you think twice about going to your local supermarket (an oxymoron by the way). And I have only been comparing apples to apples; fresh produce to fresh produce. Think about all the material inputs and energy costs that goes into processed meats like hot dogs, TV dinners, sugar-laced cereal, or any other processed goodies that line the shelves of any supermarket. These “foodish” foods rely on preservatives, stabilizers and excessive packaging to maintain a shelf life. The preservation of food is not new; just look at all the canning and pickling methods, or the dehydrated Moraya potatoes in Peru. What is new is the methods. I would need to write a whole other post to talk about the impact of processed foods on the environment. I don’t go in dept here because there is no comparison to make; mercados don’t carry processed foods. Yet another good reason to shop at your local farmers market.
So whats so great about Supermarkets anyway?
Supermarkets are an iconic symbol of modernization and industrialized food systems. One advantage of supermarkets that repeatedly came up during my interviews with customers in China, is that they are a one stop shop; you can get your food, your electronics, your toiletries and often even your clothes in the same place. While this is nice, it comes at a price: supermarkets have encouraged the production and consumption of processed and de-localized foods. Frozen TV dinners, imported cheeses, and aisles and aisles of sugar-laced cereals, cookies and candy all have a co-dependent relationship with supermarkets.
I have to ask though, are they really more convenient? Or do they just seem more convenient amid our crazy modern lives where we have become accustomed to driving everywhere and only have time to shop once a week? Here in Peru, the locals seem to be going shopping almost daily.
They walk about 5 blocks to go to a small mercado, one about the size of 7/11, and then twice a week they take a 10 min bus to the mercado central where they can get staples like flour, cheese and eggs. Here in Cusco, there is the lady with a wheelbarrow full of apples, the man selling 10 kinds of veggies plus a supple selection of fruits from his mobile cart, and woman with a cooler full of empanandas on the sidewalk, all just a 10 minute walk from my hostal. To me, that is convenience.
Shopping at mercados instead of Supermarkets encourages us to buy and cook real foods. Going to the supermarket makes us think that buying a shopping carts worth of boxed and packaged goods is normal. Or worse, that buying a weeks worth of fresh foods and then letting them spoil by Wednesday is acceptable.
We need to start looking at the mercado model as the new status quo in the US, not just a trendy fad that only happens on one street on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Farmers markets don’t need to just be supplemental to our diets, they can be the standard. Local, fresh food should and can be accessible and affordable for everyday people. Peru has definitely shown me that.
Stay tune for the final part of my series reflecting on food from Peru. And please leave comments and share your own travel experiences and thoughts about food. And check out Adri’s website with updates from our trip including sketches and lots more photos.