Indonesia Expat
Featured Observations

Lost in the Supermarket

Traditional market

Fastidious shoppers may prefer the rarified aisles of fancy expat supermarkets, but spare a thought for the city’s traditional markets.

The traders down at my local pasar are always good for a bit of banter, a few pleasantries, a quick pry into my personal affairs, and a cheeky eggplant-related innuendo or two.

Pasar Jaya has modernised many of the 153 Jakarta markets that it owns in recent years, which may tempt some of you inside, along with the 2 million other Jakartans who visit them every day. Having originally ponged like septic tanks and resembled bombed out Beirut hospitals, Jakarta’s markets are now rather cleaner, brighter, and more sanitary in general, although the nature of the beast means that they’re still not quite as fragrant as a branch of Ranch Market.

However, one more deeply rooted cultural divide does remain. Specifically, the kind of folk who are likely to frequent traditional markets are also likely to rise from their slumbers at some ungodly hour of the morning – the middle of the night as far as I’m concerned – before bounding enthusiastically down to their local wet market to snap up all of the best fresh meat and vegetables. Thus, all of the good stuff tends to be purchased, taken home, and cooked before I’ve even had my morning cup of Java. In other words, a journey to your local market after around 10am is likely to result in a somewhat less than gourmet dinner of chicken’s feet fricassee all washed down with a brown banana smoothie.

More recently, however, mini-markets have proliferated the length and breadth of the country, sometimes next to each other. Their hygienic strip lighting and brightly togged out staff are a direct challenge to the concrete catacombs of the traditional markets. Many small market traders have complained about the rise of these mini-market empires, and indeed any idiot with about US$10,000 to spare can open one.

You have to feel a bit sorry for the small traders who are being left out in the cold by the wipe clean surfaces and hyper-efficient supply lines of these new citadels of convenience. There’s more to this issue than just the disempowerment of the small trader by franchise capital though. The mini-market changes the whole psycho-social outlook of the community at some unconscious level. Moreover, compared with the fresh produce of a proper market, the nutritional content of the fare on offer is probably sending Indonesia’s type II diabetes rates soaring through the roof.

As the bland homogenisation of the global marketplace standardises our desires and aspirations, we increasingly like to shuffle around impersonal, highly predictable environments; see Jakarta’s love affair with the shopping mall. The franchisation of the world has also deterritorialised it. Walking around the bright interior of my local mini-mart, I could be anywhere on the planet, or at least anywhere in Indonesia. Shops like this are coming to dominate every city in the world, giving lie to the myth that the free-market engenders competition, choice and diversity.

Moving up the scale though, Kemchicks, Ranch Market, the very posh Hero Kemang, and various other super posh supermarkets are all available if you’re after the real expatriate, imported deal and some American comfort foods such as Paul Newman’s spaghetti sauce, Trump steaks, or Pee-Wee Herman fudge fingers. Basically, the kind of food that fuels the US rustbelt but available over here at vastly inflated prices. Perhaps, all is jealousy though because, as a citizen of the UK, many of the chocolate bars and, of course, Marmite, from my own fair Albion are lamentably thin on the ground.

However, that’s not to say that there aren’t temptations lurking inside ready to grab your wallet by the throat and throttle the hell out of it. Indeed, the urge to blow half of my monthly salary on blue cheese and red wine can sometimes be overpowering to the extent that I have to go and stand next to the Magnums freezer to cool off and generally relocate my sense of homeostatic balance before continuing with my weekly shop. The other timeout option is to head outside to peruse the noticeboard, which is usually full of glowing recommendations for newly unemployed maids and drivers provided by former expat employers. “Agus mows the lawn like a trooper and his wife can cook a mean meatloaf. I have no hesitation in recommending him for a similar position with another clan of carpetbaggers.”

If that doesn’t appeal then you can opt to have your bulk shop delivered through apps such as Happy Fresh and Sayurbox. Local shopping behemoths Giant and Hypermart also have their own apps. Naturally, you can’t give the tomatoes (either real or virtual) a damn good squeeze through an app, however, such door-to-door, weekly shopping deliveries have become a hugely popular timesaver in the West.

But enough of the cod sociology; how do these various retail palaces stack up against more mundane criteria?

1. Booze availability. The expat supermarket obviously wins here.
2. Attentiveness of Staff. The smiling, jovial, wisecracking, market traders definitely come out on top here. The trainee school leavers down at my mini mart seem to be suffering from a fairly common condition that I’ve named Indonesian-Y-chromosome-service-industry-syndrome. Basically, these chaps are about as gormless as it is humanly possible to be without actually being plugged into life support machines.
3. Ambience. We’ve already discussed this in some detail but, masochist that I am, I don’t think you can beat a good nostril singeing trip around the huge hollowed out breeze block of the market, and there’s less chance of bumping into somebody I know. Always a plus.
4. Prices. At least these are fixed down at the supermarket, although I’m not generally taken for a sucker by the market traders; not once I’ve given their formaldehyde soaked chickens the once over and their juicy ripe mangoes a damned good fondling at any rate.

See: Jakarta: Pick of the Perils

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