In Nanning, eating out is a casual, savory affair: rice noodles, pork ribs on a stick, crisp-skinned lemon duck, the stench of black tofu and the fragrance of ginger. Restaurants make these dishes with ease. But when I try to recreate them at home, my kitchen is ill-equipped for these Chinese ingredients. Do I start with the onions, or add them later? When do I add the oil, and how much? What exactly will a wok do to my food? For a Westerner who wants to cook at home, even shopping for groceries can confound.
Recently, I was staring at the array of pickled vegetables in front of me, trying to guess which one was mustard cabbage. I had never heard of this mysterious vegetable, but the Chinese recipe I wanted to try called for it. I eventually bought something that looked like a boiled artichoke that had been soaked in chili oil and perhaps beaten with a hammer for several years. I had no idea how to prepare it.
Shopping at a Chinese grocery can be startling. Is that vacuum-wrapped chicken feet? Are those chocolate chips or red beans? Is that milk really black? Aspiring chefs may panic, not knowing where to start or how to shop for their own kitchen. While I recommend trying to cook Chinese style, sometimes olive oil just seems necessary. When you’re hit with a desire for crusty French bread, head to one of Nanning’s Western groceries. While no store exactly corners the market, each offers a few familiar items: no mustard cabbage in sight.
1) The Pantry
The joke goes that after the Apocalypse, the Pantry will still carry cereal. Set back from the street in a palm-shaded courtyard, this Western grocery has the look of a bomb shelter: a fine layer of dust, some rust around the rims of the food cans. But despite its utilitarian décor, the Pantry carries the essentials: baking supplies, olive oil, spices, and Doritos. With seasonings ranging from hot sauce to cinnamon the Pantry makes a good stop if you’re craving familiar flavors in your cooking. Canned goods, such as refried beans, run around 25 RMB; a box of cereal costs around 50 RMB. The refrigerator, stocked with cream cheese, cheddar, mozzarella, whipping cream and gouda, has been known to cause joyful weeping among dairy-starved expats. The cheeses here are cut from a large block and priced by weight, between 30-50 RMB each. Another freezer holds rashers of bacon (15 RMB). During the holidays, the Pantry carries frozen seasonal meats, such as Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas hams. They also sell a selection of foreign liquors.
Add: 34 Minzu Dadao, Nanning, just to the left of the Guangxi Minorities Museum
Tel: 077 1281 4209
Opening Hours: 09:30-19:30
This Australian chain is hidden on the sixth floor of the Dreamland (Meng zhi dao) shopping mall. Compared with the delightful grabby chaos of a Chinese grocery, the U-Mart seems shockingly orderly. Among the neat aisles of goods you’ll find boxed Australian milk, both full cream and skim (26 RMB). To make a complete breakfast, pick up a bag of muesli (25-35 RMB). Or dip a digestive biscuit in some milk since the U-Mart carries a large variety of digestives and western-style cookies. Chocolate fiends will be tempted to shell out nearly 100 RMB for an artisanal chocolate bar. The U-Mart also carries a variety of Japanese and Korean snacks, as well as standard Chinese grocery items.
Add: 49 Minzu Dadao, Nanning, inside the Dreamland Mall on the 6th floor
Tel: 077 1285 3523
Opening Hours: 09:30-22:30
3) The Babel Store
The newest grocery in town, this tiny store packs a lot of punch into its real estate. A display case of lemons and limes caught my attention (2 RMB each), as well as a rack of tempura batter, curry paste, and coconut milk for Thai-style cooking. The Babel Store has slightly different cheeses than the Pantry （usually in smaller but cheaper portions）. But its real strength is in its baked goods. The store offers daily selections of homemade sourdough baguettes, as well as French and wheat loaves which are crusty and soft in the center (10 RMB/loaf). They also bake pies and cakes to order. I tried the chocolate cake on my birthday, expecting a fluffy Chinese-style angel food; in fact, it had an almost graham-cracker crust, with a rich, dense chocolate interior. After shopping, perch at the coffee bar and chat; the store serves espresso drinks, and also sells whole-bean and ground coffee by the pound (60-120 RMB/pound).
Add: Minzu Dadao, inside the Sunshine 100 complex. It’s on the north outside rim of the building, facing away from the courtyard.
Tel: 159 7770 2623
Opening Hours: 10:00- 23:00