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Why Chinatown Produce Is Cheap (2016) (saveur.com)
471 points by bilifuduo on May 2, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 407 comments



this rarely gets mentioned in these articles but it's extremely important. The Chinese food culture is substantially different than the Western food culture, and I don't just mean the items on the menu.

Chinese don't eat raw foods at all, and especially not vegetables, which they correctly (by the standards of Chinatown produce) view as being unsanitary until thoroughly cooked.

They have created a market that is efficient by eschewing the standards of sanitation that Western produce markets use. That's not to say that this is bad. Their food culture is fully adapted to it and it doesn't produce epidemics of food-borne illness in their community because they handle and cook food appropriately. The same approach wouldn't work if it was mostly Westerners buying the food though. A taste for raw baby kale salad makes this entire approach to food marketing non-viable.


Indeed, the linked article doesn't say anything about lack of sanitation, and almost implies the opposite.

»Imbruce, who's researched the Chinatown produce economy for over a decade, is the author of From Farm to Canal Street: Chinatown’s Alternative Food Network in the Global Marketplace. In the Journal she distills to Kadet the real reason Chinatown can keep prices low: “Chinatown’s 80-plus produce markets are cheap because they are connected to a web of small farms and wholesalers that operate independently of the network supplying most mainstream supermarkets.” While most of the rest of New York's markets get their produce from the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx, Chinatown sellers work directly with small neighborhood warehouses. Since they're operating in close geographic proximity, they can get fresh produce throughout the day from wholesalers, and therefore don’t need a store with refrigeration or a lot of storage space.«


they don't strictly need refrigeration because of rapid turnover (most of the inventory sells same day) and because the buyers are knowledgable about what condition the produce really is.

that said, if you've ever walked down Mott St. on a hot summer afternoon there will be no doubt in your nose that the produce isn't making the sanitation grade that you will find at Whole Foods.


> if you've ever walked down Mott St. on a hot summer afternoon there will be no doubt in your nose that the produce isn't making the sanitation grade that you will find at Whole Foods.

Are you sure what you're smelling isn't the fish markets or medicinal herb stores? Produce is produce, it doesn't smell like anything.


fish gut refuge + hot air/sun does not mix well


True. The parent comment was specifically referring to off produce, but I think what you mentioned plays a big factor too.


Just recently bought fish in Whole Foods. From store to home ~ 25 minutes. Just after that time fish was smelling awful. So i'm not buy fish anymore there.


The Chinese food culture is substantially different than the Western food culture, and I don't just mean the items on the menu.

Things I've noticed about the particular Chinese food culture of my girlfriend: Ginger goes in Chicken soup. Garlic does not. Broccoli is only cooked until bright green. Black pepper is used, basically never. All vegetables are to be rinsed, even the things in Trader Joe's packages that say "Triple Washed, Ready to Use." Almost no claim on the package should be trusted, ever.

Meat is always well cooked. (And there are plenty of ways to make meat very tasty without having it be super-rare.)


These are pretty good general rules of thumb. Interestingly the Vietnamese, by contrast, are very much in to rare meats.

Broccoli and other vegetables are cooked only slightly because it is considered wasteful of the natural qualities of the food to overcook it (and probably because it wastes fuel also, which is also the reason for everything being cut small before cooking).


> Interestingly the Vietnamese, by contrast, are very much in to rare meats.

I blame the French.

Indochina happened.

The biggest evidence for this is Vietnamese word for beef is Bo. Which is a borrowed French word.

http://www.asian-central.com/stuffasianpeoplelike/2010/05/21...


It does seem likely that bo is French boeuf-derived, but according to Wiktionary[0] the historical Vietnamese pronunciation of the Chinese character for beef (牛) was ngưu, ngọ, ngỏ, ngõ, ngâu. It is interesting that these are so similar to pan-Taic languages neua and Cantonese ngau.

[0] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E7%89%9B#Vietnamese


Probably because two thousand plus years ago the area that is now called Guangdong, and the area that is now Vietnam, was inhabited by the same people; And then the Guangdong area was conquered by China. The people who lived in Guangdong inter-married with the Chinese migrating south and also had a lot of influence on Cantonese. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southward_expansion_of_the_Han...

Vietnam is "Yue-nam" in Chinese, and Cantonese is "Yue-yu" in Chinese, whose literal meaning is "Language of Yue".

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baiyue


Vietnamese here. I don't think your explanation is correct.

First, most of the Viet-Cantonese words are likely brought by Chinese migration since the 15th century. When the Ming dynasty fell, many Chinese fled to South Vietnam and helped Viet people annex that land from the Cambodians https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoa_people

Second, tt's true that we "might" have lots of connections with the ancient Yue people, but this is still in debate. Just like the Romans called everyone on the other side of the Rhine "Germans", the Chinese of 2000 years ago called everyone south of them "Yue", even though they can be different tribes or nations. Being named the same thing by the Chinese doesn't actually mean anything. Genetically we have many similarities with the people of south China, but the history of vocabularies can be more complicated than that.


You're right a lot of the loanwords and similarities between the languages could and likely happened later on.

I think there's no way Cantonese and Vietnamese don't have lots of connections with the ancient Yue people; A whole people don't just fall off the face of the Earth, unless there was a most serious kind of genocide. Almost certainly Cantonese and Vietnamese can trace some of their ancestors to the Yue one way or another. It's true Chinese at the time called everyone south of them Yue, but it didn't mean they were that much fragmented into tribes. The kingdom of Nanyue has borders pretty much exactly matching Guangdong + Vietnam. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanyue. Nan = south, and so does the "nam" in Vietnam. I don't think that's a coincidence.

But your larger point is very much correct now that I think about it - the history of vocabularies can be very much complicated.


Interesting, I just had diner with a French friend and his wife currently living in Hanoi. As we were sharing a nice peace or rare beef they told me that they could never have that there, and that in their experience the locals thoroughly cook their meet. I have been to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi before for holidays and work and don't have any specific memories on the subject but the version I know of Vietnamese food thoroughly cook the meet.

Edit: I concede that Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are two very different cities and the proliferation of French like restaurant is more present in Ho Chi Minh City as far as I remember.


Err, bo tai means rare beef and it is easy to acquire in Vietnam.


Ah this came up recently. bo in Vietnamese, bó in Gaeilge. The origin is likely from Latin. http://www.latin-dictionary.net/search/latin/Bo


Wiktionary gives the etymology of "bó" as coming straight from Proto-Celtic and Proto-Indo-European. In any case, sometimes Irish has both a word of Celtic origin and a loanword for animals. "Chicken" is "cearc" but also "sicín".


> Broccoli is only cooked until bright green.

I mean, that's the correct way to cook it in any context, I would have thought. The whole massively overcooking vegetables thing is thankfully mostly dying out now.


> All vegetables are to be rinsed, even the things in Trader Joe's packages that say "Triple Washed, Ready to Use." Almost no claim on the package should be trusted, ever. <

This is really good advice. Food contamination happens, even in your triple washed, plastic bagged veggies.


Well, unless the meat is particularly fresh. Then you only cook to barely cooked.

See steamed chicken where often it will be served with the marrow still red. And it's blasphemy to overcook fish.


And it's blasphemy to overcook fish.

Thanks. I think I just figured another one out!


> Chinese don't eat raw foods at all, and especially not vegetables, which they correctly (by the standards of Chinatown produce) view as being unsanitary until thoroughly cooked.

That's not strictly true. There are plenty of classical Chinese dishes - many of them family type dishes - that are composed of raw vegetables.

Also pickling is pretty big in Chinese cuisine, but I guess that's not "raw" in the technical sense.

Lastly, Chinese people love raw seafood - sushi, oysters, etc.


All this is true, but while we() used to shop regularly in Chinatown markets (back when we lived close to a Chinatown, anyway), we would not eat anything raw except for fruits. Any vegetables or meat to be eaten raw or undercooked, we would buy from an "American" market.

() Chinese-American family.


> Lastly, Chinese people love raw seafood - sushi, oysters, etc.

Which Chinese people? There are approximately zero sushi restaurants in Manhattan Chinatown. There are a whole bunch of sushi restaurants in adjacent SoHo, which is filled with non-Chinese yuppies.

anecdotal: took my Chinese co-worker to The Pokespot takeout for lunch and he immediately turned around and went somewhere else when he saw that the menu contained only raw fish.


Fair question. Easiest answer is "China is a big country" but that isn't the best answer.

Raw seafood is pretty popular in coastal areas of Shandong and Liaoning. Cold seas and pretty easy to identify as fresh or not.

Raw veg in the Northeast in general is fine depending on what it is. Spinach should be cooked because of the way its grown (nightsoil not uncommon) but peppers/radishes OK raw (hanging fruit).

Simply pragmatic food culture responses to how food is sourced, and habits of what's OK or not. A Guangzhou person is unlikely to be OK with raw crawling shrimp in a salad in Panjin, and a Panjin person complains about how seafood in Guangdong is tasteless as the sea is too hot so the seafood grows too fast (despite these conditions making it plentiful).


Did you mean to classify radishes as a hanging fruit? They are very clearly root vegetables, and you should literally wash the shit out of them before even thinking about eating one raw.


Some radishes are grown for their seedpods.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radish#Seed_pod_varieties

> The seeds of radishes grow in siliques (widely referred to as "pods"), following flowering that happens when left to grow past their normal harvesting period. The seeds are edible, and are sometimes used as a crunchy, sharp addition to salads.[13] Some varieties are grown specifically for their seeds or seed pods, rather than their roots. The rat-tailed radish, an old European variety thought to have come from East Asia centuries ago, has long, thin, curly pods which can exceed 20 cm (8 in) in length. In the 17th century, the pods were often pickled and served with meat.[13] The 'München Bier' variety supplies seed pods that are sometimes served raw as an accompaniment to beer in Germany.[22]

(I hadn't heard of this until I looked. I firmly think of radishes as root vegetables.)


Sushi is quite popular with the Chinese, both in the states with ABCs as well as in the mainland.

See this article for one datapoint: http://www.worldfishing.net/news101/Comment/analysis/norway-...


To clarify, sushi is a recent development in mainland China. The article linked to agrees with that. However, rewind to pre-2000 China, and it'd be rare to find a sushi joint outside of a high-end hotel.


Rewind to Tang Dynasty China, and sushi would be very commonplace.


"Records exist about the consumption of long slices of raw fish as early as 500 BCE. Many others indicate that long before the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE), people with economic where-with-all ate many raw foods, not only raw fruits and vegetables, but also raw fish and raw meat."

- http://www.flavorandfortune.com/dataaccess/article.php?ID=40...


interesting, and a very recent trend. the population of 1st generation Chinese immigrants in Chinatown have not developed a taste for sushi though.


My father was born in China in 1940 and he refuses to eat raw food like sushi. He isn't particularly hygenic when it comes to food preparation​ (defrosts meat in the sink, flies are not a huge concern) but cooks everything well done.


I'd say the comment should be tweaked to Westernized Chinese (for lack of a better term... maybe Cosmopolitan?). My parents refuse to try raw seafood/meat. But having grown up in North America exposed to raw salads, meat, and seafood, I'm comfortable with it.


Since sushi is Japanese, doesn't it make sense that it would be found in Little Tokyo instead of Chinatown? Maybe there are lots of Chinese people eating it outside of Chinatown?


there's a huge number of sushi restaurants all over New York and a lot of them are not authentically Japanese nor are they owned or operated by Japanese Americans.

Sushi is very popular in New York, much more popular than the Japanese population alone would support. There are sushi restaurants in neighborhoods where the residents enjoy sushi. The absence of them in Chinatown is an indicator that the residents there (> 90% Chinese immigrants) don't like sushi.


Your observations basically boil down to "my co-worker, who is Chinese, does not like raw fish, therefore..."

There are plenty of sushi restaurants in Chinatown: https://www.yelp.com/search?find_desc=sushi&start=0&l=p:NY:N...

There are also traditional - and popular - Chinese dishes that involve raw fish: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yusheng

You have to understand that Chinese people are huge gluttons (I say this without any judgement). They love to eat.. there are even idioms about it!

1) http://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/they...


I offered an anecdote, which I did not claim was an argument. Please don't be deliberately uncharitable.

Did you check the results of your yelp search? that's 2 restaurants that are actually in Chinatown and actually serve sushi. An unusually small number for a neighborhood with one of the highest density of restaurants in the city.

Did you read the wiki article you linked? this sentence is in the summary: "While versions of it are thought to have existed in China, the contemporary version was created and popularised[citation needed] in the 1960s amongst the ethnic Chinese community and its consumption has been associated with Chinese New Year festivities in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore." It's modern, and is a holiday feast meal served primarily by the Cantonese diaspora population. This isn't popular everyday eating, and is basically unknown on the mainland.


That's true that raw seafood is absent in pre-1960s cuisine. But that's pretty much the case in all cuisines (after all, historically raw meat/fish = disease).

Even contemporary sushi/sashimi was not popularized in Japanese cuisine until relatively recently during the Edo period (1700s-late 1800s). Pre-edo times, "raw" fish was mostly preserved fish.

In regards to Chinatown, it's worth noting that many Chinese (and Korean) seafood restaurants also serve raw seafood (sashimi, poke, oysters, raw clams, etc.)

Perhaps Yelp is being too liberal with what they define as "Chinatown", but a quick pass on Yelp with the "Chinatown" area checked, returned the following:

Japanese restaurants:

* https://www.yelp.com/biz/alin-sushi-new-york-4

* https://www.yelp.com/biz/mika-japanese-cuisine-and-bar-new-y...

* https://www.yelp.com/biz/gohan-new-york

* https://www.yelp.com/biz/aplus-sushi-new-york-2

Chinese restaurants:

* https://www.yelp.com/biz/pings-seafood-new-york?

