Saturday, April 17, 2010

Save 95% on Groceries, a.k.a. Why You Should Shop at Ethnic Markets

Hey folks! We're trying something new for weekends: posting an older piece from the CHG archives. This one originally appeared in October 2007. Hope you dig it.

This past weekend, I paid $0.50 for a baggie of cardamom that was selling for $10.49 the next block over. The big difference between the two stores? The $0.50 folks ran an ethnic market. The $10.49 folks ran an upscale grocery store.

Six years ago, I lived in a neighborhood with two major supermarkets, both of which sold produce for above-average prices. Located 15 blocks south was a Korean-owned fruit and vegetable stand. The tomatoes, oranges, and garlic there went for half the cost of the local Key Food.

Earlier this year, a few friends needed 70 goodie bags for a promotional party. They cost about $0.34 a piece at the big-box supply store on 14th St. in Manhattan. Chinese food containers, which looked better and held more candy, went for $0.25 at Pearl River Mart in Chinatown.

It’s taken me a few years, but after Saturday’s cardamom adventure, I think I finally learned the moral of these stories: when in food-purchasing doubt, go ethnic. Whether you’re shopping for spices, produce, or supplies, those independent, family-run marts are fantastic alternatives to mega-stores. The prices are usually competitive (if not significantly lower), and the diversity of options, unbeatable. But it doesn’t end there. (Oh no – it doesn’t.) There are a bazillion other reasons why Kim’s Seafood beats out Food Lion any day of the week.

Shopping at ethic markets…

Encourages experimentation. Diversifying your diet is hard, especially when you’re locked into losing weight. If you’re looking to lift yourself from the meat-and-two-veg rut, ethnic markets are the place to be. Imagine aisle upon aisle stacked with soba noodles, yuca, and saag paneer. Even if you don’t know what any of those things are – trust me, they rule. And the store they came from can introduce your palate to all kinds of crazy flavors you didn’t even know existed.

Promotes diversity. Hey man, our families were all immigrants somewhere along the line. And according the Census Bureau, 40% of the U.S. population will be of ethnic origin by 2010. So, think of the ethnic market as a fabulous opportunity to introduce yourself to a new culture, but also, to meld that culture harmoniously into your own. While you’re perusing the shelves, take the time to speak to the proprietor or other customers. Odds are, everybody will learn something.

Reconnects you to your own culture. Are you a lapsed Swede? A part-German who’s completely ignorant of her background? A quarter-Brit with no discernible knowledge of her family’s cuisine? I am. Checking out ethnic markets gives me a good idea of what my grandparents and great-grandparents ate when they were still strolling the streets of Dublin. (Hint: potatoes.)

Helps small businesses. According to the Washington Post, family-owned ethnic grocers are losing ground as big-box supermarkets hone in on Asian, Hispanic, and African foods. Quite a few shops are even shutting their doors, and the operators’ expertise is being lost along with their leases. By buying from the ethnic market, you’re ensuring the preservation of your area, supporting a local family, and keeping that culinary knowledge alive in your community.

Ensures prepared foods are more authentic. Have you ever had sushi from CostCo? It’s excruciatingly bad. So is eggplant parmesan from Pathmark, and a burrito from Waldbaums. Oftentimes, ethnic markets will have a glass display case full of prepared foods. Try ‘em. See if you like ‘em. If you do, take some home, or try to prepare light versions on your own.

Is oh-so-hip. Eating well and frugally hasn’t always been synonymous with coolness, but it’s getting there, with lots of help from ethnic markets. According to almost every single craze-tracking source out there (magazines, websites, journals, etc.) ethnic food is consistently one of the fastest-growing trends in home cooking. (Cooking Light in particular is a big fan of meal diversification.) Buy a Ming Tsai cookbook, pick up a wok, and get with the times, man.

Makes for creative and creative gifts. Oftentimes, ethnic markets are chock-frigging-full of gorgeous tableware and cooking equipment, not to mention shelf after shelf of exotic mixes, spices, and specialty foods. And? It’s mostly pretty inexpensive. Next time you’re searching for a truly unique, out-there gift, grab a cart and go.

Can be a great bonding experience. Ethnic markets aren’t just grocery stores – they’re opportunities to spend quality time with loved ones. Teaching your kid about daikon? Learning from Grandma about what she ate in the olden days? Group-shopping for a Sunday dinner? Head for your local Indian grocer, which is a museum, a school, a library, and a food store wrapped all in one.

And last but not least (since it’s worth mentioning again), shopping at ethnic markets …

SAVES CASH. Ay-chi-wa-wa, yes. Though this might not extend to all markets/foods, you can conserve massive amounts of cash buying produce, spices, and certain ethnic specialties at the Korean place down the block, rather than the Megamart uptown. Cardamom! $0.50! Not kidding! Go!

