Aug 16, 2023

The best travel souvenirs are at the grocery store

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No matter where I am traveling in the world, my suitcase always returns home with a few souvenirs stuffed between my socks and boxers. Yet I rarely browse around a gift shop and often leave a touristy craft market empty-handed. Instead, I’ve found that some of my most treasured travel mementos come from an unlikely but everyday place: the shelves of local supermarkets.

On a recent visit to Tokyo, I brought back genmaicha (green tea with roasted rice) and tins of shichimi togarashi, a chile-heavy seasoning that briefly transports me back to Japan whenever I dust it over my udon noodles at home. I picked up sachets of Svanetian salt and khmeli suneli (a Georgian spice blend) in Tbilisi, and beautiful paper packets of Ethiopian Wush Wush tea at a grocery store in Addis Ababa. Every time I sprinkle slices of mango with Tajín, a tangy chile mix I bought in Mexico City, it rekindles fond memories of the Christmas holiday I spent there a few years ago.

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But my purchases aren’t limited to the spice or tea aisles. Often, they aren’t even edible. I’ve picked up colorful boxes and bottles of cough drops, herbal balms and even mosquito coils from the pharmacy sections of supermarkets in places such as Hong Kong and Vietnam. I won’t actually use them for their intended purposes; their old-timey and intricately designed packages now brighten up the open shelves in my living room as if they’re highbrow pieces of home decor.

Similarly, I use glass Coca-Cola bottles with labels in swirling Burmese and Arabic script (bought at corner shops in Yangon and Marrakesh, Morocco, respectively) as pop-arty vases for single flowers. And when people compliment me on my favorite shirt, a short-sleeved batik number with kaleidoscopic patterns in blue and moss green, I’ll respond with the same enthusiasm as a woman wearing a dress with pockets: “Thanks, I got it from a supermarket in Jakarta!”

I see foreign supermarkets as windows into a destination at its most authentic self — free from the oft-Disneyfied veneer of popular sightseeing spots and “must-see” markets, and without the novelties that can often feel tropey and unrepresentative of the lived local culture. (Souvenir stores in my native Holland, for example, make it look as if the Dutch still trot around in wooden shoes.) It’s a place to learn how locals really eat, a metaphorical peek into the country’s kitchen pantries, candy jars and skin-care routines. When I buy a curry mix, olive oil or exotically flavored toothpaste, it feels as if I’m taking a piece of that culture back home.

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Shopping for souvenirs at a supermarket has practical benefits, too. Supermarkets and grocery stores are usually found all over town and don’t require venturing into crowded tourist districts. Their opening hours often extend beyond the typical 10 to 6 of most regular trinket shops, and because they cater to the local community, their prices are far more reasonable. With price tags on clear display, there’s also no need to bust out my (frankly laughable) bargaining skills or wallow in that iffy feeling that maybe I’ve been taken for a ride by that seemingly friendly shopkeeper who sold me that “cashmere” shawl.

When I browse a foreign supermarket, I look for products that tap into a country’s collective nostalgia. It could be the Mysore Sandal Soap beloved by Indian moms and grandmothers, or the checkerboard-patterned tins of Simba Mbili curry powder that Kenyan families have been cooking with for generations. When I need to bring back a small gift from my adopted home in Thailand, I’ll often reach for a bottle of original Sriraja sauce or a pack of Double Goose tees, which have been a Thai wardrobe staple since the 1950s. These classics aren’t just the time-tested pick of the litter (and, as a bonus, they often come in pretty, old-timey packaging); they also carry a place’s soul in a way a kitschy souvenir trinket often cannot.

So, next time you’re abroad, pop into a Spar, a Carrefour or a simple corner shop. You might just find your next favorite keepsake.

Chris Schalkx is a Bangkok-based travel writer. You can follow him on Instagram: @chrsschlkx.