* https://www.yelp.com/biz/oriental-garden-restaurant-new-york

* https://www.yelp.com/biz/chinese-tuxedo-new-york-2

Fusion:

* https://www.yelp.com/biz/cutting-board-new-york

* https://www.yelp.com/biz/bar-belly-new-york

* https://www.yelp.com/biz/dimes-deli-new-york


re: Yunsheng

> Place of origin: Singapore

Generally, when we say Chinese, we refer to mainland China and Taiwan, not the Chinese Diaspora. This would be like saying Indian people love chicken tikka masala.


That was one example. My personal favorite is: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drunken_shrimp


>there's a huge number of sushi restaurants all over New York and a lot of them are not authentically Japanese nor are they owned or operated by Japanese Americans

That's true everywhere in the US. It's very hard to find an authentic Japanese restaurant, and even harder to find one run by actual Japanese people. Usually, "Japanese" restaurants are run by Koreans.


Well... that's one step closer to authentic than a "Japanese" restaurant run by Han Chinese, I guess.

In my town, the authentic Japanese restaurant was next to the Subaru and Mitsubishi/Toyota car dealerships, and was pretty much there just so the auto executives had a reliably Japanese place to eat while visiting. It went out of business.

Japanese people may be the best at making a restaurant authentically Japanese, but Han are (anecdotally) much better at making a Japanese-themed restaurant authentically profitable.


Sure, but the discussion here wasn't profitability, it was authenticity. You're not going to find many authentic Japanese restaurants in America, especially outside of major cities which have enough Japanese people to support them. I have a Japanese girlfriend, and for her it's a big deal to go to an authentic Japanese restaurant; some "Japanese-themed" restaurant run by Chinese people isn't of much interest to her, she'd probably rather go for a burger than that. (Luckily, she likes burgers too, as long as they're good.)


As I understand it the majority of Sushi restaurants in the US (dunno about China) are run by Koreans. There was a weird religious cult thing that did the legwork to set up sushi grade fish distribution on a large scale and flooded the market with restaurants.

Sometimes the clues are really blatant that it's not an authentic Japanese restaurant. There used to be a Sushi place a few miles down the road where the hirigana on the sign spelled out Arikato.


China is not Chinatown, and I think your sample size is a bit small considering how many Chinese exist.


Indeed, Chinatown is often more like Americanized-Cantonese-Town. When it comes to cooking traditional Chinese foods from cuisines outside the Guangdong (Canton) area, you often have to source more widely for seasonings, ingredients, and sauces (the internet helps with that a lot). It's better in major cities where there's some degree of specialization among Chinese grocery stores, in which case you just need to be willing to search a bit for the more region-specific ingredients.


China is not Chinatown

Said dozens of times by my Chinese-born girlfriend in SF Chinatown: "I have no idea what this is." "This is weird."


Born where? I believe west coast Chinatowns were built by Cantonese and separated by 100+ years. See the recent post about american chinese food.


That's correct. The first influx of Chinese immigrants were mostly from the south. After the CCP took over, immigration from the mainland basically ceased. During the 60s-80s most of the Chinese immigrants that were not from HK were from Taiwan.

Immigration from the mainland started picking up after the Cultural Revolution in the late 70s / early 80s through now.

"Chinese" food in the US is mostly Cantonese food. Only fairly recently have you seen an uptick of non-canton style food. The latest trend is Sichuan / Chongqing style of cuisine (spicy!).

My favorite Chinese regional cuisine is Xinjiang cai (food of the uighurs, China's muslim minority group). Very tasty - lots of bbq meats, delicious noodles, and spicy. Also bonus that its halal/kosher.


Chinese food in the US is fairly diverse (and has been for a while). Hunan food is, IIRC, quite common in New York and accounts for most of what New Yorkers think of when they conjure up images of Chinese food. Even in SF, places like Henry's Hunan have been around for a while (early 70s). If you go to the LA area you'll find a large proliferation of Taiwanese restaurants (which are relatively scarce in SF).


american chinese food is still quite similar to cantonese food.

at least, much more similar to cantonese food than it is to northern chinese food, which in my (cantonese heritage) opinion look more like korean, given its extreme use of sour preserved vegetables and grains.


I have a persian market near me that has produce much cheaper than any store around usually because they don't have the best looking AAA quality produce. It tastes great and you might need to cut a bit more off than normal and a lemon there won't look like the picture perfect lemon from a large grocery but it's significantly cheaper.


a lemon there won't look like the picture perfect lemon from a large grocery but it's significantly cheaper

Also, that's what lemons actually look like.


Chinese don't eat raw foods at all, and especially not vegetables...

Not true. Things that are definitely commonly consumed raw include all fruits, some roots and tubers, garlic, cucumbers, onion, herbs and leaves, chilli, sugar cane.

Perhaps your perspective is skewed by a limited, US-only sample. Food preparation preferences are largely regional in China, anyway.


I'd hardly describe the food found in NYC Chinatown markets unsanitary, and never felt any reason not to eat them raw they same way I would from BigCoMart - you wash and inspect.

If anything, I'd expect fewer golf balls in my food.

http://nypost.com/2017/04/22/chopped-golf-balls-in-hash-brow...


> Chinese don't eat raw foods at all

Hmm. They always cook their rambutan? That's sad.

That said, Thailand has similar market sanitation norms (I almost said "standards", but that gives the wrong impression). They do still have a culture of various raw foods (lahb, nahmtok), and yes, you should probably ask for them "sook" (cooked).


Have you ever been to Shanghai? Or any major chinese city? This is such an uninformed comment - you can find fresh salads in the 100s of Wagas around town, in supermarkets, etcetc.

And I don't know what you call chinese food culture, maybe the traditional one 100s of years ago, but nowadays raw beef in hotpot restaurants as appetizers is very popular and sushi/sashimi even moreso, even if you go down to t2 cities. This is chinese food culture right? What chinese people like to eat nowadays in 2017, not like 1850 food culture


> it doesn't produce epidemics of food-borne illness in their community because they handle and cook food appropriately.

Do you have a source for this? Food borne illness goes massively unreported because except in infants and the elderly, it generally resolves by itself. I can only imagine that given the challenges immigrant communities have with getting adequate health care in the US, they are even less likely to report food borne illness. I just can't see the link between "Chinese cook their vegetables more" and no epidemics of food borne illness.


the article also misses a glaring fact: most vendors in Chinatown are skipping on taxes.

ever wonder why you dont pay sales tax when you pay with cash? (if they are even willing to accept anything else)


Not even raw fruit?


many fruits have rinds or peels that are removed before eating. those that aren't, well, they aren't so popular, and they are typically washed and peeled before serving. I've never seen anyone in Chinatown take a bite out of a totally raw, unprocessed apple.


please don't call ABCs Chinese, apparently one billion Chinese would disagree with your comment, apples are extremely popular, so are mandarins, tomatoes and nuts, all raw in China

real Chinese eat lot of raw stuff, if ABCs don't it must be some of their local fetish


maybe it was lost on you that the linked article, and this entire discussion, is about the people living in Chinatown?


of course they eat all kinds of raw fruit and vegetables, tomato is pretty much considered equal to apple, you will see people in streets of Beijing holding it and biting it like apple, same goes for cucumber which is especially popular in summer as alternative to ice cream to cool you down

speaking from perspective of someone who lived years in China with real Chinese, ignorance of previous poster is unlimited


you never been to real Chinese restaurant, ordering raw cucumbers or tomorrow as one of the dishes is extremely common, I was always amused to see people wasting money on this in China, since there is pretty much zero preparation besides chopping but price is almost on par with main meat course


I don't buy from our local chinatown which sources some of its vegetables from farmers who grow right off freeways etc where the land is cheap because of its location.

On the other hand they also buy from farmers who grow their crops off lands more suitable for farming as well.


Ha! I figured out the reason even before I read the whole article... always a gratifying feeling. That said, there are tons of food hacks if you want to save 30-40% and have a strong stomach. Buy your cashews, cumin seeds, turmeric, groundnuts, papayas, guavas from the nearby Indian store - there's tons of them in CA. Most of these are sourced from Fiji, Philippines, India etc, whereas Safeway would source cumin from Oregon and charge $5 per ounce. You can literally get a whole pound of cumin for that price - but no, you don't get the "organic certification", or the bar code or the USDA assurance sticker or anything that lets you know where the cumin came from in case you get some food poisoning and want to lodge a complaint. The Indian store lady dips into a giant cumin bottle and pours out a pound of cumin and takes $5 cash and no sales tax ofcourse wink wink. So yeah, depends on your ethics and cash situation. Say you want a little pep in your walk and like some extra endurance - used to be ephedra was legal and you could pop into your Chevron foodmart and buy a pill. Now it's no longer legal, so you go to the Chinese store and get the strongest ephedra tea - free market ftw. Ofcourse if you brew something strong and land up in the hospital, the medic can't really help you since who knows where that tea came from and what else is in it. Literally no American supermarket can compete with an Indian store when it comes to say cashews. Your Target gives you two pounds of cashews for $15. The Indian store gives you two kgs... that's 4.4 pounds! Ofcourse it won't come in a nice airtight jar with feel-good marketing on why you must eat your servings of USDA nuts for optimum health - instead, it's going to be wrapped up in a cone made of newspaper.

If you have a "tropical palate" and a strong stomach, you should definitely try some of these shady joints. It's a trip.


> "and no sales tax ofcourse wink wink"

Actually in CA, many groceries are not subject to sales tax, just FYI. I'm not sure where the distinction is drawn, but it seems like the less processed the food the less likely it will be taxed.


The original idea was to reduce the regressive effects of sales tax by making basic necessities tax free. Coffee, ground beef, and potatoes are considered basic, but having someone prepare your food for you is a luxury. This general philosophy based on need has been around for decades (centuries?), and it was not originally motivated by getting to people to "eat less processed foods" or other health reasons. Of course, since then all sorts of changes have been made for a variety of reasons.


Not sure why this is downvoted. California, like many other jurisdictions, seems to make a distinction between groceries/"raw" foods, and "prepared foods" when it comes to sales taxes. Unprepared foods are generally exempt from sales tax, while store-prepared foods are not exempt. E.g. an unsliced bagel in NY is untaxed, but a sliced bagel can/must be taxed. Fruit and vegetables likely fall into the untaxed category.

From Wikipedia: In grocery stores, unprepared food items are not taxed but vitamins and all other items are. Ready-to-eat hot foods, whether sold by supermarkets or other vendors, are taxed. Restaurant bills are taxed. As an exception, hot beverages and bakery items are tax-exempt if and only if they are for take-out and are not sold with any other hot food. If consumed on the seller's premises, such items are taxed like restaurant meals. All other food is exempt from sales tax.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sales_and_use_taxes_in_Califor...


It is more complex that that: hot food might not be taxed if it is "to go" (Starbucks and their breakfast sandwiches ....), Whole Foods will always apply tax to its food bar items, the ice cream parlor down the street will apply sales tax if you say "for here" but not if they assume take out.

It is very very confusing, and I haven't really figured it out yet.


Sales tax on food in general tend to be pretty arcane. Notoriously, McVities sued the British revenue services to have some of their biscuits classified as cake instead of biscuits, because there's no VAT on cake. (They won.)


also, ethnic grocers often have: - much fresher product - more varieties of a given item (e.g. mint) - stronger flavor / less watered-down varietals - items you can't find in mainstream grocers (e.g. rau ram)

At least in SF, no "strong stomach" is required - the ethnic grocers source from the central valley, same as everybody, and fruit is peeled and herbs are washed, same as you'd do with stuff from Safeway.

In particular, rau ram ("vietnamese coriander) is simply amazing-- it started showing up in grocers the past few years and my gf introduced me to it (she's from southeast asia) and it's mild and fascinating, and I keep finding new uses, both cooked and raw. 100% of people seem to like it, and if you're not sure, start by using it whole to flavor rice.

But you can only buy it in ethnic grocers.

(SF readers: the civic center farmer's market has one herbs farmer with all the vietnamese herbs: mint, rau ram, vn shiso, etc - $1.50 for two massive bunches, and much fresher than any grocer)


Seconding buying spices from Indian markets. Here in NoVA you can get a pound of spice for as much as Safeway sells 2oz of it.


Spices from India can often have dangerous levels of salmonella and other contaminants.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/31/health/12-percent-of-us-sp...


That looks like a FUD article, but still "Can" doesn't mean "will"!

Also, at least in Indian cooking, most spices are cooked very well, which will kill any trace of Salmonella. So, unlike the spinach and lettuce that get recalled regularly from the grocery stores, if you are using these spices for Indian recipes, you are totally fine (w.r.t salmonella).

I'd be more worried of spices that are laced with pesticides.


Well, we have been buying spices from Indian grocery stores in Northern California for the last 15 years. BTW, the better known brands of Spices that you get in larger supermarket chains also are imported from India/Vietnam etc. So, not much of a difference other than the price for the brand/packaging, the supermarket expenses and margin percentage.


I was actually surprised that a chain like Costco couldn't beat the Paneer price (was ~50% more) compared the neighborhood Indian grocery stores I go to! I'll have to check on dry fruits though. I've seen many Indians going to India usually buy dry fruits from Costco instead of Indian stores.


This feels like the proverbial dollar left on the street that economists say should not exist, so I'm racking my brain trying to figure out what's stopping chains from replicating this. I wonder whether this alternate network is as scrupulous about source tracking and food safety regulations. Those costs could be driving up prices on the traditional retail side.


>I'm racking my brain trying to figure out what's stopping chains from replicating this.

Scale.

Anything living has a level of variability and likelihood of failure/damage/spoilage to it that gets harder and harder to manage as your scale gets bigger.

When you're a small shopkeeper who sells about 3 baskets of apples a day, it's both easier to sift through it and throw out the bad ones AND easier to find 3 basket's worth of apples that meet your quality expectations.

When you have to move 3 pallet-loads of apples, though, not only does QC become a more complicated endeavor, but you have to find 3 pallet-loads of apples to sell at a competitive price, so you may not have the luxury of being so choosy. When pallet-loads scale up to shipping-containers. . . you can see where I'm going with this.

