I have always been a fairly picky eater. I’m light years better than I was in my childhood, when I’d grimace at anything I didn’t recognize (or didn’t think I’d like, which was a lot of things). As a kid, I didn’t like tomatoes, avocados, peanut butter, cream cheese, celery, mushrooms, artichokes, or any kind of nut. I still don’t like a few of those things, but I’ve been known to eat them anyway – because I’m a grown up, and grown ups do things they don’t want to do all the time. Or at least that’s what I’m told.
At any rate, although I’ve become a slightly more adventurous eater as I’ve gotten older, I’m never more adventurous – or excited about food – as when I’m in the candy aisle of a foreign supermarket. And I’m not talking about the grocery store down the street from me that I never go into.
I’ve got a sweet tooth – many of them, in fact – and I love sugary treats. But what I find fascinating about sweets in other countries is what they call candy is often not what I grew up calling candy. I love that while wanting a sweet treat is pretty much universal, the treats we appease our taste buds with can be extremely different.
My global obsession with candy began on a trip to France many years ago. My travel companions and I had stopped in a small town to stock up on picnic supplies on our way into the Alps, where we were going to camp overnight and watch a stage of the Tour de France go by the following day. My friends were picking up things that wouldn’t require refrigeration and would sustain us through a few days of camping – things like hard sausages, hard cheeses, fruit, and bread. Y’know, practical stuff. Actual food.
Me? I was fascinated by the bags of pastel-colored marshmallows in the candy aisle.
It wasn’t that marshmallows were exotic to me – I’d grown up on marshmallow-gooey Rice Krispie treats and regularly stuffed the top of my hot chocolate mug with marshmallows. But not only had it never occurred to me that they might be a dessert or candy snack, I’d never seen marshmallows like this before. They were flavored marshmallows – grape and strawberry in muted tones of purple and pink.
Naturally, I bought a packet of every color.
Fast-forward to every trip I make to Italy in recent years. I know the supermarkets in Italy now, and the candy doesn’t surprise me anymore. But I still feel like a 10-year-old spending her weekly allowance when I pick up a Kinder egg and shake it, imagining what’s inside.
Back home, I’m lucky enough to be able to get my foreign candy aisle “fix” every time I go to one of the Asian markets in the Portland area. While the husband wanders the aisles looking for cooking inspiration (or, on a recent market trip, the ingredients to make bubble tea at home), I make a beeline for the candy aisle and start grabbing bags indiscriminately. The first time I visited one of the Asian markets in town I was so happy to discover that the flavored marshmallow phenomenon wasn’t just a French thing – and in fact the flavored marshmallows I now regularly get at the Asian market are a slight improvement, with a flavored-and-dyed-to-match gummy center.
But it’s in the Asian markets that I buy candy I would likely never consider candy in my own market – anything filled with red bean paste, for instance. And I’d never seen a lychee fruit or a tamarind when I first started buying lychee and tamarind candies. It’s often only after I’m home and spilling my “loot” into a big bowl – Halloween style – that I see what I’ve actually purchased.
A few months ago, we were with some friends and walked into an Asian market 15 minutes before it closed. At check-out, I had enough goodies for two plastic shopping bags and had spent $32. In 15 minutes. I’m still a semi-picky eater – especially for someone who loves food as much as I do – but put me in the candy aisle of any market in any country in the world and I’ll be as giddy as a schoolgirl.
photo by avlxyz