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
> tamarind candies
I grew up in Asia and love these. The type I like is the kind that is basically the tamarind seed with a bit of meat still on it, covered with sugar. In the Philippines, it is called “sampaloc.”
The Thai version of course adds in some chili to give it “bite.”
Yeah, we have Cost Plus out here, too, but I haven’t been in awhile – that’s a good idea. I love the Asian markets, but they obviously don’t have the European sweets. 🙂
I love checking out the candy in foreign markets and grocery stores. I thought Australia had some of the best candy, but South Korea’s snacks seemed actually pretty salty to me. We have a store near us here in the U.S. called Cost Plus World Market, which carries food, candy and beverages from around the world. Walking down those aisles is like taking a mini vacation.