Many kids are taught how to ride a bike by their parents. But, my Pakistani parents instructed me on how to bulk buy—the prized, Asian life skill passed down through the generations and developed in tandem with the rise of our beloved cash and carry.
Take a look in my kitchen cupboards and you'll find stacks of tinned tomatoes, chickpeas, and saag, next to 10 kilogram packets of rice and five liter bottles of corn oil. I'm a veritable food hoarder, hunting for long-life products that I can store in my kitchen bunker in case of war, or, you know, the unexpected—yet entirely possible—arrival of a hundred, hungry overnight guests. We must always be ready to cook and entertain.
It gives me great comfort to know that I am never more than two tins away from a high-energy, flatulence-inducing meal.
Growing up, friends told stories of their parents hoarding buckets of ghee in their wardrobes and sandbag-like bags of rice under their beds because they simply didn't have the space to house their discounted bounty. They must have eaten buttery basmati every evening.
My own aunt had a basement full of cash and carry goods that her husband would buy without informing her. As a child I remember heading down there to see what treasures lay between the Rubicon mango juice, the towering edifices of toilet rolls, and cans of black-eyed beans. My uncle was forever admonished for buying five cases of the wrong washing powder, but managing to stuff 15 kilos of shallots in the car. Priorities, right there.
So why do we do it? The main reason is, obviously, to save money—either for the sheer, unadulterated thrill of bagging a bargain (even if it's rice, I can't pretend I don't get a kick out of it) or out of pure, fiscal necessity.
When my husband was at university in Liverpool, he had a lot of Asian friends who had left their families behind to get a UK education. They would club their money together and buy crates of tinned tomatoes and kidney beans to make cheap curries with. They'd buy so many on each visit, though, that the local supermarket put a "one-crate-per-customer" limit on the canned goods because there wasn't enough stock left for the other shoppers. As far as noteworthy student escapades go, I think buying the local supermarket out of tinned tomatoes is something of which to be proud.
The kind of students my husband was friends with had already spent a huge amount on their international study fees and could only work a limited number of hours on their visas, so bulk-buying was, quite literally, their saving grace. They squirrelled away their cash and would never contemplate eating out when the cost of one takeaway equated to half of their weekly food budget. I imagine this is much the case now, too.
If any student needs a lesson in feeding himself or herself, they should find a group of Asians—they'll tell them what's what. There's no excuse for packet noodles and loft insulation-like sliced white bread.
Aside from saving, us Asians also like to feed guests until they burst, which is why a well-stocked pantry is so very, very important. It would be monumentally embarrassing for a guest to arrive at your home and there not be enough food to feed them. When I visited family in Peshawar I was—lovingly—force-fed because it was considered the hospitable thing to do. I was a reverse magic porridge pot, forever ingesting micro-meals for the duration of my stay.
In the name of investigative journalism, I asked around Bradford—one of the country's most ethnically diverse cities—to find out why bulk buying is so popular with the local community.
Some of my fellow overzealous shoppers said they buy huge sacks of flour (even local petrol stations stock it now) because they make their own chapattis every evening to save money. For local restaurant owners though, buying industrial quantities of staples is basic common sense. "We use a hell of a lot of onions, tomatoes, and rice in our traditional cooking," says former restaurateur, Kalim Mir, who ran Darbar restaurant on Manchester's famous Curry Mile. "Almost every curry has an onion and tomato base, which means if you're cooking twice a day, you might be using up to five onions. That's 35 a week."
Shara Hasan, customer service representative at Bradford grocery store Freshco Foods, told me that a lack of transport plays a big role in the way the Asian community shop, too. Many older Asian women don't drive, and it's difficult for them to carry things home after a weekly visit to the grocers. Once every couple of months, they bring their sons along with them, buy lots of large goods, and get them to do the heavy lifting. They can then return on their own throughout the week to buy smaller items like fresh vegetables and meat. It's a lovely set-up, really.
However, the store's director, Rohail Tariq, said that bulk buying is not as commonplace as it used to be, "especially among the younger generation." This led to him modernizing the store, drawing inspiration from the virtual Tesco stores found in Korea and Japan where shoppers zap the barcodes on product images with a scanner and pick them up at the point of purchase.
Tariq removed the unsightly stacks of flour and rice from the shop floor—a prevailing memory from my childhood—and created a space-saving photo wall, featuring pictures of all of the different brands of chapatti flour he stocks. Customers can now pick up a ticket from beneath each image, take it to the till, and wait for a member of staff to collect the corresponding product for them and drop it off to their car.
It might be a more modern way of doing things, but I find myself missing the bi-monthly basmati deadlift on the cash and carry floor. I turned that place into my own, private weight-lifting station.
Younger Asians may be eschewing the cash and carry for regular supermarkets, but I will—thanks to my mum—forever be a bulk buyer. Mother of six, she was and remains to be the ultimate home economist and cookery teacher, making 30-minute meals from tinned produce, vegetables, and rice. She's a culinary magician with the economical foresight of someone running a vast international business.
It wasn't just food she stacked up, either. She also collected a range of pans alongside her favourite tins of sweetened guavas and salted chickpeas, laying them across the floor of the store room like a tiny, steel Giant's Causeway. That is, until my baby brother peed in them all.