It’s always fun when you travel to seek out the traditional foods of a country. It’s just as intriguing to root around grocery stores and restaurants to see what is happening right now.
Indeed, in some ways it’s even more intriguing. Lots of cookbook writers and journalists report on the traditional. Few pay such attention to the foreign foods being incorporated.
I’m just back from a few days in Bogotá, Colombia. It wasn’t primarily a food trip but I did manage to fit in a few food excursions, apart from eating exceptionally well every day. One outing was to the Carulla supermarket just a couple of blocks from the Centro Comercial Andino shopping center, perhaps the largest and most upmarket in Bogotá.
Carulla, founded over a hundred years ago, is now actually owned by Grupo Exito, originally a textile company and now the largest retailer in Colombia and expanding to other parts of South America, itself owned by a French company, Groupe Casino, with stores in Asia, the Indian Ocean, and Africa as well as South America. In France, they are called Géant.
All of which is to say that Walmart has to watch its back.
The ethnic section had five components: Asian, Mexican, French, Italian, and American. That in itself tells you certain things: Spanish barely counts as foreign, for example, jamon serrano from Spain appearing in the cold meat section, and Latin American cuisines other than Mexican are barely represented.
Asian has the usual suspects, La Choy soy sauce and Lee Kum Kee condiments. Judging by the Yellow Pages, Cantonese food is the favorite home delivery meal in Bogotá, beating out pizza and McDonalds Entrega (McDonalds delivery), though this may be an artifact of who advertises.
More surprising is the line up of Pataks Indian curry mixes and pickles. I don’t think this British-Indian line would be common in most of Latin America. I think it is because Géant sells Pataks in France. Hence the connection is not a Colombian enthusiasm for Indian cuisine but the globalisation of an Indian-British firm by a French company.
Mexican is popular here, as in so many parts of the world. It’s not a Mexican that Mexicans would recognize but exports from American companies, Azteca and El Paso, peddling the good old crispy taco dinner.
French and Italian merge into one another. Italian means olive oil. Nothing beats the success of the Olive Oil Council in promoting olive oil. As an aside, Ammini Ramanchandran mentioned to me that even in India, homeland of the exploitation of oil seeds, she now sees people using olive oil in preference to local oils.
Spaghetti, often a staple on ethnic Italian shelves in grocery stores, is here firmly in the mainstream Colombian section with rows and rows of Barilla products. Why it’s not Nestlé’s Buitoni is not clear, particularly given that there isn’t a large Italian population in Colombia in contrast to Argentina, Peru and Brazil.
As to the French ingredients, many of them like the pizza mix and the couscous are, not surprisingly, Casino, the house brand of the French company that owns Carulla. So too are the BiO products, the ecological line of the brand.
And last, but not least, there is American. Hunt’s canned tomatoes (judging by the advertising in magazines and newspapers on a major expansionist adventure in Colombia) are there, as well as barbecue sauce, sauces for spaghetti, Del Monte canned vegetables, and lots and lots of Campbell’s soups. Surprisingly, no Spam, normally a staple of American ethnic shelves, nor cranberry sauce.
So who’s buying these products and what are they doing with them? I suspect the market is mainly the Colombian upper middle class. There are not big immigrant populations in the country. So are they trying to replicate meals they have enjoyed in the booming restaurant scene? Or are they buying what Groupe Casino is selling?Any input? Colombian friends? European friends who know Groupe Casino better than I do? Or just food friends who share my curiosity at these global linkages?