And then there are logistics issues. If you're a large retailer you have to bring everything into centralized warehouses and then send them out. This means things need to travel longer distances and/or have longer shelf-lives. The upshot of that is they have a higher chance of either being past their prime by the time they get to you, or that had to get picked before they were properly ripened on the vine.

When you're smaller, have smaller scale suppliers, and less complicated distribution networks a lot of that extra burden falls away. Starbucks had this problem when they first started to get big too. A lot of people give them flack for over-roasting their beans and giving everything a charred/muddied flavor. When they were small they were able to be choosier about the beans. As they grew the scuttlebutt is that there just weren’t enough beans of that quality level on the market, so they had to lower the quality threshold and move to darker roasts. They still sell better beans, but only in select locations.


There's also the matter of what trade-offs customers are willing to accept. I suspect that the customers here care a lot more about price, whereas the typical suburban supermarket customers are willing to pay premiums for things like later operating hours, selection of goods, higher likelihood of availability, and the "organic" label on produce.


And taste. And freshness. I find a much better selection of flavors at my local Asian mart, and produce is usually a lot fresher since it moves off the shelves fast. Contrast with my local supermarket which sees that same bunch of brussel sprouts stay out all week, until it shrivels up and end up tossing half in the trash.


I wonder whether this might change with increasingly powerful computer-human hybrid systems.

So instead of "I want to grow, and my current 100 suppliers are an unmanageable drag on that." being followed by "I need that consolidated towards 10, so my purchasing agents can talk with them all more often, and thus better manage my supply chain.", it might instead be followed by "I need that replicated towards 1000, so my purchasing software has the sample sizes and redundancy to do the machine learning and statistics to better manage my supply network."

> When you're smaller, have smaller scale suppliers, and less complicated distribution network

A more complicated to manage network in some ways. Lots of fine grain tactical purchasing with multiple competing suppliers, that you couldn't staff at supermarket scale.


>A more complicated to manage network in some ways. Lots of fine grain tactical purchasing with multiple competing suppliers, that you couldn't staff at supermarket scale.

Well yes and no. Objectively it is more complicated, but it's a sort of complexity that humans can handle intuitively since it's mostly about personal connections and relationships. It's not as abstracted as more expansive supply-chain logistics are.


I am skeptical that dis-economies of scale are the reason chinatown is cheap.

Why are Amazon and Walmart so successful and cheap?


I generally agree with your skepticism, although the original source is the WSJ and I generally credit them with an elevated level of economic literacy.

Rationalizing your question: Amazon and Walmart predominantly sell shrink-wrap manufactured items with nearly unlimited shelf life and minimal variability. The supply chain is very different and much more forgiving.

Walmart does sell groceries, but it's unclear if they're especially successful at it, or if their prices are especially good. I don't feel there's enough information here to encourage or discourage your skepticism.


> Markets also cut costs by eschewing extra technology and certain aesthetic choices—the Journal points out that shelves “are typically made of plywood and lined with newsprint,” prices are scrawled on cardboard instead of printed on stickers, and credit cards are not always accepted.

Some people don't want to buy food with cardboard signs and cash.

Hell, I've heard California even has people who are fans of convenience so much they will pay for other people to do the grocery shopping.


I pay a service to do my grocery shopping for me. It's a bit of a markup, but I highly value my personal time, don't own a vehicle and have an extreme dislike of grocery stores. There's a great market for such services (gig economy).

Chicago Resident.


Exactly. I was being facetious, but the point is that rock-bottom prices aren't everything.


yep same. Brooklyn here. I order grocery delivery from a local independent grocer via an app once a week or so. I value my time and don't want to spend it standing it line at a grocery store.


I met people in London who also pay people to grocery shop for them. For most staples I'm pretty sure this could probably be cheaper then having a grocery store in SF, they could have a warehouse in Fremont.


We could call it "HomeGrocer" or maybe that's too specific - how about "Webvan"?

(I agree though, I think this is something that is going to happen - just have to find the right business model at the right time.)


In the UK and Ireland the big supermarket chains do deliveries for cheap (7.50 euro per month from Tesco, for instance, or a few euro per shot if you pay as you go). The catch is that it is generally believed that, at least outside certain high-density urban areas, they're doing this at a loss; it may not be sustainable.


Tesco have been doing online ordering since 1997, so it seems unlikely is unsustainable.


Doesn't that exist in the form of primenow, doordash, seamless, grubhub, instacart, uber eats, [...]?

From what I remember I've seen quite a few "night time delivery only, no pickup allowed" grocery "restaurants" on those services


Eh? I don't have a car and do _all_ of my shopping via amazon now and instacart (direct from Whole Foods). I get deliveries 3-4 times per week.


Kbutler is joking. HomeGrocer and WebVan were early companies that attempted to sell groceries on the Internet. They both collapsed in the dot-com crash.

I am not sure why they failed but more recent attempts seem to be succeeding. My two current theories are: 1. They were ahead of their time. There weren't enough people shopping on the Internet to sustain them back then. 2. They were killed by structural obstacles that may also kill the new versions.


Something about how you can get Fresh food Directly from the warehouse.


> Some people don't want to buy food with cardboard signs and cash.

Gee, I wonder why do you have to pay with cash....that might be one contributing factor why prices can't be matched by mainstream retailers.


Immigrants in general, but especially Asian ones, do not want to pay the fees required to accept cards.

Most people in their communities are fine with it.


In my experience they often seem averse to typing sales into a cash register, even when they have one right in from of them....or the ole "type the price in and hit "cash" " trick.

Must be some sort of a superstition.


My grandfather ran a store that my uncle took over. No pennies, no tax. Everything was priced as marked. End of the day, count up the register and write it in the log. end of the month calculate how much came in, multiply by sales tax, and send a check off to the state.

Maybe they're cheating. IMHO, most of that cash register discipline is because the owner (or his immediate family) isn't running the register.

Im sure you can get away with not paying taxes for a while, but if you're going to have a generational store, you've got to be honest.

Technical controls are cool and all. When you can just look over and see you need more cans of soup, when you implicitly trust your employees, and you're not looking to make a quick buck and run away, they're just a lot of work for not much value. Scaling has a cost.


In South America, tax evasion has evolved so much that there are software packages with built-in "under the table" accounting, and dual accounting (one for the state and the real one).

Paying actual taxes is a fast way to bankruptcy here :( , the above-board companies look for tax loops, smaller ones make do with dual-accounting and understating income.

Government figured out that income tax is the most difficult to fake and heavily hammers employees :(


Immigrants in Europe accept cards in their shops, but then the EU limits the maximum charge to 5 cents for a debit card.

Cash also has a cost, which can often be greater than 5 cents.


I don't get the aversion to cash. I prefer that my bank and credit card company not know literally everything I buy, no matter how mundane or innocuous.

It's nice to buy a pack of cigarettes with cash and not worry that my health insurance company is going to somehow find out.


Its a conditioning thing, if thats how you had always bought vegetables it wouldn't be odd to you at all.


I may be showing my roots here, but I've never bought a cantaloupe off the back of a beat up farm truck that wasn't delicious.


> what's stopping chains from replicating this

Probably volume. Chinatown is extremely dense and has such high foot traffic that it makes sense to operate without refrigeration, with goods stocked from neighborhood warehouses.

Most parts of the country don't have anywhere near that level of density, so the economies of scale wont work out like they do in Chinatown.


Free market economics always works best in an actual marketplace, where vendors are competing stall-to-stall.

Most Americans buy groceries from a large corporate-owned store that they drive to and has everything, which compete with other large corporate-owned one-stop-shop that you have to drive to.


This is absolutely how I feel as well. I always found it interesting the most competitive areas always happen to be where tons of very small high volume shops exist. This is not just limited to the US, but anywhere in the world I've traveled.

The older I become the more I realize how absolutely devastating the development policies of sprawl and low-density have been to all areas of human endeavor. You can't have effective competition without density and an ability to start extremely small.


You can't have effective competition without density and an ability to start extremely small.

This is a good metaphor for Net Neutrality. Maybe most of the US doesn't understand Net Neutrality, because they are trapped in their strip-mall big-box store hell, and don't know about real free markets IRL.


Indeed. However, I'd argue it'd be nearly impossible to have stall-to-stall competition in your standard American city/suburb: people wouldn't be willing to drive to multiple locations, and even if all the vendors were centralized in a market (hmm, perhaps a "super-market" of sorts?), the sales aren't regular enough/in high enough volume to do away with refrigeration, which drives up start-up costs, leading to the classic natural monopoly where the "supermarket" itself is an entity selling the goods.

The Saturday morning farmer's market seems a reasonable approximation of these Chinatown markets at a sustainable scale for smaller/less dense regions. But really, population density is the magic sauce for demand in cases like this.


Farmers' markets have a long history and were the main means by which consumers bought produce for a long time. http://digital.library.louisville.edu/cdm/singleitem/collect... http://digital.library.louisville.edu/cdm/singleitem/collect... http://digital.library.louisville.edu/cdm/singleitem/collect...

But a lot of places like this were eventually abandoned or demolished, except where they could be maintained or redeveloped as a tourist attraction, like Cincinnati did a few years ago. http://www.findlaymarket.org/

Actually, compared to farmer's markets, the big difference is the network of small-scale independent warehouses. This isn't farm-to-consumer or farm-to-retailer, it's just nimbler distribution.


Not really. Drive up to Albany where there is zero foot traffic and the Asian markets are about the same price. They have coolers though.


I'm actually from Albany. There are 3 Asian markets there: "Asian Supermarket", Kim's Asian Market (never went in this one, but I think it's Korean rather than Chinese), and one more whose name I forget that's smaller but seems to have fresher produce. I never tried buying produce there (we'd mostly hoard Asian snacks) but I wouldn't be surprised if it was more expensive and less fresh than Chinatown simply as a result of the additional shipping/refrigeration required. Anecdotally, no family I knew would shop at those over the standard region supermarkets unless they needed some specific Asian ingredient, whereas in NYC many shop preferentially at the Chinatown markets.


Totally agree on all counts.

I think price is good but the quality varies, as everything is coming up from NYC. Typically I buy scallions, onions and peas every month or so if I stop in to pick up a few other things like dumplings or sauces.


I don't think produce prices are all that competitive. For one thing, it's terribly difficult to comparison shop them. The prices change all the time and you pretty much have to visit the store in person to find out what they are on any given week, so it's either waste a lot of time shopping around, or go with what you find in the store you usually visit anyway.

The fact that the prices are usually round numbers (e.g. when I buy apples they're almost always $0.99, $1.49, or $1.99/pound) seems to support the idea that stores aren't trying hard to wring out every last bit of competitiveness from this stuff.


Maybe its just because there isn't enough competition after corporate consolidation. For the most part I see the same brands and items in stores in Virginia as in stores in California...even in the organic food stores.


There are not enough people in an American metro area to distribute this variety across stores across the area. The produce departments sell what the computers report as margin friendly.

There are enough people in a metro area who want this and are willing to go to the asian district to get it. The five or 20 families in a subdivision who want this are not enough for all the Safeways and Krogers in the subdivision to stock this food. But enough handfuls of those families across the area are willing to go to the few stores concentrated "in the asian district" to make it viable for those few stores.

This is also capitalism at work. Huge markets and niches both have ways to operate.

As for tracking and safety, as others on this page have noted, knowledgeable (and alert) shoppers and proper preparation go a long way to promoting food safety at the end-use end of the chain.


> I wonder whether this alternate network is as scrupulous about source tracking and food safety regulations.

If you think there are some regulations that Jetro or whoever is enforcing that these other wholesalers aren't then post that. Otherwise this just comes off as a subtly racist comment.


What is racist about wondering whether a marginal distribution network is being as closely regulated as the dominant/mainstream one? It's a natural thing to wonder regardless of anyone's race.


From what I understand, these networks are both small and very local. That makes them undesirable to large chains.

This is also the reason that Whole Foods has gone downhill, they used to use similar networks but as they've expanded they've been forced to use larger more mainstream suppliers.


Well on the retail side, we do have retailers like Aldi's. You bag your own grocery and they have no workers focused on presenting the store in an ideal way. It's an IKEA maze full of warehouse goods like Costco.

I feel like the reason Safeway can't replicate this is because they have regional distributors. Having each and every store work independently requires very shrewd buyers on the retailer side. Furthermore, there's the expectation of having certain items for sale, regardless of demand or price fluctuation. There's no expectation for the Chinatown retailers.


Likely has something to do with scale. In particular they are able to keep a low or nonexistent administrative overhead.


A real-world example of diseconomies of scale?


My understanding was that a lot of the produce sold in Chinatown markets was near expiration dates and often had already been rotated off of the shelves of normal supermarkets, often for cosmetic reasons or as a way of segmenting the market.

(basically, supermakets sell produce to Chinatown vendors for a lower price, who then move it to a segment of the market which is willing to buy non-aesthetic food which needs to be eaten in a day or two)


As the article mentions (and in my experience having lived and cooked in Chinatown for years) this is fresh produce from small wholesalers, not near-expired undesirables.

I don't doubt, however, that mostly untracked/untaxed cash transactions (both store-customer and wholesaler-store) contribute to some of the price differential.


Your point was addressed and refuted by the main article.


Amazing how they manage to stay so cheap while hiring people at at least minimum wage, with valid work contracts, while paying all relevant taxes and not having any ethnically discriminatory hiring practices.

That's the real miracle.


Does the article handle ethnically discriminatory hiring practices? Neither "Divers-" and "ethnic"show up in the article, and if it's like Boston's Chinatown, workers are overwhelmingly Chinese.


People are often very naive about different cultures. In the west we're trained to view them as an interchangeable package of foods, languages, and perhaps dress. The differences are real and substantial, and fundamental assumptions about how the world works or ought to work are definitely not shared.


