Watered down

Don’t get me wrong, I love living in Norway, but there are certain things that really annoy me.

One of those is the pervasive nouveau riche mentality. Norway has only recently become a wealthy country—the vast North Sea oil fields on which that wealth was built were discovered less than forty years ago, and barely thirty years have passed since Norway became self-sufficient in oil and started to export it. Consequently, you get the feeling that Norwegians have too much money and no idea what to do with it except flaunt it.

What I wanted to write about was not wealth, however, but food.

Prior to the boom that began in the 1970s, Norway was not just a struggling country, but also a very provincial one, and it remained so well into the 1980s. Ethnic restaurants were practically non-existent; the first Chinese restaurant opened in 1963, the first Italian restaurant in 1975, the first Indian restaurant in 1985.

You’d think this would have changed, and in many ways it has, but the situation in Norwegian grocery stores is still depressing.

Grocery stores in Norway come in two varieties: franchise-operated and immigrant-operated. It didn’t use to be that way, but the chains completely took over in the late 1980s, and it’s been ages since I last saw a grocery store operated by so-called “ethnic Norwegians” that wasn’t a chain store. I remember two from my childhood, three if you count one that specialized in deep-frozen goods; one of them joined a chain, then closed down and was replaced by a sporting goods store when a larger store from a competing chain opened nearby; another closed down and was converted into a residence; the third closed down and was replaced by a driving school.

If you walk into a chain store (except for a few supermarkets in larger cities), you can forget about finding any kind of ethnic food… unless you think frozen pizza or British-made Tex-Mex qualifies. Not even decent spices: depending on the chain, you get either the aforementioned Santa Maria brand, the somewhat-aptly-named Hindu brand (from exotic Elverum), or the surprisingly-racially-insensitive Black Boy brand (from faraway Bergen)—all of them at preposterous prices.

Don’t even get me started on the quality or price of vegetables…

This is why I avoid chain stores as much as possible, and buy most of my produce, staples, spices and condiments at a nearby immigrant-operated grocery store, where I can get a hundred-gram bag or tin of cumin or turmeric or what have you for the same price a chain store charges for a ten-gram jar.

This brings us closer to the true subject of this entry—what made me want to sit down and write this in the first place. I was cooking a simple Indian dish for dinner (haddock in coriander sauce, if you must know, except I couldn’t get haddock, so I used pollack instead). Rummaging through my spice cupboard in search of ground coriander, I come across an unlabeled jar of red powder. It’s not what I’m looking for, but I dislike unlabeled containers, so I unscrew the lid and sniff it.

(no, this is not the kind of blog entry where the red powder turns out to be chili and lays me out cold—not quite, anyway… but I’ve grown my own chili and could tell you a thing or two about putting in contact lenses, or rubbing your eyes, or picking your nose, for that matter, after handling fresh chili)

Anyway, having sniffed the mystery red powder and identified it as paprika, I pass it to my wife and ask her to label it so I don’t have to sniff it again.

“It’s not paprika,” quoth she. “It’s chili.”

“Uh-huh. I sniffed it. It’s definitely paprika. If it were chili, I’d be out cold right now, or at least rolling on the floor clutching my face.”

“Is too,” she says. “Have a taste.”

So I stick my pinkie in the jar and have a taste, and what do you know, it does taste like chili. A bit. You know, the way Miller Lite tastes a bit like beer.

In fact, it is chili powder. It’s Norwegian chili powder. Cut with paprika powder, four or five to one. Watered down.

Why? I don’t know for sure. Possibly to keep the price down so it won’t be significantly more expensive than other similarly-packaged spices, but most likely because that’s what they think people want.

Another example: fruit juice. Here in Norway, we are lucky to have both kinds of fruit juice: orange and apple.

I have before me two empty cartons of fruit juice which my wife recently bought (you’ll be relieved to know they weren’t empty at the time) and which I refused to drink after my first taste. One of them is labeled “Blueberry & Grape”, the other “Pomegranate”.

In the interest of not being sued for breach of truth-in-advertising laws, the manufacturer has wisely added, in a small font, near the bottom, in dark-blue-on-blue and dark-red-on-red, respectively, “50% grape, 40% apple, 10% blueberry” on the former, and “78% apple, 15% pomegranate, 5% chokeberry, 2% passion fruit” on the latter.

I hate apple juice with a passion. I will only drink it for medical reasons (it’s a cheap, safe and effective remedy for flu-induced dehydration). Tricking me into drinking it by labeling it as “pomegranate juice” is adding insult to injury.

Both of these juices do taste somewhat of the fruit mentioned on the label, but the dominant taste is that of apple juice.

(To be fair, I’ve also run across imported Lychee juice that was 80% grape juice; it tasted like grape juice, except sweeter.)

It doesn’t stop there—you’ll find such things as “orange nectar” that’s mostly apple juice (legal because it’s not labeled as orange juice), or a very similar “breakfast juice” that’s also mostly apple, but with some extra stuff thrown in (including carrot, of all things).

While we’re on the subject of misleading labeling, there is the so-called “double-zero” (zero fat, zero sugar) yogurt, and a wide variety of other “no sugar added” products, which completely fail to mention (except in four-point flyspeck font on the back) that they are full of artificial sweeteners, usually aspartame and acesulfame potassium, which I abhor.

There is also the case of the Incredible Shrinking Meat. Fresh ground beef is (or was) usually sold in five-hundred-gram packs. Most stores carry both brand-name meat and their own, cheaper brand. At some point, the large chains decided to fight inflation and maintain the price of ground beef by shrinking the amount of meat in each package: first four hundred and fifty grams, then four hundred grams. They would arrange the packaging so you couldn’t tell the difference without taking a close look at the label. They finally realized they couldn’t go on forever, and settled on four hundred and fifty grams, which keeps the price down a bit while still being close enough to the brand-name half-kilogram so most people don’t notice the difference.

To finish back on topic, I must add that I rarely buy store-brand meat, as it is usually mixed with salt water—to keep the temperature down during grinding—which seems to increase its tendency to clump when cooked. Literally watered-down meat…

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