Mom-and-pop ethnic grocery stores are a common sight on big-city street corners, peddling exotic fruits and cuts of meat.
These days, they’re also increasingly found outside of major metro areas. Pan-Asian, Middle Eastern or Latin markets may be the most common, but you’ll find markets dedicated to a single nationality, be it Indian, Korean, Serbian, Armenian, Mexican or Jamaican. These markets aren’t just colorful neighborhood businesses, they’re great places to shop. Amid shelves of foods with foreign labels, you’ll find pantry staples like rice and beans, a wide variety of meat and fish, and produce that not only costs less, but is often fresher.
Here’s how to shift your shopping to ethnic grocery stores.
Save on Pantry Staples
When local grocery stores were wiped out of shelf-stable items like canned and dried beans earlier this year, savvy friends stopped by the local Latin supermarket, which still had beans and rice aplenty — and, yes, toilet paper too.
For many shoppers, pantry staples like rice and beans are the gateway to shopping at ethnic grocery stores. You can buy in bulk and stretch your grocery budget.
Serious cooks often seek out international grocery stores for the specialty ingredients these stores offer at crazy low prices. Food blogger Jessica Fisher notes that items that a chain grocery store might call “gourmet,” or stock in the international aisle for a premium price, are simply “normal good food” at an Italian, Middle Eastern, Chinese or Caribbean market. Forget paying $5 for a fancy spice blend at a major grocery store — if they even stock delicacies like scotch bonnet peppers or za’atar.
Use cookbooks or food blogs to get inspiration and familiarize yourself with staple ingredients used in the cuisines you like to eat, then make a shopping list. You can even recreate takeout recipes at home, saving money and boosting your cooking confidence.
Professional cooks and food bloggers, including The Woks of Life and Andrea Nguyen, offer ingredient glossaries and buying guides that will teach you exactly what to look for in these markets. Going in with a list ensures you get everything you need to cook authentic meals without overspending on things you’re unlikely to use often.
Fresh Food For Less
Buying pantry staples at ethnic grocery stores saves money. But to really appreciate what these stores have to offer, shop their produce and meat sections, too.
The fresh offerings might look different from what you’ll find at chain grocery stores. One, that’s the point, and two, there are logistical reasons for that. Ethnic markets offer the things their local communities enjoy eating, whether that’s octopus or oxtail. If you’re an adventurous eater who’s willing to look your food in the face (because you might have to pick out the fish you want filleted), you’ll enjoy fresh, high-quality meat and fish for less than grocery store prices.
Plant-based or feeling squeamish? Not to worry. There’s variety here, too: my local Asian market stocks over 10 types of fresh greens, with none of the familiar chards or kales. Better yet, ethnic markets generally compete with grocery store offerings on price without sabotaging the quality or flavor of their produce.
The reason? The store’s produce buyers tend to follow the same tips as frugal shoppers, scoring deals on fruits and veggies. When they pay less, you do too.
As The Washington Post reports, Asian and Latin diets tend to be produce-forward, versus the standard American diet, which is lean on fruits and veggies. Produce prices seem cheap because ethnic markets do their best to price culturally valued items attractively. When you’re shopping Asian or Latin markets, you’re saving on produce because it’s a valued commodity; when you shop the big-box stores, you’re more likely to see ten-for-$10 yogurt sales.
In addition, major grocery stores charge higher prices on produce and other items to cover their higher costs for premier real estate, equipment and store renovations, worker salaries and employee training, and even community improvement programs.
Ethnic markets, in contrast, tend to have low-overhead: Their displays are bare-bones, with ingredients often piled on wooden pallets or prices scrawled on cardboard. These markets haven’t invested in fancy technologies like online ordering, drive-through pickup or delivery. Their lower operational costs mean additional savings for shoppers.
Concerned About Quality? Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Be
The no-frills interior of your typical ethnic market, combined with its cheap prices, may have you concerned about quality. Just let common sense lead — avoid buying wilting greens or dented cans and you’ll be fine.
Food magazine Saveur reveals why Chinatown prices are so cheap. Major grocery stores have a supply chain optimized for efficiency. In New York, for example, retailers get produce, meat, and fish from Hunts Point, which is one of the largest food distribution facilities in the world. Chinatown grocers instead work with smaller food warehouses, where they’re likelier to get deliveries throughout the day. Since they can stock less and replenish items more frequently, you get fresher produce than at a big box store that bought in bulk. The ethnic retailer gets by with a smaller footprint and less onsite food storage. Again, they save money and you do, too.
Valerie Imbruce, author of From Farm to Canal Street: Chinatown’s Alternative Food Network in the Global Marketplace, visited over 75 farms that supply these smaller wholesalers. She told Saveur that the farmers were “happy to be working for Chinatown wholesalers…’because they could cultivate an array of crops, leading to economic and agronomic stability.’”