I took the poster you are replying to is being sarcastic.

The Chinese community in NYC at least is notorious for tax avoidance.


Fascinating. I'm wondering if there's an opportunity for a tech startup to replicate this network more generally. I could see the network connecting the sellers with the farmers directly, plus coordinating delivery of the veggies... it's an easier problem than ubereats delivery as you've got fewer nodes. Maybe you even skip the sellers entirely, which basically gets you to CSA boxes but those always felt expensive to me (I'm not sure why)


If the people running these shops are eschewing credit cards as part of their cost-cutting, what could possibly possess you to think that "disrupting" them with some other form of middle-man is going to play here?


> I'm wondering if there's an opportunity for a tech startup to replicate this network more generally.

The goal is not to compete with Chinatown grocers, but to move their model to other markets.


Definately. There are people operating these businesses locally and regionally. The problem is finding a endpoint who wants to buy it at wholesale.

The problem is that like anything in corporate American business models, scaling up doesn't always scale. As groceries have consolidated, you need to focus everything on industrial agriculture to deliver a consistent product.

So as a society, we do stupid things like growing lettuce in the desert and flying it across a continent while fertile land down the road goes fallow. But when you have 5,000 wal-marts to stock, it makes more sense to focus on a few big suppliers than a bunch of little ones. I purchased lettuce in February grown in upstate NY in the middle of winter -- for 50% less than stuff in the market.

It's one of the massive inefficiencies that drives me nuts about the current American mutation of capitalism.


tech is just another middleman looking to squeeze a billion+ dollars out of the industry, so I don't see how they'd be any different than Hunt's Point.


In my opinion this model works & keeps prices low, there is nothing to disrupt here. Similar like the Indian Dabbawala network.

The Dabbawala System: On-Time Delivery, Every Time http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Pages/item.aspx?num=38410

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dabbawala


It works only as long as there are more Dabbawallas willing to do what they do. Once their kids (or grandkids) decide they can earn more/do other professions...who will deliver the lunch?


Instacart (or some other middleman). Prices will go up as India develops. The same is happening in Chinatown; the children of these shopkeepers are not as willing to stand in line at the warehouse at 3am, nor many of the myriad other unsavory chores to which their parents were accustomed.


What I believe is as long as there is a demand for this service and there is profit to be made, there will be people willing to cater for it, either the children or someone else.


It has been 125 years since this started and I dont see it stopping in the near future. And why do you think "their kids (or grandkids) will continue the same profession as their parents ?


Urban last-mile delivery robots. Eg, https://www.marble.io/ et al.


> CSA boxes ... always felt expensive to me

Me too.

The original article explains the cheap pricing in Chinatown markets with:

Chinatown’s 80-plus produce markets are cheap because they are connected to a web of small farms and wholesalers that operate independently of the network supplying most mainstream supermarkets.

But that also describes the way CSAs work. They source their produce directly from various independent farms, many owned and operated by individual families rather than large agri-corporations.

But the prices I've seen CSAs charge are often higher than prices for the comparable items at WholeFoods. Prices definitely are not comparable to NYC Chinatown.

So, is the original article really even correct about this?


Picnic.nl is doing something like that, and they just closed the largest A round ever at $100m. Just-in-time delivery using fixed routes, small electric trucks and local produce. Can't wait for them to launch in Amsterdam.


I've found CSAs to be ridiculously cheap -- Somewhere on the order of $20-$25/week for a big box of produce that is almost always more than I can figure out how to use during said week.


http://8-food.com/ - already on it, but we are focused on prepared food as the output of the fresh ingredient logistics network instead of raw ingredients (higher margin, higher preparation efficiency, lower last mile transport overheads, lower spoilage).


I've noticed that there's a pretty substantial network available to them (and not just food) on Weixin. It would be interesting to see a Western equivalent. From what I've seen, Weixin is a lot more useful a social network than something like Facebook (which seems to be more of a time waster).


Where does the tech come in? Just sounds like good, old-fashioned business to me.


(2016)

previous discussion of the WSJ article mentioned in the text: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11981063


non-paywalled article here: http://outline.com/rsHPec (not my website)


I think another reason chinatown markets (and mexican mercados) are cheaper is also because they tend to buy up a wider grade selection of produce. When I walk traditional markets every tomato, onion, cucumber is roughly the same size and shape. In a Chinese market they often have a wide variety of sizes and shapes. This is way closer to what actually gets grown. Not every vegetable grows the same size and shape though you may think that going into a normal supermarket.


In other words, ultra-small ultra-low-overhead businesses are good for consumers.

Problem is, most places in America there's a certain baseline red tape cost that exceeds the budget of these types of operations.

In an unrestrained market environment, people can make money by eating up little inefficiencies like a swarm of ants. When you make the baseline energy cost of existence too high (e.g. with onerous incorporation or registration or licensing requirements), you kill off all the ants. Now those small but myriad inefficiencies go unconsumed, and society loses.


And the big businesses who are supposedly "anti regulation" back lobbyists who put those regulations in place, so that new competitors have a harder time entering the market


Paying non union, employees who might be working under the table as they are not authorised to work is part of it, same with some restruants.

Many regular supermarkets pay a living wage.


Agreed. I was surprised that many supermarket chains are union shops with good wages, paid time off and healthcare. Trouble is they're having trouble competing with non-union competitors and are closing down eg A&P. Chinatown I'd expect a lot of employees aren't even legal.

> Grocery clerks with service of five years or more generally earn the maximum rate allowable under the contracts, between $18.71 and $19.80 per hour. http://work.chron.com/union-pay-journeyman-grocery-clerk-281...


    > she always assumed the low prices
    > were a reflection of subpar produce
Betting against Chinese love of food seems a poor choice


One thing this article doesn't assert too strongly is simply that many western supermarkets just don't have veggies that are quite common in other countries. e.g. Gherkins is quite common in India (fresh ones, not the pickled variety), tender young Okra (without the coarse threads that make it hard to chew) and something which is apparently called "Chinese Green Beans" but which is pretty commonly used in my native cuisine.


>Gherkins is quite common in India (fresh ones, not the pickled variety),

I've rarely seen fresh gherkins in India. Which cities do you mean? Pickled ones are available in shops though.


Maybe gherkins may not have been the right English word for it. I was talking about Ivy Gourd [0], which is used in Konkan region/cuisine a lot.

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coccinia_grandis


Had a look at the article. Not sure about the size, but if it is small, e.g. a few cm in length, I think it is what is called tundli or tendli. Common vegetable in India. Tasty too.


Just did a search, and if this site is correct, tundli is indeed the ivy gourd:

http://www.indian-cooking.info/Expert/Indian-To-English-Term...


Maybe this is true in New York, but the produce at the local Chinese markets where I live is not particularly fresh and in some cases you can tell from the packaging that it was intended for sale at a different supermarket (I assume this indicates it wasn't fresh enough for the original place of sale because it always looks just short of rotten in these cases).


I moved to lower Lower Eastside just a few blocks away from Chinatown two years ago. I can't really say the article is on the money. I was really excited when I moved here first and thought the grocery shopping would be the one of the pro's. While I don't cook home (so not much veggie), but I used to buy a lot of ready-to-eat fruits and snacks. Perhaps it's that particular supermarket I visit in Chinatown, but they cut corners and the quality is fairly low. I learned to never to buy anything packaged by the supermarket themselves. Perhaps, I should travel a bit further into Chinatown to enjoy the benefit of such supply network. But for now now, I go shop at the Whole Foods or Eastside Market for all my needs. I no longer want to mess with what I eat.


Cheaper and better? That defies efficient markets theory. I guess any sufficiently advanced social network is indistinguishable from magic.


Ah yes, the efficient markets theory - never before debunked ;-)

Jokes aside, the truth is that with the original definition, there are so many barriers to markets being efficient and behaving in that idealized way that in reality I think it's a unicorn that can't exist, or at least rare enough to take with a huge grain of salt. It's a simplified model of how things might work, and perhaps if you squint a little it does seem to work that way, but not when you look closer. People behave irrationally all the time, there are all sorts of factors and incentives, social, political, and game-theoretic, that prevent actors from operating in certain desirable ways.

I think it's hilarious that Chinatown may have out-capitalisted the capitalists, and cut out many middlemen to deliver better product for cheaper. Sad that they probably won't get much recognition for it, perhaps only some lobbying to block it.


Could it be that they just don't have the cruft & boilerplate & inefficiencies that traditional retail has? Having been in several types of workforce, I've seen plenty of missed opportunities that continued indefinitely because of management incompetence, so I wouldn't doubt it if they're able to have high quality & cheap produce just by cutting out the middleman and by being competent.


Calling it management's incompetence is probably unfair, although certainly there is a lot of incompetence in the retail sector. I think it's more accurate to call it corporate inertia. It's easier to build such a network for a single stall on a busy street than it is for 500+ retail locations that all have to be exactly the same to keep the brand image.


Or perhaps management competence? If goal is to sell more product to more people for more money, then perhaps the traditional grocery store model is better. They're just optimizing for different things.


You know what they say about models: all of them are wrong, some of them are useful.


Who says the market for groceries is efficient? It's consolidated and segmented, so less competitive action = lazy retailers and high prices.

Why do you think Amazon is sort of price competitive with delivery?


Maybe the economics don't factor in the fact that the more efficient marketplace reeks of rotting fish all day long.


This resonates with HN article this week end talking about a lot of recent startups simply being centralizing rent seekers. The Saveur article shows that an "end to end" model can be cheaper, at least for a specific solution point (to whit: get it fresh, cook, don't worry so much about the cleanliness of the rind). While the centralized solution that serves most grocery stores costs more and promotes boring sameness.

Sometimes I want that sameness, but as the economy, or the Internet architecture for that matter, centralizes around a few corporations you end up with a bland world.


TLDR;

Chinatown sources from local small producers and are able to get big discounts. They also reduce cost by skimping on things like good furniture, printed labels, credit cards etc and keep their margins to 10-12% over wholesale.


Skimping on things like paying taxes, health standards, hiring people outside the family network, etc.


I live in northern Virginia, and we have a lot of great Korean markets to shop at, and they're always slammed with people. It's rare that you go into the produce section and see less than two dozen people browsing. The local chain store might have 2 at any given time. And the prices and selection are incredible. The only downside is you have to do a little bit more picking to get ripe/fresh/good looking produce.


Off-topic:

Is there a browser plugin that lets you vote on how annoying a site's ads are, so it can warn you before you go to the site? I have a feeling that kind of pressure could change the way ads are displayed, but without it we're going to keep getting our screens engulfed by an ad with no idea how to close it.


I was interested in this article but accidentally closed it, the interstitial ad made me think I was on a completely different site.

It was a full-page ad for "STITCH FIX", with it's own layout and, sigh, auto-playing video. Why would I ever click through that?!


> Chinatown’s 80-plus produce markets are cheap because they are connected to a web of small farms and wholesalers that operate independently of the network supplying most mainstream supermarkets.

I don't get it.

Why can this web of small farms and wholesalers sell produce for less than normal suppliers can?

If Chinatown's suppliers are so much cheaper, why don't the other supermarkets use them too?

If Chinatown is consuming the entire output of these suppliers (explaining why the other supermarkets can't use the same source) then why don't the suppliers raise their prices? Even if some of the chinatown vendors could no longer afford the food, surely someone else would buy it.

Do plywood shelves at a grocery really make a noticeable difference in food prices?


A lot of Asian supermarkets have great fish at low prices. I'd like to think its because of informal network of small independent local producers but I suspect its illegally caught by sketchy fishing fleets. Can anyone put my mind at ease?


No, unfortunately you're spot on.


Yes, this article feels naive. I suspect much of the cost savings is due to bypassing various regulations.


Also tax evasion and under the table worker.


280+ comments and no one has mentioned roughly how much cheaper Chinatown produce is relative to other NYC grocery stores (I didn't see it in the article either). Anyone care to say?


Your mileage may vary, but my NYC grocery routine involves a nearby no-frills supermarket (Key Foods) and a trip to a local Asian Grocer. There is usually a 40-60% discount in price at the Asian Grocer. Red Peppers costing $1/lb at the grocer; spinach is $2 for a much more generous bushel compared to the supermarket's offering; seasonal berries and other fruit tend to be unpredictable, but I have seen blackberries and raspberries at $1.50 for a container that would cost +$3.00 in the store.

Obviously, NYC has a major markup on produce, but the cheap prices at Asian Grocers are not a regional thing. Growing up in the suburbs, my family always opted for the Asian-owned grocery store over A&P or other supermarkets. I think Aldi's may have a similar agreement with distributors.


those sounds like prices of regular European supermarket,I was under impression that US supermarkets we supposed to be even cheaper than European

these things are permanently in promotion rotating between various supermarkets: 1kg banana 1.1€, 1kg grapes 2-2.2€, bunch of fresh spinach 1.2-2€, etc


Fruit and vegetables seem to be weirdly expensive in the US, for some reason; meat and processed foods are much cheaper than they are in Western Europe, though. It makes sense that meat would be cheaper (considerably different and mostly lighter regulation on animal husbandry and slaughter, plus the whole corn subsidy thing) but the expensive vegetables never made sense to me.


Thanks!! Wow ~50% lower prices is A LOT when it comes to the highly competitive market for produce.


I have always liked to shop at some of these places.

I can find exotic stuff I need for a variety of Asian recipes that I cannot find elsewhere.


See also cheap bulk spices at Indian markets. They are a goldmine for stuff that can be costly elsewhere, even if you are not interested in Indian cuisine.

My theory is that, in addition to having the right connections for cheap import, their customer base probably demands a certain price point for bulk spices.


Spices are cheap in those markets only because people are used to the completely nonsensical markups you see in grocery stores. Those little jars of mustard seed that cost $12? That's almost entirely markup. McCormick is a total racket.

