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: