Earlier this week I was speaking with a new arrival here in Astana. He was telling me how confusing he found the supermarkets and how long it had taken him to get everything he wanted. This started me thinking about how I get around things like shopping when I come to a new posting.
I find that I get used to whatever is available in my last home and fall into a way of shopping and eating that works well with what is available in the shops there. My basic shop in the UK is subtly different to one I would do in the Netherlands for example. Moving to a new country presents a challenge – not everything I want will be available and I have not yet got my head around the cost of living. Add to that not speaking the language and even naming something can be interesting.
Kazakhstan threw up a new challenge for me – it is the first time I have lived somewhere with a different alphabet. For various reasons I did not have time to learn much Russian before I came out so the Cyrillic alphabet was very strange to me. Adding to the confusion is the fact that there are two languages spoken here – Russian and Kazakh. Kazakh is written in modified Cyrillic so until you can tell the difference you are not even sure which language you are reading.
My usual trick when I go somewhere new is to prepare a basic shopping list with translations so I can get at least the staples into the house. This time we were taken to the supermarket straight after waking up on our first day. It was a very kind and well meant offer but unfortunately it also meant that I had no time to prepare a list or even to grab a dictionary from the suitcase.
Supermarkets here are well stocked with everything we could need so I was just about ok - meat is meat, juice is juice wherever you are in the world. I was a little apprehensive about buying horsemeat by mistake but it turns out that it is quite distinctive and most meat is labeled with pictures of the relevant animal.
The real confusion started when I came to the dairy section of the supermarket. Kazakh supermarkets have a bewildering dairy offering. Most comes in a range of fat percentages - you don't buy semi skimmed milk you buy 2.5% milk. The milk that comes in cartons tends to be longlife and fairly unpleasant, you can buy it fresh but it comes in bags to decant into a jug rather than in a carton. In the UK you can buy one type of sour cream - here the supermarkets stock at least 3 different types.
|Sour cream - it comes in more variants than you could possibly imagine.
|Milk in comes in bags rather than cartons
|Kefir is not milk - and it is not a pleasant mistake to make
There are some other strange differences to get used to. Tomato ketchup and mayonnaise are very popular but it took me some time to find them. I was looking for jars but here in Kazakhstan it is sold in squeezy pouches, they are actually much easier to use and store and it will be quite a change to go back to using jars when we move.
It can be difficult to explain how to find items, a few months ago I was back in Europe and my husband called me from the supermaket asking me what the washing liquid looked like. We had run out but he could not tell what bottles held the washing liquid and what bottles held the fabric softener. I had managed to work this out when we arrived because I recognised a brand name otherwise it would have been a process of trial and error. In the end he plumped for a washing powder instead just to be certain he was getting the right product.
Before I worked out the brand names and labels I made a number of mistakes buying tomato puree instead of passata. The puree is sold in jars here instead of tubes. This has another long pedigree in our family. Years ago we bought what we thought was tomato puree from a Nigerian supermarket. The name 'Tomapep' should have given it away - it was a hot sauce rather than a puree - we all had a bit of a shock when we ate our food that evening.
In the winter it can be difficult to get fresh vegetables, our local supermarket has a particularly limited selection but the bazaar is pretty good even in the depths of the cold. Herbs are like gold dust and very expensive during the colder months so I freeze them in the autumn and then use them as necessary. I also keep a pot of windowsill herbs for basil and rocket because I like them very fresh.
My favorite aspect of shopping in Kazakhstan is the wide range of juice available. In most places we have lived (other than Turkey) the range of juice tends to be limited but here we can enjoy Sea Buckthorn, Rasberry, Cherry, Rosehip, Peach, Apricot and many many others.
|Juice comes in lots of flavours