On my first visit to a Malaysian supermarket as a newbie expat in December 2012, I burst into tears. Cut forward to my UK home leave in December 2014, I find myself in a popular UK supermarket similarly distressed.
“Where are the chia seeds?” I grumbled to myself.
“These avocados are rubbish!” I noted as I prodded them in disdain.
“Call that a watermelon!” I haughtily scoffed.
In two years, I found myself and my shopping habits had been somewhat transformed by my Malaysian adventure. Let me tell you more about that journey.
So, prior to coming to live in Malaysia, I had spent all my life being fed and feeding my family the British way and according to the style and content of a Brit supermarket. In my working life, I had spent over fifteen years marketing and developing products for that very food industry. I’d worked on categories such as tea, fruit juice, baked goods and dairy produce.
What was available in the shops was a result of people like me, working in companies like those I had worked in, trying to create products that would improve the lives of the British mass market. We carried out hours of research to gain insight into the lives of this shopper. We had access to reams and reams of data generated by people’s shopping habits and alongside all this we sought inspiration from the trendsetters, chefs and health experts.
It all boiled down to 3 very simple things:
- Make it easier for them
- Make it healthier for them
- Make their lives more pleasurable
If you can do all three, then BOOM! You’ve right royally cracked it. We all looked to a brand of smoothies called Innocent as our benchmark. Delicious, healthy fruit squashed lovingly into a convenient little bottle, all supported by a crazy and irreverent branding style. These dudes had most certainly laid down a gauntlet.
Anyway, let’s get back to that fateful first shop. Jackie Wilson in a Malaysia supermarket for the first time, fresh off the boat. I was distressed because, in the first instance, I had extreme jetlag. Secondly I was pregnant and had just moved 6000 miles away from home indefinitely. Thirdly I had to feed three humans plus my bump within the next three hours. I could not find the usual fresh, pre-packed ready-made lasagna and some pre-cut microwavable veg. What was I going to do?
Once I’d calmed down and taken on board some soothing words from my husband, words that basically amounted to “man up”, we panic bought a bag of pasta, a tin of tuna and some sauce.
In the weeks and months that followed, I went through the following 3 phases:
Phase 1: The clinging to the past phase
This one basically consisted of me literally squeezing information out of more seasoned British expats as to where any of my UK familiar brands could be found. This resulted in pretty much a 5 supermarket round trip and a bill that would also make a significant contribution towards a small car. After a time, it became obvious that this level of spending and that amount of Heinz beans on toast was not sustainable, so I progressed to Phase 2.
Phase 2: Learning to love the local equivalents
This involved a bit of trial and error, but resulted in our discovery that our shopping bills could be divided by about four if we simply substituted brands. It was always nice to discover bigger, juicier beans, chunkier fish fingers and crisper sweet corn and still have enough change to indulge in some Brit biccies, just for nostalgic purposes.
Phase 3: The Eureka! Get Fresh! Phase
Gradually, I found myself exposed to people doing all sorts of things with their foods. Then I went on a mindful eating course whereby we got to actually make a series of amazing dishes from scratch. It was here I realized that all those years of having things made easy for me had disguised the very simple fact that in a lot of cases, the simplest, healthiest and most delicious way was to just DIY. I realized that I’d never bothered to try and make my own hummus, which was not much more than a tin of chickpeas. That guacamole was not that much more than mashed avocado. I worked out that a few fresh mint leaves could transform a salad. I discovered chia seeds and quinoa and all the crazy things you could do with them.I discovered that Malaysia had all the ingredients you could probably ever need. It is then you notice the trends that have been sweeping the UK in recent years. Jamie Oliver’s home-cooking crusades, Ella Woodward and her wholefood movement. They’d be fine and dandy out here.
And so, I wonder, has Malaysia jumped ahead, by staying behind? All I know is it has equipped me with skills I can take wherever I go.