For stuff like potatoes or beans it's really hard for me to care enough that I'm paying an extra $0.50 compared to the market down the street. Vegetables are cheap, unless someone slapped that organic sticker on it. It's just not worth the effort. But for spices I'll make the trip.


It's not just the Chinese though. In Seattle, Rising Sun produce in Ravenna is often better than say Uwajimaya and other stores down in Chinatown.

That said, I found Chinatown to be the most interesting neighbourhood in Seattle :P


Where does the food in these secret warehouse networks come from? Is it actually equivalent in quality and oversight to the "mainstream" farm networks?


Anecdotal, but I've been buying cheap fruits and veggies from Chinese markets for years and I've never gotten sick once. They taste the same. I'm no food expert, though.

The only negatives are that the markets are not pleasant places to be in and some don't take cards.


That's racist! Just kidding. I have the same concerns. In some groceries you can observe less than perfect practices. However, a friend who worked at a Michelin star restaurant told me those luxury spots are no better. Sometimes it's the fanciest places that have the worst practices, because they feel obligated to wipe down all surfaces to shine them. That towel they use goes everywhere.


Mostly smaller producers. It's more profitable for them to sell to the smaller Chinese wholesalers, and its more cost effective to you because of fewer middlemen.


This doesn't seem logical at all. Big chains usually have the lowest price, because they can enforce unfair deals on logistics and producers. Most things you buy cheaper from the super market than from the factory. Why should it be different with vegetables? It's not like the garden is next to the Chinatown shop.

Also Chinese people are not known for their empathy. They are usually fighters. If they run more efficient than another shop/chain they just conquer them. That they stay that small means they can't beat the big chains.


The amount of secret networks and deals Chinese/Chinese Americans pull off is astounding. I don't mean that in a negative way, I'm mostly impressed (I live near Brooklyn's Chinatown).


I wouldn't say it's "secret," it's just regular business conducted using a language most Americans can't read or understand. Probably even in dialects that most Chinese people can't speak.


I think the fruit thing isn't "secret", but my friend's families do a lot community-wide legal and financial gymnastics to pay as little tax as possible.


If the social technology in these networks is better (produces both cheaper, better quality product) then there is money to be made copying it/adopting it.


I don't think it's so much a "secret network" as it is a community network. A strong community network is absent for a lot of Americans, so it probably seems strange or secret when they come across one.


Although for Chinese dollar is the King, they form deep communities to aid each other in trade and are loyal. One interesting example of strong communities - I have newer seen a Chinese beggar in Europe, but a lot from neighboring and other countries.


Are they particularly secret, or just filtered through social networks?


As a fish loving Indian, I was totally surprised to see that in Capitalist America the choice of fish was absolutely pathetic. At American fish places you only get "shrimps" may be "large shrimps" and "small shrimps". Salmon, Bass, Red Snapper and just few handful of usual fish. My small village fish market offers at least 20 varieties of fish in India's coastal region. A proper fish market would offer at least 100.

Then I entered 99Ranch and since then my respect of my eastern neighbours has gone up significantly. Not only they had Tiger prawns and King Mackerel, they actually understood the difference between Pampino and Pomphret.


For whatever reason Americans just don't eat a lot of seafood. This is why the choices are so bad in "Capitalist America" -- there's not enough demand. It's literally capitalism at work.

Some theorize that this is due to American's avoiding flavor in general [1].

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/07/01/327248504/the...


The author interviewed in this piece is the subject of a recent Frontline: The Fish on My Plate.

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/the-fish-on-my-plate/

It's about his experiment of eating fish as his only protein for a whole year, as well as an investigation of where our fish comes from, fish farming practices, sustainability, etc.

Aside, it may be a good thing Americans don't eat as much seafood as the rest of the world. I'm not sure the oceans could keep up with the demand. Allegedly very few fisheries are well managed.


Fish isn't complete protein for humans, you will starve if it's literally your only protein (no wheat, lentils, etc.)


I'm not sure where you got this information, but it is incorrect. Corrected for digestibility, it is not ideal, but is still complete: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complete_protein


Umm... How did Polynesians survive with their fish filled lentil free diet? I guess greens? I think your info is wrong.


Polynesians ate pig. They took pigs with them wherever they went. (Yes, even on long ocean voyages.)

I'm not arguing for or against the quality of fish protein, just pointing out Polynesians had pigs...


Downvotes seem to be accurate. My sources (some time ago) seem to have misinformed me.


Why?


One amino acid is missing, as I remember.


Which we should all rejoice. Because the oceans are already being over fished to the point we're facing a very real likelihood of collapse. If Americans were pulling at the same rate as nations like Japan or India, we'd all be in a very bad place already.


No, this is actually a terrible thing in the long run for one simple reason: fisheries are being destroyed everywhere [1], and the US is the only nation currently with the clout to really push to change this. But since seafood isn't even on most Americans' radar and we live in a democracy, it's very unlikely any politician will ever spend political capital on it.

Fisheries are being destroyed is because blue water fisheries are a commons -- no nations own them, so whoever vacuums up the fish first reap the profits. Not to mention global warming and ocean acidification are stressing fish breeding grounds worldwide.

This model made sense up until WW2, and was in line with how international waters were historically governed, but it is an ecological disaster in the making because technological developments during the war (sonar, deep sea nets, etc.) allowed huge fishing fleets to completely destroy blue water fishing grounds.

The only way to change this is for someone to push at the international level to rewrite the agreements on fisheries (restrict them by quotas, manage them by an international body with an eye towards conservation, etc.), and the only superpower that has the political capital to really get the ball rolling is the US.

But most Americans don't eat much seafood so it's not on anyone's radar. Enjoy your seafood while you still can. Maybe rich nations will have farmed fish or domestic freshwater sources, but cheap seafood from the ocean will basically not exist within a few decades.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jul/07/global-f...


I don't really like getting into political arguments, but I'd like to point out that the US is not really that much more forward looking than other nations wrt fishery conservation. They, after all, increased quotas for pacific salmon fishing that decimated the Canadian fisheries for years. Why? In retaliation for the unsustainable Canadian softwood lumber prices (that were shutting down all the US mills). It's politics all the way down, unfortunately.

I do agree that we need international level agreements, but I trust the US exactly the same as I trust most other governments on this issue. I think one of the biggest problems is that it's a bit like global warming. Most people simply deny that there's a problem. In fish-loving Japan, where I live, nobody will listen to me. They sell cod illegally fished from the grand banks in the super market. They even have a big sign "Grand Banks Cod!!!" I think if I brought an east cost Canadian fisherman to Japan, they'd go postal. But, if I try to educate someone, the response is always, "It has to be a lie. Look at all the cheap fish in the super market. If it was really getting scarce, then there would be no fish there. People in other parts of the world just want to complain about the Japanese. That's all it is".

If the US was a fish eating nation, I have very little doubt that the same thing would be happening, unfortunately.

My supervisor at university did fish population simulations as his research. He published a paper, maybe 30 years ago now, where he predicted the collapse of all wild fisheries. Nobody paid any attention to it. It seems to be on track now...


When I read "the US is the only nation currently with the clout to really push to change this", I don't interpret that to mean the US is/would be more sensible about protecting fisheries. It sounds to me like smallnamespace is proposing that there's a coordination problem--tragedy of the commons/prisoners dilemma, I would assume--and you need one big pushy guy to insist we all follow sensible rules.

You don't need an especially socially responsible or forward-thinking entity to solve coordination problems. You just need one that's able to push hard enough to make everyone fall in line.

Something like the UN/WTO would ideally serve that purpose, but seems like no one wants to give them much clout. I assume the big people prefer to keep the clout in their complete control and the small guys know the big guys would still have stuff like permanent seats and veto power.


"Look at all the cheap fish in the super market. If it was really getting scarce, then there would be no fish there. "

But it sounds very logical, so why is this not true?


Because the fish can't be stored very economically once you harvest them, the cheapness of fish now is due to overfishing, and directly contributes to future scarcity.

Strangely, the best place to 'store' fish is right in the ocean, and for an overly harvested fishery, you even get paid interest for it.


"future scarcity"

But if there is too much fish taken away, then it is harder to catch them, right, so scarcity. But the remaining fish then have much more space and food to reproduce ... so they go ack to the old levels quickly, so where is the problem (unless some species go literally extinct)?


You're right that at carrying capacity, the limiting factor is food and space.

But most of our fisheries are far below that now. Fish can only breed as fast as there are breeding fish available, but we're eating them faster than they are being born.

You can view a fishery basically as a giant fish-making factory. If you eat away half your fishery's biomass, then to a very rough first approximation, your factory will only produce half as many fish.


"your factory will only produce half as many fish."

But then why is fish still so cheap and plenty of it avaiable, which was the main point?

(but again, I don't know that, I am just refering to the argument)


One reason is that many governments are essentially paying people to take fish out of the ocean [1], to the tune of tens of billions a year. Japan, China, and Taiwan are some of the main players. They do it to keep fishermen employed.

Related to this: because technological change has made it really cheap and easy to catch fish [2], and up to now, that has more than offset the decreased productivity from damaging our fisheries.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fisheries_subsidy [2] http://archimer.ifremer.fr/doc/00222/33368/35784.pdf


They don't go back to "the old levels" because once the numbers recover even a small amount it becomes profitable to knock them right back down. You reach an equilibrium at a much smaller amount of fish in the wild than you could have had with proper management. Fish prices are higher, but fisherman catch fewer per day, so nobody wins.


I don't see where GP ever claimed that the US was forward looking?


Can we really stop China and Japan from hoovering up fish and whales? Historically we have not had much success.

Also why should America have to be the fish police, on top of all the other polices we are. What if I would rather spend the fish police money on universal healthcare and free college tuition for fellow Americans?


I'm not making a moral case that America should police the seas, but simply pointing out the practical reality that the US Navy actually does control them, and hence we're the natural party to propose and also enforce any agreement.

The truth is that if the US does nothing, mass fishery collapse is the most probable outcome. It will hurt poor, seafood-consuming nations much more than it hurts the US.

Is this more important than any of our other priorities? That's up for you to decide.


America should be helping fight for a world where we don't need fish police. In other words, we should encourage governments that naturally want to act in a reasonable, secular-based manner.


> Because the oceans are already being over fished to the point we're facing a very real likelihood of collapse.

Evidence please.

Most of the costal area of India uses relatively far more primitive fishing methods compared to Japan or China. Have not seen any ocean fish becoming less available in last 30 years even though population might have doubled and demand for fish gone up by 5 fold. At least there is no evidence on ground !


Beef and pork are significantly worse than seafood in terms of environmental impact. There's nothing to celebrate in the sources of American protein.

If America was as hungry for seafood as East Asia, fisheries would have depleted enough to create frighteningly high prices long ago, and we'd probably have a thriving aquaculture industry today.


I live near the Great Lakes, so there is literally no such thing as a safe fish to eat. Every fish has a limit to how much you can eat and how often -- that is if you are an adult male, if female or child you are far more limited yet.

Especially near me, where the waterways are also toiletways. You'd have to go out into the lake to escape the toilet and dioxin-laden water, where the fish should never be eaten, and even then you have, like I said above, a limit depending on how much toxic fish you feel comfortable ingesting.


I lived in Houston where you cant eat anything near the coast. When I went to Australia it was incredible you can fish and eat almost everywhere/everything near the coast.


Don't fish for dinner near big cities in Australia though. It can be just as bad as anywhere else.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-08-16/health-warning-over-fi...

http://www.fishingworld.com.au/news/toxins-found-at-popular-...


Those links appear to warn of fishing around Sydney harbour and Oyster Bay. I still would bet almost anywhere along the proper beach is at least an order of magnitude safer than in comparable regions of the states. Many beaches I consistently saw heaps of guys surf casting.


Many people eat the fish in Sydney Harbour too. Despite being warned not too.

Sydney's ocean beaches are often closed to swimmers because of pollution. Sydney disposes of its sewerage via deep ocean outlets, and this can often make the water quality very bad, depending on ocean currents.

I'm not sure my post warranted a down-vote. Is it because I contradicted you? or do you think I am wrong? I lived on a houseboat on The Georges river/Botany Bay for many years, and have spent some serious time on Sydney's waterways, and offshore. I wouldn't eat anything caught in Sydney's rivers or beaches knowingly.


Hey I am not one of the people who downvoted you. I think while yes there is a point to be made that Sydney/Australia also has water quality issues the problem in general when you compare the US to Australia is quite a big difference.


> Many beaches I consistently saw heaps of guys surf casting.

You can easily observe locals fishing in the river(s) running through Shanghai. The fact that they do it doesn't mean those fish are safe to eat.


Sure but Australia has a $22/hr min wage and absurdly good welfare and you can eat potato chips on it all day ig you want. China is rougher. But yes of course just because many do something does not mean its a good idea, but analyzing what others are doing may be food for thought when deciding where a placr is relaticely good to fish or not.


I'm very skeptical of that claim, particularly wrt pork. Once we've completely depleted the oceans of wild fish stock and rely entirely aquaculture, then it'll be a fair comparison.

According to this article, based on CO2 production farmed salmon has the same impact as pork:

  http://www.ewg.org/meateatersguide/a-meat-eaters-guide-to-climate-change-health-what-you-eat-matters/climate-and-environmental-impacts/
And chicken has a substantially lower impact than either.


I wouldn't trust anything from EWG. They are an agenda driven pseudoscience organization. They actively criticize conventional agriculture (see their "dirty" dozen list) and vehemently oppose genetic engineering.


i think the answer is simply that most of america is very far inland, and seafood is best fresh -- especially if one is especially sensitive to the 'fishy' taste it acquires after about a day or two, even frozen. every coastal community i've ever spent time in has a plethora of seafood restaurants, though i'm not sure if this extends to grocery stores.


Most of the landmass is far from the coasts, true, but the population concentrates at the coasts. So the geography is probably not the reason why fish is less popular in the US. There are probably multiple reasons but one could be that the competition from meat is very strong. Coming from Europe, I was always surprised how cheap meat is in the US.


