Are There Enough Expat-Friendly Grocery Stores in Malaysia?

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Expat living in faraway lands can lend itself to some bewildering trips to the local supermarket. As Editor Chad Merchant finds, though, Malaysia has made serious strides when it comes to expat-friendly grocery shopping.

Black olives. They were a fixture in my childhood and became a much-anticipated inclusion at every Thanksgiving meal, where my cousins and I would stick them onto our kid-sized fingertips and nibble them off one at a time. Though they’ve long since stopped fitting onto my fingers, I still like black olives to this day.

Olives are not remotely a tropical crop, of course, with their trees native solely to Mediterranean countries. Olive trees are spectacularly hardy and long-lived – many living specimens today actually predate the Dark Ages of Europe – and yet these marvellous trees have for all of their history been largely confined to a relatively small area of the planet. So here in KL, if you want a plump Spanish manzanilla, a Greek kalamata, or a French niçoise, you most definitely need the services of an import-friendly grocer.

Now, when I moved to Malaysia back in 2008, the expat scene was already well-established, but grocery shopping still lagged a bit, at least for those craving a taste of home. It was easy to find fresh galangal and lemongrass, of course, and entire aisles were devoted to a blizzard of noodle and rice varieties. But if you could even source that sought-after import goodie at all, chances were you’d be getting a reasonably old-on-the-shelf product or paying a small fortune for it. Or worse, both!

But what a welcome change the last few years has wrought. These days, expat-friendly stores stocking goods from all over the world are much easier to find. The venerable Cold Storage chain, truly the trailblazer here when it comes to expat-friendly shopping, has expanded and remodelled its stores to offer even more imported goods from more countries, and newer, import-focused additions such as Jaya Grocer and Jason’s have cropped up and are enjoying great success at not only serving KL’s expat community, but the local residents who want higher quality, more international variety, and a better shopping experience, too. Things like freshbaked breads, good quality sliced-to-order deli meats, roasted spring chickens, and ready-to-eat bagged salad mixes were little more than hard-to-find novelties when I first arrived here; now, there’s actually a really decent choice of all these. Even though KL isn’t quite ready to compete with the panoply of boulangeries in Paris, there are undoubtedly more dedicated bakeries here offering up warm breads on a daily basis than in years past.

Even the hypermarkets are getting in on it. Five or six years ago, Tesco – itself a British multinational but with local stores distinctly Malaysian – was not likely on many expats’ radar as a place to go for imported groceries, but today, it’s a different story… and they’ll even deliver! Demand, globalisation, and a changing marketplace are transforming the grocery landscape in the urban centres of Malaysia. We’re at a wondrous crossroads in which technological improvements, enhanced distribution networks, and a greater acceptance and integration of expats into the community are combining to drive what might just be the golden age of grocery shopping for expats in Malaysia.

Perhaps one beloved food group of mine still might be in the fledgling stage here, though, and that’s cheese. I still recall a special trip to New York back in 2006 during which I stumbled across the Bedford Cheese Shop in a gentrified Brooklyn neighbourhood. An entire store, dedicated to nothing but cheese! It was a sheer wonder, and surely even that pales in comparison to the onslaught of cheese available in Europe. After all, it was Charles de Gaulle himself who wryly asked, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” Along with really good bread, cheese is one of life’s truest delights. Give me a loaf of crusty warm bread, a generous few bits of piquant cheese, perhaps a splash of bright, flavourful olive oil, and a bottle of good wine and I’ll be in foodie heaven.

Cheese, of course, is far from a mainstay in Asian cuisine, and for obvious reasons hasn’t evolved as a popular food in the tropics in general, but despite these handicaps, the availability of a fair few varieties of the more common European cheeses – think emmental, gouda, and edam for starters – is relatively widespread these days in KL. Boursin, brie, camembert, shredded mozzarella… these are all easy to find, too. Some upmarket grocers even offer dedicated cheese departments in their stores, so things are definitely changing for the better for cheese lovers. Naturally, you’ll have to pony up a handsome sum for the best of these imported cheeses, but to be fair, even if you’re in the heart of the Lombardi region of Italy itself, that coveted Parmigiano-Reggiano isn’t going to come cheap.

So if you’re new to KL or Penang, set a course for your favourite supermarket, and as you guide your trolley (or shopping cart, or buggy, depending on where you’re from!) through the aisles, rest easy in the knowledge that as an expat here now, you’re at the fore of Malaysia’s grocery revolution. Pondering just this, I recently plucked a jar of perfectly packed Spanish black olives from the shelf at Tesco for RM6, felt a surge of good fortune, and found life in Malaysia just that much easier to embrace!


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Source: The Expat Magazine April 2014



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