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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Shopping Bargains: Ethnic Markets

Ethnic grocery stores are underutilized gems that make it much easier for us to eat well and cheap. Our local Asian, Indian, and Hispanic markets provide us with many (and sometimes most) of our dinner ingredients. They’re a great source of not only exotic items but also inexpensive everyday staples such as rice, noodles, and produce. Because this is a big subject, and so helpful to budget cooking, today we’ll just talk about the deals at our local Asian grocery.

Asian markets scare some people, who are put off by the unreadable cans of weird pastes and vegetables, the even-odder-looking fresh veggies, and the bags of dried fungi. But, in our experience, the produce in these stores cannot be beat for price or quality.

Scallions: The last time we checked, our supermarket charged $1.69 a bunch; they’re 50 cents a bunch at the Asian store, and much plumper, to boot.

Herbs: Everybody hates the overpriced, geriatric, dried-out (or sometimes slimy and black) packaged herbs at the supermarket. At the Asian store, basil, cilantro, and mint are fresh as can be and $1 a bunch.

Shallots: Our supermarket charges $2.99 for a bag of two measly shallots. At the Asian market, a one-pound bag is only $1.50. Shallots have a subtle flavor—part onion, part garlic—that’s great in everything. (Our friend Cynthia, who has a severe garlic allergy, can eat them without a problem.)

Tofu: It’s $3 a container at even our cheapest local supermarket; at the Asian store, a one-pound block of soft, firm, or extra-firm tofu can be had for $1.35. If, like us, you eat a lot of tofu, this savings adds up in a hurry.

Asian markets are also excellent sources of dried mushrooms; noodles; sesame seeds; tea; and stir-fry staples like hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, chili paste, and bamboo shoots. Feeling adventuruous? Sometimes if you throw a dart, you discover a yummy surprise. That’s how we found yuba, or dried tofu, which is much, much better than it sounds . . . but then, it would have to be, wouldn’t it?


  1. I live in New York so going to ethnic grocers is a way of life. Queens is by far the best place to go for groceries if we can get out there on the G train.

    What's interesting, though is that even in Cleveland (where I am right now) it's surprisingly easy to find good Asian grocers. I try and make a habit of buying one item whose packaging I just can't read every time I go just to try something new.

  2. I can't say enough about buying spices from the Indian market. I've had trouble finding garam masala in the past & had to pay $1.00 each for tablespoon-sized packets, which don't go very far in an Indian dish. A large bag at the Indian market is a couple of bucks. And pre-packaged naan? No contest. Also love their one-dish spice mixes ($1.85) that you mix with chicken, water, and plain yogurt. I could go on and on...

  3. We're going to do an Indian market post soon, now that we buy many of our spices there - stay tuned!