If you’re interested in reading more about the glory of ethnic markets, these two faboo resources can help get you started:

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Anonymous said...

I love going to my local caribbian and asian markets. I have one rule - in addition to the insane deals on spices, herbs, coconut milk, vinegars, etc etc etc, I always have to pick up one thing I've never eaten before. If you're not feeling brave, start with mushrooms. They are the most non-threating tasting thing in the store. :)

Elizabeth said...

Thanks for the reminder. I don't live close enough to ethnic markets to shop at them regularly, but I just found a site with good to excellent prices for Indian food Prices were much cheaper than Penzey's for the items I compared. Although how I would use 2 lbs. of cumin ($6.39) is beyond me. That's the only size they sell. Maybe split with 5-10 good friends?

Kristen@TheFrugalGirl said...

Oh yes...isn't cardamom CRAZY expensive in the grocery stores? $14 for a jar here. =O

Mattheous @ Menu Musings said...

I -adore- ethnic markets! A store simply called 'The Asian Market' recently opened in my town, and I love it. They're even getting a fridge/freezer soon so that they can provide fresh meats!

More people should shop at these places--it would help the image that the rest of the world has of us as fat, lazy, burger-munching slobs (none of which I am, fyi).

Jellyfish, anyone?

Lumi said...

This is a great idea, but there is one problem with ethnic groceries: some of them have no (or completely fabricated) nutritional info. I picked up a package of pricey noodles at a local Asian food market that claimed to have 2g of fat, and when I opened the package at home, it was practically swimming in oil. Seriously now!

For the record, the noodles were still delicious.

Anonymous said...

Please be careful picking out your spices simply based on price. If you don't know the brand, then you don't know, for example, whether the spices were ground on a machine that leaves traces of lead behind.

Anonymous said...

You're assuming that we have access to ethnic markets! The variety is very limited where I live and I don't think there are ANY in my hometown. I know there weren't 10 years ago.

Interestingly, when it comes to saving money, I stop diversifying meals. I stick to my background of midwestern - Northern European meals (German/Polish) and the Mediterranean foods I like and avoid everything else.

Kris said...

@Anon1 (mushrooms): Love it! What a good strategy.

@Elizabeth: Wonderful. Thank you for the link! I have no idea how I would use two pounds of cumin. Maybe build a castle?

@Kristen: Yikes.

@Lumi: This is totally true, and I would caution potential buyers to look out for things that don't seem to add up.

@Matthieu: Ooo. Have you tried jellyfish? I'm intrigued.

@Anon2 (price): I didn't know that. Thanks for the info.

@Anon3 (assumptions): I assume nothing. I'm trying to raise awareness for people who do have access, but haven't attempted a visit.

esther said...

I do looove shopping at ethnic markets! I agree- you get a lot more value for your $. I'm Korean-American so shopping at a Korean grocery store is easy for me.

But the real challenge is when I go to other ethnic stores looking for a certain ingredient and don't have a way to communicate. :) I can't tell you how many times I've asked the Chinese grocery fish monger what the fish was in English and he wasn't able to answer. Or how I ended up with blood oranges because it's not labeled as such.

It's all a part of the adventure though! :)

Laura said...

If you don't have an ethnic market nearby, health food stores can be a good option for spices/herbs. We couldn't find fenugreek in any form to save our lives in our last town--until we went to the health food store. "What?!?" I said, but it makes sense to me now, since many herbs and spices we use also have medicinal uses.

Aryn said...

I've had luck in the ethnic aisles of my major grocery stores. You'll find baggies of many of same spices in the spice aisle at a fraction of the cost. I got a huge jar of turmeric for $3.99. Since it's in a major grocery store, it's better labeled, too.

Emily said...

I'm amazed at price differences between many ethnic markets and big grocery stores. Two questions I often have, though, are "Is the food safe?" and "Are workers somewhere getting cheated?"

The safety question is similar to Lumi's and Anon's comments. Are the spices irradiated? Were they winnowed by driving a truck over them?

The worker question is one that's been in my mind since I learned that many cheap ethnic restaurants underpay their staff, don't provide benefits, etc. and get away with it because they are relatives ("let's all pitch in to help the family business") or illegal workers who won't risk their employment by complaining they aren't making minimum wage.

I don't think either of these are reasons not to shop at ethnic markets - and the same problems occur in mainstream markets, I'm sure - but it's something to think about.

Diane said...

Great advice. I would also recommend buying whole spices at the Indian store & grinding them - fresher and cheaper. If you buy ground spices they only last a few months and go stale. Whole ones can last a year or more. I bought 3 oz of green cardamom for $4 at my Indian store a few months ago. I cannot even think of what that would have cost at the regular grocery.

I also second the fact that shopping in Chinatown can be half that of shopping elsewhere. I make a run every two weeks to buy stuff. Cheap AND fun. Here is an interesting article on why the prices can be so much cheaper in Chinatown: