Supermarkets can be challenging, hilarious and often quite fun in foreign countries, and luckily Latvia is no different.
There is the usual range of products you’ve probably never seen. The notable absence of products you’ve bought your entire life, and some fun things to discover along the way.
Latvians are very fond of their own local produce, so they often prefer to buy things like fruit and vegetables at the market, where it is fresher and cheaper as well as being from local farmers and suppliers.
Another thing to note is that produce can be seasonal, so be aware that some products (particularly local fruit and vegetables) may be available for just a few months of the year. Persimmons “hurma” (although not local) spring to mind, since they’ve just become available now at the start of Autumn.
During the winter months you may find local produce a bit thin on the ground, so if you must eat Latvian, be prepared to enjoy potatoes, cabbage and other things that keep fresh in cellars.
Cream seems to be immensely popular in Latvia. Sour cream that is.
I have made the common mistake of buying sour-cream “skābais krējums” instead of regular (“sweet”) cream “saldais krējums”. Sour cream is very popular, so there will be plenty of options for this product. “Sweet” cream is less popular, and comes in a smaller range of brands and sizes, but is usually available. Make sure you know which one you’re buying.
The Latvian for milk is “piens”. Remember to buy piens and not “kefīrs”. Kefīrs is soured milk made with a culture. It’s a popular product in Eastern Europe but for those expecting milk to come out of the carton, it might be an unpleasant (and slightly whiffy) surprise. You may also want to watch out for rjaženka, paniņas (buttermilk) and even yoghurt – all of these products tend to be sold in close proximity, in similar packaging. Keep those eyes peeled.
At the Till
The often minuscule conveyor belt at the till is a very territorial place. Latvians require strict use of the small dividers to separate your shopping from theirs AT ALL TIMES. Omit using this at your peril.
As you put your shopping on the conveyor belt remember whether you need a bag or not. They are often kept below the conveyor belt, and you should grab them before you get to the cashier, since it’ll save them asking if you need them. Many Latvians like to use their own bag. It’s more environmentally friendly, so maybe you should put that Captain Planet t-shirt on and do your bit. Supermarkets now charge for plastic bags, although if you spend over a certain amount, you may get one or two free.
The till will have the price displayed on a screen somewhere, so you can worry less about remembering the Latvian numbers (which the cashier will say) if you have a keen eye for the totals. Just remember you may be asked for some exact change if you use big notes and you might be asked if you have a loyalty card. You may also be given small stickers with your receipt and change. These can be collected and put in a small sticker book (available at the till) for pretty good discount on a selected range of products, often on display somewhere prominent in store.
Supermarkets vary in quality much like anywhere else, and often it’s just a case of trying a few and finding one you like, or one that is most convenient. There are more specialist supermarkets like Sky and Stockmann’s food hall, or newer supermarkets like Prisma. There are bigger chains like Rimi and Maxima, or smaller chains like Top!, Supernetto and Mego.
It’s worth also remembering that you’ll probably get cheaper, fresher produce at the smaller or central markets. The central (and night) markets are open every day for a reason!