Yeah all these people talking about Americans not having good taste in food are entirely missing the point. It has nothing to do with that, and everything to do with economics.

There's no reason to eat fish when in almost all cases chicken, pork, and beef provide much cheaper and filling sources of protein. I mean, I love the taste of fish, but even I rarely eat it because it's just that much more efficient to feed myself with chicken and red meat.


The US is a pretty wealthy place. I lived in Italy for something like 15 years, and people there eat a lot of fish too, of varying kinds. By and large, they do not have as much money as people do in the US.

If it were only about efficiency, you'd probably just eat beans and rice, day in and day out, with a bit of this and that thrown in.

Edit: BTW, this book has some interesting ideas about the US and food: http://amzn.to/2oVeaYz

Among other things, he points out that the US does have slow food with a high degree of regional variety: barbecue.


The point is, in the US most seafood at the store is at least $15/lb. Beef (depending on cuts) is as little as $3/lb. Chicken and pork are typically cheaper than beef.


Good steaks are more expensive than chuck, too. And yet people consume both.


Few people eat steaks every night, let alone good cuts of steak.


And yet... you can get them in stores. That's kind of the whole point. Not everyone in Italy eats clams or octopus or whatever every night either.


This has a lot to do with the fact that a cow is a whole animal. If you raise one to sell the chuck, you also get T-bones and ribeyes and tri-tips and flank steaks and so on. Most of that goes into the same retail pipeline, so availability is correlated.

On the other hand, expensive fish aren't usually a byproduct of producing cheap fish, nor vice versa.


Whole foods has a decent selection of fish. Real salmon is like $20 a pound though.


The US is a pretty wealthy place. I lived in Italy for something like 15 years, and people there eat a lot of fish too, of varying kinds. By and large, they do not have as much money as people do in the US

The US is a wealthy place, but a lot of individual families aren't wealthy at all. Cheap, mass-produced, pre-prepared food (either frozen or in cans/boxes) are the cheapest things to eat. Where I lived - a few hours flight to a coast or many hours of driving - fish was one of the more expensive protein options if one doesn't want to eat fish sticks or the like. Chicken and pork were usually cheaper, followed by beef.

If it were only about efficiency, you'd probably just eat beans and rice, day in and day out, with a bit of this and that thrown in

This misses part of the equation - the stuff folks are eating are time efficient as well. Plus a good amount of folks wouldn't know what to do with lentils and rice: Cooking isn't a focus of schools. I had 6-9 weeks of cooking instruction, and we only cooked (in groups of 4-5) once every week or two and that included things like baking sweets. It is amazing how many folks don't just look this stuff up.


OT but doesn't learning common household skills like cooking the parents' responsiblity? I've never learned it at school


I can't say how much I learned in the class, but I was taught cooking in a US public school, which included etiquette, dishwashing, and table service.

That class was one semester, and it was paired with another one-semester class that taught silkscreening, drafting, welding, wood joinery, and aluminum casting. This was, I think, in 7th or 8th grade.

WTF are they teaching in schools these days if not how to make pancakes correctly and clean as you go?


How to get into university, mostly.


I've always viewed that as an excuse not to teach it in school, and I've never quite understood. Same with personal finance.

How are you supposed to learn something from your parents if the parents do not cook or are not responsible with their money or refuse to share financials with the child? We know some kids are in that situation and teaching such things is a preventative measure.


FWIW I live on the coast in a place where people eat a decent amount of seafood (anecdotally), and fish is also one of the most expensive protein options. Significantly more expensive than chicken/pork and often even beef. Up until I got my first post-college dev job, my family could not afford fresh fish and thus didn't eat it. Now I live comfortably and can afford it, but it costs as much as a nice piece of beef (like a ribeye), and since I didn't eat fish growing up, I'm going for that ribeye 9 times out of 10.


Economies of scale, no doubt. While there's only a few nationwide grocers (Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Walmart), there's many more regional grocery supply chains all over the country, that largely offer the same products in every single one. Given any population center, odds are you're within an hour of at least one of these. Insanely impressive given the size of the US.


France is much the same, people there seem to spend a much bigger proportion if their disposable income on food than here in the UK.


French companies often offset the price of the largest meal of the day via restaurant vouchers. The meal is that important to them. I wouldn't cover that under, "disposable income", exactly.


> If it were only about efficiency, you'd probably just eat beans and rice, day in and day out, with a bit of this and that thrown in.

Saving $1 > Saving $0


While our population concentrates on the coast, IIRC on balance it still ends up being about a 50-50 split depending on how generously you want to define "coast". Also, the demographic trend is people moving towards coastal cities, so a large portion of current coastal city dwellers established their taste preferences growing up inland.

Geography is certainly a plausible component of the answer. But I personally think cultural norms are pretty arbitrary and self-sustaining; there doesn't need to be a deeper reason why "americans like beef" other than our parents did and that's what we grew up with (recurse N generations).


I don't know: it seems like a lot of America's logistics and infrastructure design choices are made with equal consideration to inland and coastal populations, despite unequal size. For example, coastal US cities are designed for car travel despite their density, presumably because that makes them more accessible to "the average US citizen" who lives inland and goes everywhere by car.


There's nothing inherently dense about American "coastal cities". In the U.S., density is primarily related to age--how large a city was prior to the invention of the automobile. With the exception of the oldest cities in the north east, most U.S. coastal cities are not particularly dense unless they are also quite old. LA is a prime example.


You presume incorrectly. It's a tangled web of federal and state policies, along with the (not exclusively) American fetish for cars and low-density home ownership, which led to the car-centric design. And that's certainly reductive, but helping from landlocked states visit NYC and SF probably never played a role.


Given the choice people prefer not to cram into crowded cities. Cars bring flexibility and freedom.

The current trend is to go more urban/inner suburban. That more due to the cycle of aging property and best value than anything else.


>Coming from Europe, I was always surprised how cheap meat is in the US.

Lower quality meat is cheaper. Similar quality meat (for example, in Scotland, all the beef is grass-fed, I don't know about the rest of the EU) seems to cost a similar amount in either area.


Also from Europe, I was always surprised by the quality of the meat in the US.


surprised because it was better or worse than expected?


Speaking of fresh, its hard enough to eat fresh produce when you only shop once a week.

I have done the "drive to the gourmet food store to get fresh fish supposedly flown in by air that's only a couple hours old" and its expensive, like $15 to $20 per pound and interesting and tasted very fresh and delicious but tonight my kids have baseball practice and my son has scouts and weekly food shopping night is Thursday to avoid the weekend rush so looks like frozen fish tonight.

Farm to table is good signalling but not really practical for perhaps 95% of the population if not more. Something from the freezer aisle that can be cooked in the oven and tastes OK is better than something better that I can't eat because I don't have two hours tonight for special store supply runs and homemade preparations.

Also especially inland we have plenty of lakes and recreational fishermen and they all know about mercury poisoning such that they can only occasionally eat what they catch. Someone who can only safely eat one walleye per month looks at me pretty weird for feeding my kids fish every week "You having the pediatrician test them for mercury?"

Its also extremely bad social signalling, I know its wrong to even say this, but fish is generally pretty boring and bland. Its like trying to obtain artisinal flavored chicken or artisinal flavored sea or mountain salts. There's a reason people put a lot of work into what goes in or nearby the dish in a fish, spices and stuff. I'll blow money and time on something that will taste good. Fish isn't in that list.


> fish is generally pretty boring and bland

That depends entirely on the type and quality of the fish. The most obvious example is salmon, which has a great, unique flavor and texture if cooked properly. White fish tend to be more bland on average, but there are some that are very flavorful; for instance, ling cod is absolutely delicious grilled (or seared) with nothing more than olive oil and salt/pepper. And then you have oily fish like herring and mackerel that are generally not cooked, but rather cured, pickled, or smoked, that are flavorful enough to be eaten on their own (but also make fantastic accompaniments in dishes like dressed herring).

In fact, you could say that a lot of lean cuts of beef are "boring and bland" as well: they don't have a ton of flavor unless you add herbs, spices, and/or fat.

(All that being said, I don't disagree with your other points about convenience and safety.)


A lot of fish need to be frozen for a period of time to kill the parasites to the FDA standards. Some types of fish and some farmed and contained fish doesn't need this treatment though. I don't think proximity to the ocean is a good metric as you can freeze fish for a few months with no noticeable degradation in quality. It can be held indefinitely at 0 degrees F I believe as well.


The largest national/ethnic group contributing to the American population is German, followed by the British Isles/Ireland, none of which are known for a heavily seafood based culinary tradition. Could be relevant as well.


>The largest national/ethnic group contributing to the American population is German, followed by the British Isles/Ireland

I would have thought people from the British Isles were the largest group, based on what I've read about America, the Pilgrims, etc. Is that wrong?


Yes that's what people think instinctively but it's incorrect. Part of the issue is that two world wars served to erase tremendous amounts of the visible cultural legacy of the German influence on the US, streets and towns were renamed, biergardens turned into bars, and so on.

The culinary influence is right there in plain sight though if you look for it, from the names of our big mainstream brewing companies to our national favorites, the Frankfurter and the Hamburger.


BBQ, too. For instance, the Texas style of smoked BBQ is rooted in German immigration to central Texas.


Interesting. I was just reading about Texas barbecue a couple of days ago (in fact I have a few tabs about cuisines open in my browser right now). They said the influence was from Germans, as you said, also Czech, IIRC (for the barbecue). Apparently East, Central, West and maybe South Texas all have different styles of barbecue.

Edited for typo.


Maybe I'm slow, but I've sometimes idly wondered why Hamburgers contain no Ham - and your comment finally made be twig: it's Hamburger as in /ˈhambɜːrɡər/ not /ˈhæmbɜːrɡər/ !


Some things that are not completely obviously named after places:

  hamburger   => Hamburg
  frankfurter => Frankfurt
  wiener      => Vienna
  pilsner     => Plzeň
  seltzer     => Selters


Nonsense! Britain's best known food is fish and chips.

Consumption per person is amongst the highest in Europe.


Wait there are actually fishes inside all that batter? I was certain it was a euphemism.


Probably the same euphemism that has chicken in the fried chicken / beef in the burger?

Don't bother with it in London, elsewhere go where the locals are. A busy fish and chip shop in a small town is probably best, rather than a pub or a takeaway that also sells pizza/chicken/kebab.

I don't live in the UK any more, but last time I visited the fish and chip shop in Llanfairpwllgwyngyll. Highly recommended :)


Americans have also been scared away from eating a lot of fish over fears of mercury and PCB contamination.

America is also a big place. Fresh fish spoils quickly. So no, you won't see a lot of selection at a midwestern supermarket. If you're near a coast, the selection and number of specialty seafood shops is a lot better.


I'm not directly responding to your comment but some of the best sushi chefs use fish that was frozen. And this says all sushi served in the US has to be freezed to kill any bacteria-

https://mobile.nytimes.com/2004/04/08/nyregion/sushi-fresh-f...


Frozen to kill parasites, not bacteria.


For those that don't click through, the only exception is tuna. It lives deep enough in the ocean and is clean enough to get around the "must be frozen" rule.


I would be surprised if major metro areas didn't have enough seafood demand to justify building inland fish farms to supply the urban centers.


If you go to your Safeway, Publix, or Kroger, you'll probably find half the salmon to be farm-raised. And all the catfish.


Farm raised Salmon is salmon in name only.

Different taste and color.

I'll pay the extra $4-5 dollar a pound when in "season" for the real thing.


People are also afraid of fish farms.


[citation needed]

In my experience, a minority of people pay attention to where their food comes from. I'd bet the average consumer purchasing fish wouldn't be able to tell you whether it was farmed or wild caught.


Same in the UK btw. The fish choice in the biggest supermarket is smaller than you would expect in local store in the middle of Spain, away from the coast.

Same thing happens with meat. There is a huge reduction of variety, even at the local fishmonger/butcher, compared to continental Europe (I'm sure it is coming though)

A limited choice is available all the time everywhere, but the variety is not anymore.


Yep, I felt like my choice was cut in half after I moved to the UK. Even if you go to a butcher the approach seems to be "here's the 5 cuts I made today, take it or leave it". And don't even try mentioning buying offal - even if I go to an actual butcher, offal is "special order only" and I have to wait a few days to get it. I live in a coastal town, and the choice of fresh fish is limited to just a few. Very disappointed.


In the UK we also have the after-effects of the Common Fisheries Policy, which has seen a ~50% decline in our local fishing industry since the 1970s.

In 2014 UK fishing boats landed 424ktonnes of fish into UK ports, while we imported 720ktonnes of fish, mostly from outside the EU.


Interesting. Due to commercialization? Possible some of the same is happening in India on some fronts, food or other, not studied it, just anecdotal, hence asking.


Perhaps.

For example, if you visit a supermarket in the UK or the USA at any time of the year, you can always find, say, fresh strawberries, despite the fruit only being locally in season for a month or two.

There is very little genuinely "seasonal" produce, meat or fish in supermarkets and I think that this is a major factor in the lack of variety.

Out of interest, if you went to an Indian market every three months, would you find all 100 different varieties of fish on offer every time, or does it change?


There are different kinds of markets in India - small mom-and-pop stores (kirana stores), wholesale markets (mandis) - but individual consumers often buy there too, because prices are lower, and malls / supermarkets like in the West (from the last decade or two). India is also big and not homogeneous. So I can't give a general answer, only about what I know:

- first, fish, as has been said about the US in this thread, is not eaten much inland (though some fresh-water fish is), due to distances and heat and spoiling, and while India has a large coast, it has an even larger interior.

- second, I doubt there are even close to 100 varieties of fish available (in markets) at the coasts, maybe 20 to 40; those who know more, feel free to correct me, I don't live near the coast (though did long ago), and don't eat fish.

- third, I don't think that in any of the types of markets, I mentioned, all the same varieties would be available all year round (and kiranas don't sell fish or meat at all, except some may, but only tinned). It is a mix of some staples and some seasonal items.


