If you are like me, you find yourself struggling between cheap produce and variety. Exotic ingredients command crazy prices, but regular grocery produce is already expensive enough. Also, many ingredients that are “once in a while” purchases for you at regular grocers can become crazy expenses, especially spices and sauces. There has to be a better way! If you can get over a bit of trepidation about foreign customs, there usually is in the form of the ethnic grocers.
Ethnic grocery stores are common in most cities and suburbs where any immigrant population lives. For instance, in Pittsburgh you can easily find Hispanic, European, and Asian grocers in the Strip District, which is the culinary district to begin with. In D.C., I often picked up groceries at the local Salvadoran market which boasted far better prices than the larger store down the street.
Why would these smaller grocers be cheaper? They gain some advantage through specialization. At an ethnic grocer, they tend to have a smaller variety of American staples than a big store, reducing inventory costs. Also, they work to keep prices low because they were designed to cater to populations who are traditionally poorer than the dominant cultural subgroup of the area. Think about it: if you were new to the United States, are you likely to be so wealthy that you would be willing to pay more than you have to for your food? Probably not. So why do we continue to pay extra to shop at the large supermarkets?
Well, there are a few reasons. The first big market thinking process has to do with simplicity. If I wanted to shop only in ethnic grocers, I would have to hit up 4-5 stores to fill out my entire grocery list in a single trip. Fortunately for me, Pittsburgh condenses them all in one location (the Strip District), but if I were in a more spread out area, that might not be an option. Another barrier to this lifestyle is cultural. Shopping in a market where things are labeled in Korean is difficult if you don’t speak Korean. You may be surprised to discover how many of our concepts of a food market are cultural as well. Imagine reaching into a vat of intact squids searching for the right one to bag up yourself; it seems strange, but that is a common sight at some ethnic markets. Also, without an abundance of signage, you will probably have to go outside your comfort zone to find out what some things are and how to even get them into your basket.
On the other hand, the rewards are great, both financially, and for your food. For instance, we decided to go for fresh tofu at a local Asian market. Not only is it far tastier, but it costs about $0.55 per pound, less than half the price of supermarket tofu. The same is true for vegetables and grains used in each cultures cooking. If I want to prepare beans, I can get a much larger bag at the same price if I shop in a Mexican grocery, where beans are considered a staple. Asian food markets sell sesame oil, sesame seeds, and soy sauce for about 1/3 what I would pay at the bigger stores. From there, I can hit the Mediterranean grocer up the block and get extra virgin olive oil by the bucket for less than half what I would normally pay. Other staples like carrots and peas are cheaper back at the Asian Market, but olives and cheeses are cheaper here. It takes some leg work and a bit of practice, but I can shave about 15% off my weekly budget with ethnic grocers. Meats can be cheaper as well, with ducks, squids, and fish being prime examples of a meat that is often cheaper at the ethnic stores.
I still have to go to the supermarket, but decidedly less often. I can often find American staples like whole chickens and bakery breads cheaper elsewhere. I don’t mind that though, since the big markets are convenient and accessible. Still, there is something fun about buying a candy when you have no idea what it is, or trying a foreign delicacy with the money you saved. For my fiancée and I, these grocery trips are fun mini-dates that we do on weekends. I hope you get over any fears you might have and give ethnic markets a try, since you may save some money and learn something new while you are there.