Carrefour’s salad bar, Chinese style

Shopping at the Zhongshan Park Carrefour supermarket is often a draining affair. While the expansive two-level store in the basement of Cloud Nine mall is relatively well-stocked compared to other supermarkets in Shanghai (though that’s not saying much– we’ve found our local Trust Mart devoid of milk more than once), the layout is neither intuitive nor streamlined, ventilation is almost non-existent, and its narrow aisles are usually crowded with bored salesladies and shoppers just as suffocated and flustered as we are. Sometimes when Sean and I decide to “stop by” to pick up some veggies and pasta after a day out, we emerge from the check-out so exhausted that we’ve lost the will to do anything else for the rest of the evening.

In an effort to minimize these experiences, we’ve been shopping more at the expat-oriented City Shop for imported goods — even if they are a little more expensive than CF — and the veggie and fruit markets for (much fresher) produce. But I’ve discovered a few offerings at Carrefour that will keep me coming back, and its salad bar is one of them.

Carrefour’s “salad bar”, for lack of a better name, is a spread of colourful foreign-looking things that can be off-putting at first glance. But this Chinese version of a salad — or 凉拌菜 (liang ban cai), a generic term for cold, usually vegetarian, dishes — is in my opinion much more interesting, tastier, and probably healthier (no creamy dressings or cheeses) than your average western salad.

The process is simple enough: You take a small metal bucket fitted with a clear plastic baggy, grab a pair of tongs, and fill the bucket with whatever looks good to you: green bean sprouts, a range of tofu products in different shapes, clear bean-based noodles, mushrooms, strings of crunchy seaweed, and other things that even other Chinese shoppers can’t seem to identify. Many of the 10 or so dishes are actually already salads in themselves, mixed with thinly sliced cucumber and carrot. They also have 烤麸 (kaofu, baked spongy gluten, tastes better than it sounds) and kimchi, though I’ve never tried the latter.

After you’ve taken your pick, you hand the bowl to the person standing behind the counter and watch as your bland pile of greens and bean products is thrown into a larger bowl and deftly upgraded in flavour and texture: a bit of salt, sugar, vinegar, soy sauce, minced garlic, sesame oil, cucumber and green bean bits, coriander, roughly crushed peanuts — and chili sauce, unless you tell them “buyao la” (you don’t want it spicy). In fact, if there’s any condiment you don’t want, all you have to do is tell them before they do their thing. When it’s sufficiently seasoned and mixed, they’ll slide the stuff back into the baggy, weigh it (11.8 RMB/500g), stick on a label and tie up the end.

It’ll look something like a bag of kitchen waste:

But you’ll be able to smell the appetite-whetting sesame oil through the plastic, which will give you a last-minute energy boost to quickly finish shopping and get home to eat it.

If you like some slurp with your crunch but don’t want to weigh down the bag with noodles, you can always grab a package of vermicelli (粉丝) on your way out and boil it at home — that can make it a full meal in itself. 6-8 RMB can probably get you a pack of 8-10 bundles, and you can store the rest indefinitely.

So living close to a Carrefour has its advantages: its Chinese salad bar offers a super refreshing and effortless solution for a cold, meatless appetizer — or simply a veggie boost — on any night of the week (esp. in the summer!). The only unpalatable part is having to elbow your way out of the store during rush hour.

EDIT 2011/04/27: I found out today that one of the seasonings they add to the salad is “chicken essence/powder” (鸡精) — essentially MSG. Should’ve seen that coming, but it still disappoints me that a country with so rich and varied a culinary repertoire must be so reliant on chemically produced seasonings to make their food taste good. Knowledge of this made my salad a lot less enjoyable today, and the chickeny taste still lingers in the back of my mouth. Would it be as “tasty” without the chicken powder? I’ll report back next time when I make sure to tell them buyao jijing.


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