>I doubt there are even close to 100 varieties of fish available (in markets) at the coasts, maybe 20 to 40

E.g. I've visited Goa (a coastal state) a few times, and at least at the beach restaurants / shacks, where they lay out the fish and other seafood varieties for inspection by customers, I don't remember seeing more than 20 or so items - kingfish, mackerel, red snapper, pomfret, crabs, a couple of types / sizes of prawns, squid, shark, that's almost it. One place that I went to a few times, had seafood special nights (the owner fished as a hobby), where there were a few more kinds, like barracuda, tuna, mussels, etc. These were in general touristy areas though. Local markets and restaurants may have more varieties.


Americans avoid flavor because of capitalism, in my view. There is huge money in feeding people bland crap that's been processed as heavily as possible. Frankly, I'm astonished at people's willingness to consume shitty food that is obviously likely to have a detrimental impact on their health.

I would prefer to go hungry or eat the same boring but nutritious meal day after day than consume bad food, and frankly I think I've avoiding a hell of future medical misery by not stuffing my body with crap.


Perhaps some data to back that up? Some of the best restaurants and chefs in the world are American. Have you been to an American grocery store of any reasonable quality? The cheese selection of many big-city grocery stores rivals even French grocery stores. I shop in France all the time and I am still amazed at the variety at many American grocery stores. Try finding Napa/Chinese cabbage, fresh chiles, daikon radish or any number of ethnic staples in a typical French grocery store -- its very difficult. I love my local grocery store but for sheer variety, American wins big.

This tired trope about Americans eating so much processed food is often passed around by people that seem to not be very familiar with what grocery stores in the rest of the world sell. The French have entire stores dedicated to pre-packaged, frozen meals. Stereotypes are often based in truth, but that doesn't mean they are true.

Your average American grocery store has the ingredients to make almost any cuisine on earth, yet I have to import tortilla flour from the US because the only thing resembling Mexican food in France is "Old El Paso." Korean ingredients? Good luck with that. There's a tired section of soy sauces that consist of Kikkoman generic crap and that's about it. In a US store, I can find at at least 5 different kinds of soy sauces. Actual Asian noodles as well.

People seem to have a hobby bashing Americans, yet the American grocery store is a temple to the success of capitalism, world trade and diversity.

Ever been to a "non-capitalist" grocery store in China? Once you do that, then perhaps you could opine on how bad capitalism is for food.

Capitalism is the very reason you can find enoki mushrooms in Omaha, habaneros in Minnesota or Serbian rakija in Los Angeles.

I am not saying that Americans always make the best nutritional choices -- but it isn't due to the lack of opportunity to do so.


The stereotype is pass around among restaurant owners as well. It's not a secret that the American palate is picky and easy to understand. Avoid foods that are mushy, gooey, slimy, or "weird" (even though most food is like that), and try to make it crispy, sweet, and/or salty. Sushi is gross, but put the rice on the outside (beacuse eww seaweed) and cover it in sweet sauce, and suddenly it's delicious. Chinese food is gross, so enterprising Chinese-Americans invented some generic salty/sweet deep fried garbage and it sells like crazy. Oh, and here's some deep fried pastry dough with superstitous nonsense thrown in.

Granted, Americans have gotten a lot better at food and culture in general in the past decade ever since the hipster/foodie-ism thing, but it still has a long way to go if it wants to ditch the image of the average American as the child who won't eat their vegetables.


>crispy

An abomination of a word :)

It should be crisp, AFAIK.


No, he's not wrong. An apple might be crisp. A French fry might be crispy.


Okay, you're right. I checked in a few online dictionaries. I was earlier under the impression that crispy was wrong usage.


Seconding the proposition that these are two distinctly different words. Then there's crisply which has nothing to do with food but is reserved for describing the manner in which civil servants (British, sizes 4-7) deliver ultimata in trenchcoat spy novels. True fact.


True :) Alistair MacLean novels come to mind. Good entertaining writing, at least some parts of his books. Read them a lot as a kid. The only parts that were a bit tedious were the long descriptions of bad weather conditions in some of the novels set at sea, like Ice Station Zebra, H.M.S. Ulysses, etc. He tended to overdo those parts.


Sorry for the off-topic, but got any good recommendations for such novels? It's been a while since I read any, and would like to read some good ones again. I've read a few - John Le Carre, and MacLean of course. James Bond, but those tend to be better as movies. Can't think of others off-hand.


Len Deighton is in my view the best writer nobody has heard of. Well not nobody, several films have been made (with Michael Caine!!) but all of them were sort of crap and ended up feeling like poor man's James Bond. His work is widely perceived as cheap pulp, the sort of novels people pick up in airports and train stations.

Start with The Ipcress File. There are only a very few books that I read again and again for the sheer literary pleasure of their construction and expression, and I've read that book at least 10 times now, and hope to read it many more.

Deighton's novels have been popular but he has never been accorded the recognition given to other great writers in the espionage and war genres. Perhaps this is a result of too many irons in the fire - he's also a historian and graphic arts - but it has a good deal to do with his being a recluse and his relatively humble social origins, in my view, which perspective is fundamental to his writing. I cannot lavish enough praise upon him, but ask that if you enjoy his work you make an effort to share it with others.


Oh, Len Deighton. I've definitely heard of him, and probably have read at least one of his books. Cannot remember which now, though. I think he was a popular author in India when I was heavily into novel reading, earlier. Will check them. Thanks for the recommendation, and I'll keep your point about sharing in mind.

P.S. For a moment, after seeing you mention Len Deighton, I confused him with Ken Follett, some of whose books I've also read. They were good too.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Follett


>Granted, Americans have gotten a lot better at food and culture in general in the past decade ever since the hipster/foodie-ism thing

American culture, in general, has improved thanks to 10 years of hipsters? Where are you from?


They've gotten better at culture, as in, trying to understand different cultures and branching out their own interests and experiences beyond what is American.


>They've gotten better at culture

And you quantify this how?


Are you asking me how to quantify culture? You could go buy services like what WGSN offers, or you can just not be a socially inept corporate econometrics data clown and leave your house once in a while, interact with young people, and use your eyes.


"Culture" in American vernacular essentially means non-anglo food (90%) plus festivals and other folk things (10%). I know, it's weird.


It doesn't count as American culture until the guy who is pushing it clears a million dollars.


Oh I'm not saying you can't get great food here, sorry for phrasing my original post poorly. I live in the Bay Area and cook a lot and I'm spoiled for choice. What I mean is that the big bucks in agribusiness go towards lowest-common-denominator choices of poor quality.

Simple example, most milk in the US comes from Holstein cows because they produce more than other breeds. But if you get milk from Jersey cows (smaller and browner) it's much fattier and generally more flavorful. Of course it's also a bit more expensive but not that much more...but you'll be hard put to find it outside of a farmer's market or specialty grocer.

I don't think it's fair to put all the blame on consumers for poor nutritional choices. Marketing and other factors shape those choices significantly.


I dunno. Sample size may have something to do with this. I live in a rural section of the US now, but spent a year living in Eastern provincial France and the difference in the cheese case makes me cry when I think about it.

Americans stock their shelves with "swiss" "american" "jack" and "cheddar" with almost all of them being made in about a week in cheese factory somewhere.

Contrast that with having TWO versions of Cantal, one of the blander AOC cheeses, in every cheese case we encountered in France. To say nothing of blues I'd never heard of, and small batch regional cheeses in many supermarchés.

It's all hearsay and conjecture, really, but I think the outsized influence of American chefs is just due to TV culture which is pervasive and consistently unfortunate.


I feel sorry for you, but in my small-town new england co-op, we have easily more than a hundred cheeses available, including many local cheeses that you can't get in Europe at any price, and which compare favorably with the best I've had anywhere outside of the northeast.

Rural America has a great food culture here in many areas; it's not just chefs on the TV.


Every contemporary grocery store I've been to in the Northeast US has an artisanal cheese section... And I don't even live in a big city. It's not mixed in the with the "normal" cheeses though. My grocery store makes mozzarella in house too.


Yeah, most of the grocery stores in my corner of Maine have an artisanal cheese section too. But they wrap them all in plastic wrap and the inventory doesn't turn over so it all tastes like crap.

Plus, if you look at the labels, half of the cheeses that are presented as artisanal are actually made by a cheese factory in southern Wisconsin.

All that said, there are a number of folks making brilliant local cheeses in Vermont and Upstate NY, but I find those at the boutique cheese store on the coast, and even their employees often don't know anything about what they're selling. Not sure who's fault that is though.

Either way, I miss France and not just for the cheese. Gastronomically it was simply easier to find high quality produce and AOC protected regional delicacies. And that's not saying they don't have crap too (oh, I remember Lidl), but there was a sense of cultural pride around certain foods that is simply absent in the US outside of hipsters in Vermont and California (which I am mostly likely a part of).


Eh, there's more to food than cheese. Some of my favorite cuisines don't use it at all. The only times I've appreciated a large cheese selection is when I've lived where it was impossible to get milk with lactose included. Now that I'm back in rural USA real milk is easily available so I really don't miss the dozens of cheeses.


Fake news


Haha wut?


"There is huge money in feeding people bland crap that's been processed as heavily as possible."

The point isn't to process it as heavily as possible, it is to process it and flavor it so that it hits a "sweet spot" between the fat/salt/sugar flavors - according to the food science. This makes folks come back and buy more, especially with it seeming to taste better than their home-cooked food. They seriously design it to make your brain happy to have it. Some of it is bland, for sure, but plenty of it isn't.

I'm not so astonished: This sort of thing has been happening throughout history. Lead in makeup, arsenic in dyes, and so on.


True. It just disturbs me that today we can't fall back on the excuse of not knowing any better.


> Frankly, I'm astonished at people's willingness to consume shitty food that is obviously likely to have a detrimental impact on their health.

Collecting pennies in front of a steam roller.


"For whatever reason Americans just don't eat a lot of seafood."

Pretty much every place I've lived on both coasts, you couldn't go the day without hearing about someone wanting a tuna burrito, or fish tacos, or shrimp stew (Frogmore stew specifically) or lobster or crab or flounderor more.

So maybe the inland Americans don't eat as much seafood, but rarely does a day go by here on the West Coast that I don't hear about or personally think about eating some seafood.


It's literally capitalism at work.

The market at work, surely.


That can't be right. I basically don't eat fish because it's too bland. Salmon's a little better than white fish, but it's all just a vehicle for whatever sauce you put on it. Chicken at leasts tastes umami.


At least will be used to it for when fish prices (probably) go up in the future global due to poor environmental conditions in the ocean. Gotta look on the bright side I guess.


I wonder how much this has to do with peoples common initial exposure to bad seafood. Good fish doesn't smell fishy and most the fish you get at a supermarket has a strong fishy smell/flavor. You shouldn't be able to smell the fish until you put it up to your nose.


They're fond of apostrophes though ;)


The capitalist America was just a tongue in cheek remark. In fact 99Ranch's offerings are actually result of capitalism toom.


It's not just fish. A staple of graduate student conversation is "Food X was a favorite of mine at home, but" "I can't find it in Boston" or "the American version is a bad tasteless joke".

One issue is lag - the American general food supply diversifies more slowly than the population.

Another issue is corporate consolidation of the food supply chain. For example, New England used to have a lot of small confectionery manufacturers, from big factories to mom&pops, which over the last three decades have most all been crushed out by Nabisco. Which is much lower quality. So "why doesn't Boston have good confectionery like", err, Castile? Well, we used to be a lot closer, but Nabisco et al.


Mexican food was a favorite of mine in the United States, but in France it tastes like cardboard. I want to find <some product> but France doesn't sell it.

This conversation can be had in literally any country in the world. Can't find a decent cheeseburger in Delhi, can't find decent cheese in Shanghai, nearly impossible to find good tequila in Germany.

Every country has foods they're good at and foods they're not. As far as the death of small producers, why by Boston chocolate when I can buy actual high quality Swiss chocolate at a lower price? Why buy some marginal local beer when I can buy literally the best beers in the world. Globalization certainly has its negatives, but on balance there is more variety than every before.


> Every country has foods they're good at and foods they're not.

I mean... sure.

But I've travelled a whole lot of the world and some places on average have way better food than others. It's sort of impossible to go to Lyon, France, say, and then pretend everywhere else's food is just like different, but no worse.


If you spent a year or more in a Lyon I think you'd have a much easier time thinking of things you wished they had.


Indeed. But dramatically less so than, say, Lyon Puerto Rico.


Sorry, I just don't buy it. I spent a year in Japan and they had lots of great foods that I have only found pale imitations of elsewhere. But they also lacked foods that I love and can find in the allegedly culinarily impoverished United States. And I can say similar things about other places I have traveled (including Puerto Rico), although without the same sort of supreme confidence.


Hmm I remember living in a middle-sized city in The Netherlands that probably most things were available in good quality as long as you knew where to look. Mexican food I can't judge, but Indian or Thai or REAL Chinese food wasn't a problem, with a few options to pick often. Italian and French of course. Good burgers yes.

There's of course a difference in culture. You can't find sesos even at the best butcher shops while in Argentina they're in any medium sized supermarket. That's just stuff that nobody but the very adventurous will eat outside that cultural zone.


I can speak to the lack of real Indian food in the Netherlands, there's about one restaurant in Amsterdam which serves proper food. The rest all serve British Indian Restaurant cuisine, which is the equivalent of Febo representing all Dutch food.


To be fair, you probably can't get a good burger in Delhi because of the Hindus.


   totally surprised to see that in Capitalist America the 
  choice of fish was absolutely pathetic
followed by

  Then I entered 99Ranch and since then my respect of my 
  eastern neighbours has gone up significantly
Because a supermarket founded in California is not part of America?

Not to mention the fact that the antecedent statement is just factually wrong -- my local grocer offers at least 20 varieties of fish as well (including about 5 or 6 different Salmons) and is a plain-as-day "American" market.


