Expats nostalgic for home flock to the grocery goddess
By Emily Ford
I'M on my way home when I decide to stop at the Avocado Lady (274 Wulumuqi Road), a grocery store owner in the former French concession area famous for her amazing array of foreign food. There are several of these local entrepreneurs in Shanghai, like the Greek delicatessen with the impeccable selection of olive oil whose founder, I discovered on my last visit, has never actually been to Europe.
"It's like me deciding to open a stinky tofu joint in Birmingham," I think in admiration. "Or my mum setting up a hairy crab stall in Hastings."
The avocado lady is the high priestess of this tribe, inspiring such devotion among her customers that she even appears in guidebooks. From her small store in the expat Bermuda triangle of Anfu and Wulumuqi roads, with its baby buggies and bakeries and waxing parlors, she dispatches a supply of mysteriously fresh avocados and just about everything else.
Expats love telling new arrivals about the avocado lady, knowing that they are passing on potentially life-changing information.
"Oh, you haven't found the avocado lady yet?" they say. "Don't bother with Carrefour next time. Just go to the avocado lady. She's great."
Like any god, the avocado lady takes different forms for different people. To some she is the prosciutto lady, to others the feta cheese lady, to others, the basil lady. As her legend is passed from generation to generation, she has become a kind of temple where homesick travelers go to worship the culinary idols of their past.
Things I have not seen since my childhood sit on the shelves, as if conjured by magic. "Rice pudding!" I think excitedly. "Dried raisins! Tins of sardines!"
Every nationality is catered for: risotto rice for the Italians, baked beans for the English, Dijon mustard for the French. The store's initial chaotic appearance belies a meticulous commercial operation. I inevitably find myself spending several hundred yuan, but still feel as though I'm getting a bargain. "I'm buying a taste of home," I tell myself. "You can't put a price on that."
One of my favorite things is to watch people's faces light up when they realize that the avocado lady can provide them with even the most improbable goods.
"Almond powder?" an American asks hopefully. "Easy," I think, as she pulls out a packet.
"Do you have cheddar cheese?" a lost-looking Brit ventures. I have not seen cheddar since I came to China. The avocado lady triumphantly produces a giant block of yellow cheese. The Brit looks as though he was about to cry with happiness.
"Where does she get it from?" I think in amazement. "No one else has this stuff."
There is a distinctive look that foreigners give other foreigners when they meet at the avocado lady. It resembles strange dogs encountering one another in the park, not unfriendly exactly, more a desire to sniff the other out to find out who they're dealing with.
Speaking Chinese is used as a way to separate the residents from the casual tourists, despite the fact we are all indulging in the same comfort food. "Look, I do live here," it seems to say. "I just like to buy baked beans once in a while."
As I wait in line, I covertly check my dictionary for the word for porridge. "Hu," it says.
"Have you got any hu?" I ask when it is my turn.
"Any what?" the avocado lady says, puzzled.
"Any hu?" I ask. I realize I must have used the wrong word, or else found something that she does not stock. "Impossible," I think.
"Hu?" I try again. The avocado lady shakes her head sadly. I can hear the Frenchman in the queue behind me smirking.
"You know, I'll just take the cereal. Thanks anyway," I say hurriedly, as I hand over a 100-yuan note.