“Mamamalengke ako ngayon.” I’m going to the market today. There’s a certain déclassé tone to it, together with all the negative connotations of a palengke: wet, dirty, smelly, noisy.
But I still text that message to friends when they ask about my plans, because I do go to the palengke, except it’s the somewhat cleaner and not too smelly but still wet and noisy Farmers’ Market. I figured a market wouldn’t be a market if it were quiet and deodorized.
But life has become somewhat more complicated now that I’ve taken over my mother’s “hunting-gathering” duties, an anthropological term used to refer to the way people originally survived, having to hunt for, dig up, pick out and gather food crops, sometimes going quite a distance to find the food.
In the 21st century, it seems even urbanites may be going back to our hunting-gathering days. Even in the last century, which was not too long ago, I used to wonder why my mother would go off several times a week, half a day at times, for what she called “groceries.” My father would get especially irritated, demanding to know why she had to travel to Binondo and Divisoria, some 10 kilometers away from where they lived, to buy food.
My mother, ever patient, would just smile as she unpacked her latest foraged goods.
Now that I have to shop for groceries—being the only child here caring for my parents, and being a solo parent for my own children—I can see why we end up going back to ancient foraging days, checking out supermarkets and groceries and tiangge and convenience stores (e.g., 7-11 and Mini-Stop).
I thought about doing this column because the other day when I checked out a new Rustan’s supermarket on P. Guevarra in San Juan, I realized it was the fourth supermarket in an area with about a two-km radius. There’s Unimart in Greenhills, and on Shaw Boulevard, Puregold, Super 8 and SM. Coming up very soon and still within that two-km radius are a rebuilt Cherry’s and S&R.
All that’s happening because investors know there’s enough of a market, or rather market niches, out there.
Because I have to shop for so many people, some with particular health problems, I’m very particular about food quality. Fresh foods are still the best, which you have to get from a wet market, and even there you have to be on the lookout for bocha (“double-kill”), old stocks and other scams. With chicken and eggs, being a veterinarian and a public health specialist, I’m dogmatic about organic, and you won’t find that in the wet market. Unimart carries organic chicken and eggs, but not much else for other organic stuff.
Families have mixed tastes: My kids and parents are carnivores but I’m almost totally vegetarian and was excited about the new Rustan’s because other branches carry organic vegetables and other produce but the San Juan branch does not.
So I still go to Sugarloaf on Wilson Street, a small grocery-type organic outlet, with a still-small but growing selection. Problem is they’re closed on Sundays; fortunately, there are several tiangge, including one in Greenhills, where you can find healthy foods, but I go more often to Legaspi because they have more organic stuff, and you can sit down and order food for a leisurely breakfast or brunch.
Like my mother, I forage around different supermarkets, comparing the prices of foods and other “groceries.” I’m amazed, for example, at how a brand of adult diapers costs P208 in one supermarket and P292 in another that’s only two km away. The other one does not offer the brand at all. So, yes, I do end up with several groceries lists.
‘Hopia,’ ‘Mam Bert’
Back to San Juan, I’ve also realized that we have a growing number of groceries and specialty stores, responding to new niches. San Juan is becoming another Chinatown, with all kinds of Chinese-food outlets. I can name Wei Wang, Diao Eng Chay, Jaz, and Little Store, all in a one-km stretch, with many Chinese restaurants in between. I’m very suspicious about the safety of Chinese processed foods, especially from the mainland, but from time to time, I do go to these Chinese specialty stores for condiments, hopia, machang, tokwa, trepang and bokchoy, pechay, polonchay and all kinds of chay (vegetables).
Then there’s Santi’s farther up Wilson, which will now face some competition from Rustan’s regarding high-quality imported foods. I’m conscious about minimizing my family’s carbon footprint by not buying too many of these imported stuff, but I find it hard to resist when my son asks for cheese, baguettes and bagels from Santi’s. (The other day he asked, in correct French, for camembert with a silent “t,” to which the clerk responded by shouting to her colleague, “May Mam Bert pa ba tayo?”)
Remember when early supermarkets like Unimart and Cherry’s first appeared? People were thrilled with the idea that you could have a one-stop shopping place for all you needed. The larger supermarkets still offer, in addition to food, clothes, toys, school supplies, kitchen utensils, even hardware stuff.
But people’s needs have diversified, with malls reflecting that search for variety. So the malls now have all kinds of little shops, and then a supermarket that concentrates on the food.
I’m convinced that even as we see more and more supermarkets, we will see a return to groceries or, for the poor, to sari-sari stores and talipapa. I still go to Unimart even if it’s rundown and the checkout clerks are always struggling with antiquated cash registers that jam or Omron credit-card machines that don’t work. The reason I remain loyal to Unimart is that I recognize many of the staff from years back, some of them even able to address you by your first name. The old (literally) faces are a sign of good labor-management relations.
Other supermarkets change their staff every six months, keeping them forever on temporary status, so I’m not surprised if they’re not motivated at work… or worse. I am told the biggest losses in lower-end supermarkets, which tend to use contractual labor, are inside jobs—thefts by the supermarket staff.
The palengke and the smaller groceries and the tiangge attract people because of the special suki (literally in Chinese, No. 1 customer) relationships you build with vendors. When I venture out to Binondo, I end up in stores where the owners give the warmest welcome and the lowest prices, plus snacks and even a few freebies for my kids, recognizing me as “the son of Nene-chi (Elder Sister Nene).” What would have been a simple “groceries” trip can become quite nostalgic and emotional.
Rustan’s knows the importance of recreating that kind of ambience. Its newer outlets are small, more like oversized groceries, and some of its outlets have a special corner where you can buy gourmet soups and sandwiches to snack on and share with friends. We need more grocery-delicatessen-supermarkets like that, especially for the elderly.
Whether supermarkets or groceries, tiangge or the palengke or a “foodarama” (I hope Cherry’s keeps that name, from its Beatles-era branding), we do yearn for the sari-sari store days marked by spaces for renewing acquaintances and friendships, the boundaries blurred between buyers and sellers.
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