I think what the person you're responding to meant to say was: "I'm disappointed the US isn't exactly like where I'm from. By US I mean the very few places I've been."


> As a fish loving Indian, I was totally surprised to see that in Capitalist America the choice of fish was absolutely pathetic

As explained below, the issue is one of demand. For whatever reason, people in the US don't like fish.

I'm Bengali, which means our cuisine includes a lot of fish. But in the US, I almost never eat fish in restaurants - only when we're cooking it at home. And that's because the way it's cooked is absolutely terrible. People in the US tend to prefer fish that's already bland to begin with (cod, haddock, tilapia, and sometimes tuna or salmon), and the ways they like it cooked don't add very much flavor to the process.

So, for people like me who actually enjoy tasty fish, there are very few options in the US (short of cooking it ourselves) because there are very few others (like me) in the US who actually enjoy tasty fish.

It's sad, but true.


For reference what are the flavorful types of fish and which types of cooking add more flavor to the process?


> People in the US tend to prefer fish that's already bland to begin with (cod, haddock, tilapia, and sometimes tuna or salmon)

To be fair, in the Midwest this is often because there used to be a diet of much more flavorful freshwater fish from local lakes, but overfishing destroyed their populations and pushed prices way up, forcing cuisine to adapt to cheap saltwater fish.


Fresh water fish strikes me as likely very labor intensive, and labor is searched for and destroyed in this country, in favor of industrial sized processes and yields.

I see big fillets of salmon and other large fish in Krogers, from the large industrial supply chain, next to the occasional little trouts and whatevers, and I often wonder "where do those little guys come from? How is it possible for them to get into this case?"

I'm not at all aware of any fresh water/river fishing companies, it strikes me as unsustainable except on a semi-recreational basis.


Someone in USA Midwest who doesn't just go fishing for himself in any of the many lakes and streams that are open to the public, has very little basis for complaint about selection of fresh fish to eat. The reason we have a variety of sport fish in our inland waters, is because commercial fishing is not allowed.


An aside: I visited Mongolia a few years ago and learned that Mongolians almost universally dislike fish. And given that the vast majority of Mongolians were pastoral and nomadic until about 10 years ago, the many pristine lakes and streams of Mongolia are filled with ridiculously large fish. The waters are very accessible, too, because the vast majority of the land in the country is open to allow the population to freely roam and graze their livestock.

I'm not an avid fisherman, but anybody who is should seriously consider visiting Mongolia before it's too late. An exceptionally brutal winter in 2009 killed many livestock and drove millions of people to the capital city. And in the past 10 years the mining industry has exploded. The population is rapidly moving away from nomadic pastoralism and toward industrialization and private property. While I'm sure most of the country will remain undeveloped for quite some time given its size, with the mining operations the waterways are likely to become increasingly suspect.

FWIW, it's not that Mongolians are like some isolated tribe in the Amazon. They're fully aware of the world and enjoy a decent literacy rate. But the Soviets kept the Mongolian economy relatively undeveloped, perhaps because the pastoral culture fit the communist ideal. With the collapse of the USSR the country stayed on the same course until about 10-15 years ago when outsiders (especially South Koreans) poured in to develop the resource extraction industries.


What kinds of food did you eat while there, and any comments on it. I'd like to visit some time.


Sheep (mutton) and horse meat. I also ate camel meat, though I'm not sure how common that still is. The whole country smells like mutton, though, and you will too. It's by far the most common meat and is basically the staple food.

The principle grain is (I think) wheat, often as Russian-style dumplings. Filled with mutton, of course.

The food is pretty simple. Nothing flashy. Not many ingredients. The steppe is a pretty desolate place. Not necessarily bland, either, though. The homemade camel soup was made from dried camel meat seasoned with a wild herb (maybe some kind of allium-related weed?) the host collected while tending his livestock and packed into jars with salt. (Perhaps it pickled a little?) Another dish at a small restaurant was stir-fried horse meat with garlic shoots.

I did eat sheep brains, scooped out of a whole cooked sheep's head sawed in half. That was at a restaurant in Ulaanbaatar. Memorable but definitely the most bland dish I ate there.

I had many other dishes but my memory fails me. Oh, I did have tea with camel's milk on a couple of occasions. Never got to try the famous fermented (alcoholic) horse milk, though.


Wow, interesting. I suppose mutton is the staple food because of their huge area of steppe / grasslands.

About the dumplings, I was just recently reading about manti [1], a Turkish dumpling (which is basically steamed or fried balls of dough filled with ground meat or other fillings).

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manti_(dumpling)

The Wikipedia article said it may be of Central Asian or Turkic / Mongol origin, and had spread to many countries, including Central Asian ones, the Caucasus, Russia, etc. I'm guessing the Russian-style dumplings you mention are a form of manti.

Edit: Just looked it up again, the manti article links to buuz, the Mongolian name for it:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buuz

Also, do they eat much of vegetables, fruits, etc.?


Not many vegetables and definitely not many fruits, although on a tour we did pass through an isolated little town in the Gobi that our driver said was known for its vegetables. As far as I could tell, they only seemed to have a few large gardens. Which I think proves the rule. But as you've pointed out there are plenty of other resources that discuss that, likely more accurate than my anecdotes.

Mongolia is pretty large. IIRC the south is mostly desert, the east more grassy plains, and the west very mountainous. I'm sure the cuisine varies. Nonetheless, AFAIU steppe cultures have very similar diets--heavy meat consumption, particularly sheep, goat, camel, etc.

My wife and I went in 2012 for about a week. Most of that time was spent with expat family working in Ulaanbaatar, where we took a few excursions to parks and monuments not too far from the city.

We took a 3-day trip to the Gobi Desert on a very typical itinerary where you hire a driver and translator and stay with a few host families. Because of tourism and the mining industry, the Gobi families were settling down more. Our host families, while still remote and dispersed, lived in Gurs that hadn't been moved in years. (Whereas traditionally you moved roughly once a year, cycling through grazing areas.) At the time travel books recommended the Southeast for a more "traditional" experience. But you really shouldn't miss the Gobi if you're doing a family trip or a short tour.

I'm hardly particularly knowledgable about the country or culture. But what was most striking was how the land was open and accessible--so very little private property, with the legal right for natives and (IIUC) visitors to roam and camp where ever they please so long as they're not disturbing anyone else.[1] It's basically a dream for anyone who loves the outdoors. I'd hardly classify myself as a world traveler, nor an avid outdoorsman. But I have hiked and camped rural Ecuador and visited rural parts of Borneo. The sense of openness, freedom, remoteness, and safety in Mongolia just seemed incomparable to anywhere else. But who knows how long that will last.

[1] There's an imaginary boundary (if not a fence) around a Gur or collection of Gurs that demarcates de facto private from public land. And Mongolians traditionally keep a native breed of guard dog for protection, so you're encouraged to get vaccinated for rabies. But outside the cities families are so dispersed (on the order of miles) that you're unlikely to accidentally intrude upon anyone's space.


Cool, thanks for the detailed answer.


Considering that the Midwest contains the Great Lakes [1][2], how would fresh water fishing be any more labor intensive than in the open ocean?

[1] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Lake_Erie#/media...

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Lakes


So is that where the trout in Krogers display case down here in Denver come from? Trout trawlers in the Great Lakes?


I think this has to do with the type of fish typically used in western cuisine, which is heavily biased to larger fish that can be cooked as filets or have less bones.

Asian cuisine makes much greater use of smaller fish that are oftentimes cooked whole, so the range of options tends to be larger as well.


Western cuisine is far from homogeneous. We use plenty of small fish in Southern Europe (and we eat a lot of fish) - sardines, blackbelly rosefish, atlantic horse mackerel, blackspot seabream, etc.


Different markets.

My local grocery store probably has 150 ft of cooler space devoted to beer. About half is Budweiser, Miller, and other huge brands, the rest is from smaller brewers, many of which are local. How does the selection compare at the local Lulu Hypermart?


It depends on where you live. The fish selection in Seattle is pretty good, with lots of genuinely fresh options (i.e. the boat comes in from Alaska and the king crab or whatever comes off and is sold within an hour)

The lobster in Maine is similarly good and fresh, as is the crawfish in Louisiana. If you want to get good fresh fish a thousand miles away from the coast then, yes, the selection will be poor and likely limited to a small number of varieties.


Most of what you see in a US grocery store is farm raised, because the market has grown too big for the oceans and rivers to sustain it. Since it is farm raised you see mostly fish that are easy to farm.


Tradeoffs:

America has a lot of land, and infrastructure to feed, raise and transport animals. Meat prices in America are so cheap relative to cost of living it's staggering.

But yes, this means our seafood market choice is pretty bad.


Meat prices are also heavily subsidized to the tune of billions of dollars a year. It is probably the US's most subsidized "crop", even compared to the infamous corn.

The real price of most grocery store meat is in the ballpark of twice the sale price. The difference just comes out in taxes.

It is also what drives a lot of the unhealthy eating habits in the states.


Are those 100 fish in the market all local and fresh? I live on the coast in 'Capitalist America', and usually only eat fish that is fresh (thus typically local). Most of the markets only stock said types of fish/shrimp/oysters because I have always assumed it is what people want. I have noticed more non-local fish show up as mid-westerners have moved to my coastal city though.


Capitalist America balances supply and demand. However your experience must be limited. I know of several fish markets, in my area in the US and other places I've lived, with a variety of fish and knowledgeable staff.


OTOH try getting a real salad in China


Or, god forbid, a pizza!


Mr. Pizza has you covered. A Korean chain in Beijing, who believe corn mayonnaise pizza is a good thing. At least Chinese pizzerias don't use ketchup as tomatoes sauce anymore....those were the days!


Although -- Kimchi pizza is pretty awesome after a long night of Soju and singing. But I never got the corn thing..


I always add kimchi to my pizza as a condiment. Amazing.


no need to go abroad for that. there's a mr. pizza in LA's koreatown. =)


There's a lot of places in the US you can't get a decent pizza.


Even in NYC the places with bad pizza outnumber the good.


That used to be harder than it is today. The one thing I could never get in china, however, was western style sausage. They just don't make it anywhere in china, so overly frozen imports are the only option.


There’s one type of western sausage you can get everywhere, globally, easily.

Volkswagen Replacement Part # 199 398 500 A

That’s VW’s own self-produced currywurst (in the past also from VW’s own farms, now they outsource that part of the production chain): https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volkswagen-Currywurst


The fact that Volkswagen sells currywurst delights me, and the fact that they sold more sausages than cars in 2015[0] makes my day.

If you weren't already aware of it, I hope you are similarly charmed by the fact that Lego is the worlds largest manufacturer of tires[1].

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go call my local auto parts store.

[0] http://www.autoblog.com/2016/02/19/volkswagen-sausage-curryw... [1] http://www.autoblog.com/2012/04/08/lego-worlds-largest-tire-...


And Peugeot make the best pepper mills in the world.


The East German restaurant across the street from the Saudi embassy in north sanlitun Beijing has good curry wurst.


You need to visit more of the US than just the Bay Area, CA. Bay Area seafood is pretty weak overall as there's not that much left locally. It's mostly imported. In fact, most of the stuff in CA isn't that great; you need to go up to Oregon and Washington to get really good seafood at regular, non-exorbitant pricing.

If you go to the East Coast or Gulf Coast (especially), you'll find a very different seafood culture. It's cheap, plentiful, varied, and part of the local food culture.


Yup, as a Chinese I find seafood selection in your typical US supermarket borderline offensive if not so pathetic.

In China even a small city with 400000 population (that is small in China, don't argue.) located 1000 miles from sea would at least have fresh clams and a few live sea fish in watertanks at walmart.

In America all you average consumers buy are vacuum-sealed squares of bland fillet.


Go to the coasts, and the selection is better. Fish just doesn't make it far inland, unless it's freshwater fish.


I bet if I went to India and complained about how pathetic the local hamburger places were, you might wonder about my maturity/worldliness/naivete/etc. You might also rightfully wonder why I was so intent on looking for hamburgers (or Chinese-American food, or Texas barbecue, or whatever) in India, when there are so many other food choices to explore. Every place you go in the world is going to be lacking in some things you took for granted at home, replaced by many other things that are new to you. This is a good thing, not something to complain about, and certainly not something to insult another country over.


Ok, but we're not talking about a specific dish, we're talking about ingredients, so to speak. It's surprising because the US has huge coasts that span climates. I was surprised by it too, and I'm from Spain, whose cuisine is unrelated to India's.


I understand, but it's just a function of what sells and what doesn't. Americans in general aren't nearly as into fish as some other countries, therefore the big supermarket chains don't offer as much variety as some other countries. It's just not a staple in most households.

People who do want more variety go to more specialized stores like Ranch 99 (which is just as American as Safeway, not sure why the poster suggested otherwise), which aren't hard to find.

The poster seemed to blame it on capitalism, but if so I don't see the point in defying capitalism by having the government require the big supermarket chains to stock 100 types of fish that are going to go mostly unsold and get thrown away. That sort of wastefulness sounds a lot worse than requiring the poster to spend 5 minutes Googling for more specialized stores nearby that sells what he wants.


This county was shit! It didn't have pond hockey?


> My small village fish market offers at least 20 varieties of fish in India's coastal region. A proper fish market would offer at least 100.

Which state did you grow up in if you don't mind me asking ?


This may have something to do with the area/perimeter ratio (lots of fish dishes if you live near the coast).

Fish is hardly common in most US restaurants that are near rives though, so my conjecture may be false.


As an American who's friends have visited India I'd have to say reduced selection is a fair trade-off for ubiquitous refrigeration.


Haha, yea, my wife who is Chinese loves 99Ranch and finds all sorts of things our local neighborhood American groceries don't have.


Good that you didnt visit their cheese department...

Buy hey, they have 200 different types of energy bars in medium size shops ;)


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