Thankfully, you can get pretty much anything in the shops over here. The only things I’ve really struggled to find are detergents and fabric conditioners for sensitive skin – everything on offer is highly perfumed, and even the familiar brands such as Persil and Ariel are too much for my skin to cope witha. I ended up buying Ecover in Megamart (QR29 for 1 litre of fabric conditioner, which equates to about £5 – ouch) and also the ‘Sensitive’ range in Marks and Spencer (QR20, or just over £3 for 700ml of super-concentrated washing liquid, and QR11, or just under £2, for 750ml fabric conditioner). I’ve also had difficulty finding tissues for sensitive noses, such as Kleenex Balsam, but again M&S came to the rescue on that front.
They’re the only things I’ve had problems with, but grocery shopping is always a challenge, so here are my golden rules!
1. Look at the prices. I’m not used to doing this, but you really have to be careful here. The supermarkets do their best to import goods from all over the world, to satisfy the various expat populations, and the prices vary hugely. For example, if you dig around the bags of prawns in the Lulu supermarket freezer, you will see that they vary from a couple of pounds to ten pounds a bag. Trying to reconcile which price label applies to which bag, and how the prices work out on a per kg basis is very tricky, so I am often to be found staring gormlessly at a shelf trying to work out which is the best value. In Megamart, we found bags of spinach for £10(!) near other bags which cost less than £3. You will see identical tins of Heinz baked beans on the same shelf at very different prices – it all depends where they were imported from. In some supermarkets the prices aren’t shown at all on some products, and you have to take a gamble on what you’re buying.
2. Don’t assume that because an item is not in a logical place, the store doesn’t have it at all. For example, look for tinned tomatoes in Carrefour and you might expect them to be near the racks and racks of tinned tomato paste. You might see the closest thing to tinned tomatoes, which is an American tinned ‘tomato sauce’ and pop that into your trolley as a compromise. However, if you keep your eyes peeled around the store, you may well find other, better brands of tinned tomato hidden in the most unlikely of places! You might think you have found all of Lulu’s chocolate selection, but carry on down another couple of aisles and you will come across more types of chocolates in the sweets aisle!
3. Don’t expect to get everything in one shop. This is probably the biggest whinge for expats. If you go around a store with a list of ingredients, the chances are that you won’t get everything. It’s incredibly frustrating, and nearly drove me to tears last week as I wondered around Carrefour with a meal plan in hand, and didn’t manage to get all the ingredients for a single meal on my list. It’s stupid things which let you down, such as creme fraiche or chives. It completely baffles me as to why this happens, as the supermarkets over here are huge and stock a very diverse range of goods. I would like to adapt my cooking to suit the local food, but the reality is that there is no such thing as ‘local food’ over here and the supermarkets spread themselves very thinly in trying to satisfy all of the immigrant populations – but they can’t satisfy all of the people all of the time!
4. Give up on ethical shopping. This has been quite hard for me, but there are enough barriers to getting a decent supermarket shop done, without adding to the stress. You can get some European organics and free range eggs (especially in Carrefour), but when you’re having to keep such a close eye on prices, it is usually beyond our means to buy as ethically as we did in Britain. Nearly everything is imported, and some shelves have boastful slogans on them such as ‘imported by air from Britain’ to let you know how fresh the goods are! A bottle of Heinz organic ketchup is ten times more expensive than the equivalent non-organic version on the same shelf. Organic items will often be imported from Europe and you have to weigh this up against the non-organic versions which may not have been imported from quite so far afield.
5. Keep a close eye on the ingredients. I’ve started checking ingredients lists thoroughly, since discovering bread which has sugar in it (!) and tins of foul medames which were stuffed full of artificial nasties. There is enough choice for any given product such that you can find a better alternative easily enough.
6. Don’t forget to get your veg weighed! This is such a stupid system which is ubiquitous in every supermarket I’ve been in. You have to queue up in the fruit and veg section to get your items weighed and priced up, before going to the checkouts. Why they don’t have self-service weighing points I don’t know (actually, I do – it’s because the locals don’t like to have to do anything themselves), or why they can’t weigh it at the checkout as they do in England, is beyond my understanding.
7. If you see something you like, buy loads of it! Because the supermarkets here are so focussed on importing items to satisfy their hugely diverse customers, their stock can be somewhat erratic, so if you see something you like and it won’t go off, it’s advisable to stock up.
Our food bill is around the same as it was in Britain – we tend to spend about £100 per shop, although in Britain that tended to include more ready meals, whereas we tend to cook from scratch more now. I’ve experienced most of the supermarkets here now, so here’s a quick round-up:
Carrefour: This is where we did most of our shopping at first, but I hated it from the minute I first set foot in the place. It reminds me of a big Tesco in Britain and it has a cheap and nasty air about it, with hideous crowds if you go at the wrong time. There are branches in Villagio, Landmark and City Centre, but they’re all equally hideous as far as I can tell. I can rarely get everything I want in Carrefour and the fruit and veg is just awful, as many items will already be rotting in the shop and the herbs are thrown together in damp, saggy bunches in big piles for you to root around in to try and work out which is the right herb that you want. However, Carrefour is good for magazines, electricals and any outdoor goods where quality isn’t an issue. It’s also good for French food and European organics or ethically-sourced eggs. It is BAD for clothes, unless you like walking around in badly-fitting nylon.
Megamart: This is a small supermarket in ‘The Centre’ which most British/Australian/American expats visit as an occasional treat. It’s very expensive, but they specialise in importing the most eclectic and wonderful selection from our home countries. If you are craving something from home, the chances are that you will find it in here. Strangely, there are lots of Waitrose-branded products scattered among the shelves, although at eye-watering prices! They also have a nice in-store bakery and meat counter. It is quite a pleasant shopping environment too, which makes a change! Fatally (for the wallet and the waistline), there is a Megamart Express just around the corner from our new villa, and it’s the only shop for a couple of miles around….
Lulu: I love Lulu and this is where I do all of the shopping now. It’s an Indian chain, apparently set up by an Indian immigrant in Dubai to satisfy his craving for home goods. They are also really good at importing things to satisfy other immigrant populations, most notably us Brits, and you can get all sorts of familiar brands in here at very good prices. Many of the things which Megamart sells can also be found in Lulu for much better prices. At the moment, they have a great range of Cadbury and Nestle easter eggs, for example. They also stock quite specific things which I have had cravings for, such as Snickers flapjacks. I don’t know who their buying manager is, but he must be bloody good at his job, as they really seem to hit the nail on the head in getting the right balance of available products. I usually manage to get everything on my list in here as well, even though it’s a smaller shop than Carrefour. The fruit and veg selection is amazing, and I love looking at all the weird and wonderful Indian imports which I have never heard of and wouldn’t have a clue how to use!
Giant: This is a sprawling place in the Hyatt Plaza mall which has a distinctly old-fashioned and cheap feel about it. I haven’t shopped there for groceries, although I did check out the pet supplies section (crap) and the electronics department upstairs, which is like going back in time to 1975! It is quite useful for electronics – we got our router there. There is a big camping section, but most of it is cheap tat of similar or worse quality than Carrefour’s selection, and their selection of better brandedcamping items such as Coleman is not as good. The fruit and veg selection is quite good, but I don’t fancy doing our regular shops there as the store doesn’t have a very nice feel to it and it’s not as well located as Lulu.
Family Food Centre: I’ve heard good things about this place, especially in terms of price, but haven’t been yet. There is one by the airport, and one in Al Sadd.
There is a really useful review of all of these shops in this month’s Time Out.