During our last six months in Pretoria, every night at dinner I would note whether the meal we were eating could be replicated in Addis. I was really worried about being able to find some of our favorite foods. I needn’t have worried, because we have an abundance of fresh local fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products to choose from. Even our favorite Mexican dishes are available here, which is something we couldn’t say in Pretoria. When my friend Laura was here we even ate fried ice cream at a Mexican restaurant.
My friends back home have asked me what the supermarkets are like here. There is not one answer because they are all so different. There are some that are similar to the larger supermarkets in most U.S. cities, and others that are more like the tiny family-run hole-in-the-wall places we’d find in Rome. The best places to get fresh produce are usually the small stands on the side of the road.
Even though I could send our driver to pick up the basics, I always do all the food shopping myself because it is so much fun. I have a favorite fruit and vegetable stand in a neighborhood called Kazanchis. It is not convenient to my house but if I am passing by the area I make sure to stop there. Why is it my favorite, when there are similar stands on every corner of the city? The people are so friendly there. They know me, and they give me the real, local price every time. They let me practice my Amharic even though they speak decent English. I just tell them what I want (hulet kilo muz; and kilo birtukan… two kilos bananas, one kilo oranges, for example) and I watch as they pick out the best items, weigh them and bag them. The produce is also the most consistently perfect that I’ve found in Addis. Yesterday I bought bags and bags of beautiful produce: bananas, potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce, oranges, strawberries. The total bill? $4.
For chicken, beef, eggs, and dairy, I go to Bambis, the expat grocery store that I resisted so much because of its expat-only reputation. It looks similar to an American grocery store, with long shopping aisles and shopping carts that kids can ride in. You just have to navigate through a construction site to get there, but you get used to that–and the diggers and other equipment are so much fun for kids to watch. When I discovered two weeks ago that they will cut up chicken for you, I was a permanent convert. As much as we like defrosting and roasting whole chickens, there is nothing like filleted chicken breasts for a convenient dinner. That is definitely something I took for granted until now! At the deli counter, they will slice up turkey for you (imported from Italy) and all kinds of other meats and cheeses. You can find great local dairy products there: cream, yogurt, all kinds of cheeses, and today we even found local sour cream. You can also find imported ones like Philadelphia cream cheese and Fage yogurt. The German Bakery also sells its bread at Bambis, which means one less stop for me. (We bake our own bread if I can’t find the good stuff at Bambis. The regular supermarket bread here is terrible.) There are plenty of imported wines and liquors to choose from, too (expensive, but at least you know they’re there). My bill at Bambis can easily run into the thousands of birr, and I hate handing over all that cash. But then I do the exchange rate and realize my grocery bill here is still significantly less than it ever was at Whole Foods in Arlington or Woolies in Pretoria. But for most locals here, it’s more than a whole paycheck. Today I spent about $100 on two weeks’ worth of chicken, meat, cheese and eggs (and some fresh coriander–yum!). That’s almost Gazaw’s monthly income.
Since Bambis is not that close to our house, I try to stock up when I go, and limit my trips to every other week. I often have to do quick grocery runs during the week to get things like milk and cereal. We are lucky enough to live within walking distance of good supermarkets. Sometimes Gazaw or Dejene will offer to go, but I usually enjoy the walk, especially if Willa is napping and I can leave her with Genet. The grocery stores in our neighborhood also have a lot of imported and local items to choose from, but are not as high-quality as Bambis.
Lately I’ve been emailing with people who are coming to Addis and found me through the blog. If you are moving here and worrying about the availability of certain foods, don’t worry any more. The thing that Addis lacks is convenience, not variety. Of course, availability is inconsistent, so don’t get your heart set on anything, ever. I don’t make grocery lists here; I just go and find out what they have this week, and then decide what to cook. As for cleanliness, if you have a system for washing/soaking your produce and are diligent about it, you won’t have problems. Even food in the U.S. can be contaminated with E. coli and salmonella from time to time, but we trust that everything is already clean because the tiny risk is outweighed by our desire for convenience. Here, you just go ahead and assume everything is contaminated, and you clean it yourself. It’s just one more time-consuming inconvenience, but with the low cost of household help, expats can afford to hire someone to relieve the burden of the extra household chores.