I LOVE ASIAN MARKETS! An asian market is a wonderful place to find exotic, gourmet items, as well as pantry staples. I can also save a lot of money, though not everything is cheaper than a traditional grocery. As with any store, you’ve got to comparison shop.
Still, for many items, I’ve noticed that the price is “about the same” as similar options in a standard grocery, but the quantity is so much greater that I end up saving money. Even when the price is higher, the quality or variety may make up the value difference (to me).
Sometimes there can be a language barrier, which can intimidate some people. I’ve found that more people are concerned or afraid of this, than reality bears out. Don’t let it intimidate you, because it’s not nearly the problem you think it will be, especially if you’re friendly, patient, and just brave enough to risk feeling a little foolish (the ability to pantomine really comes in handy). Usually, I find that the store staff speak good to excellent english (though sometimes heavily accented, so you have to “pay attention” a little more closely, and be willing to admit when you don’t understand or need the person to repeat themselves).
Some of my favorite items:
Soy sauce – for the price of a small bottle of Kikoman’s, I can buy a quart bottle of a gourmet soy sauce. Also, instead of three brand choices, I have about fifteen or more. There are flavored sauces, aged sauces, sweetened sauces – from several different countries. I’ve never found a “bad” one, so I often buy new one just for the variety. My favorite though is mushroom soy.
Fish sauce – Smells horrible, tastes wonderful. I use it in asian recipes, but also in any place I might use worcestershire sauce, because the taste is milder yet more rich. I even add it to chili. The art of using it in non-asian dishes it to use just enough to bring out the flavor, without using enough to identify the flavor as fish or seafood (unless that’s what you want – for example, it’s really good in scampi recipes).
Chili sauces and pastes (condiments in general, especially if they’re spicy) – Such a variety, it’s mind boggling. I especially love sweet chili sauce – usually an orange or apricot colored thick sweet sauce – makes an excellent dipping sauce for chicken (sometimes a label will say sweet chili sauce for chicken). Chili garlic paste (not sweet) is great for recipes – even american-style dishes like chili. Viatnamese barbecue sauces are AWESOME!
Vinegars – In most asian groceries, there are even more flavored vinegars than in fancy gourmet shops. With lower acid rice wine vinegars, you can use a lot less oil when making salad dressings. Mixed with fish sauce and sweetener (I use splenda) it makes an excellent dipping sauce for egg rolls, lettuce wraps, viatnamese spring rolls, chicken (any food that you like dipping, actually).
Oils – Nut oils and olive oil, especially are really expensive in most grocery stores, but are priced better (at least per ounce) in asian markets. I haven’t made nearly as much use of the oils, though as they often come in huge jugs or cans. Now that we’re moving into a larger apartment with more storage and pantry space, I probably will.
Rice – Like many things, great prices if you’re willing to buy huge quantities. In quantities under 5 lbs, it often isn’t cheaper than in chain-grocery stores (although just for the variety of rices, it’s worth a trip). However, if you’re willing to buy 10 or better yet 20 lbs, you’ll save a lot of money. I recommend buying it in the small packages first, to find your favorite.
Mushrooms – whether canned or fresh, you’ll get alot more mushroom for the price, and there are more varieties. Check out the canned mushrooms – the cans are bigger, so you have to calculate the per/ounce price, but all of the fancy varieties can be used any where you’d use button mushrooms. Straw mushrooms are especially good sauteed in wine and garlic with onion.
Noodles – of every variety. I have to be carb-conscious so I try not to spend to much time here.
Instant and quick dry packaged soups (endless varieties and permutation of the ubiquitous “ramen”). Not always diet-friendly, but tons of variety in shape and flavor. I do regularly buy the “Pad Thai,” and “Tom Yum” flavors – mmm.
Rice paper – a very thin rice sheet (usually round) that when placed in hot water for a few seconds, becomes a soft and pliable (slightly chewy) wrapper. Traditionally used for viatnamese spring rolls (wrapped like a burrito with a filling of noodles, lean meats, and vegetables) they can be used sort of like a tortilla (a paper-thin, stretchy, almost transparent tortilla), as a wrap for salads and other sandwhich-style fillings. Only about 30 to 35 calories each (unless super-sized).
Nori and Nori snacks – sheets of seaweed (the green “wrapper” in some sushi). Not everyone likes nori, but I love it. I use sushi sheets like tortillas to “wrap” thin slices of deli-meats (dampen the sheet with a wet paper towel or by dipping your hand in water and running it over the nori sheet before folding – otherwise it will crack and break). Small strips of nori (often flavored) are very good as a chip-like snack. Even deep-fried (in the snack chip aisle, in a chip style bag), the calorie count is quite low. Baked and seasoned (often in a plastic wide-mouthed jar), they’re excellent also.
Broth cubes – So many flavors, and so cheap. I have to say, I never imagined being excited by a broth cube, but there are so many flavors that are so versitle, it’s hard not to get excited (I’m also like a kid in a candy store, and find it difficult to resist buying one of each variety – I’ve got a huge gallon ziploc bag filled with these cubes – and most of the packages are only about the size of a matchbox, containing only 4 to 6 cubes). Just add hot water and you’ve got a low-calorie broth to sip (for few calories). Or, add to soups and stews or cooking liquids for meats and you’ve got an instant seasoning mix without having to fuss. The small size (and price) of the packages are the best feature, because they contain only 2 to 8 cubes, there’s not a lot of waste if you find out that you don’t like one variety.
Dried teas. More variety at much better prices (just beware of medicinal teas, weight loss teas, especially), some of these are actually fairly harsh laxatives – or they may just taste really bad. I learned the hard way to always ask. Because the stores are usually small, the cashier usually knows the products very well.
Fresh herbs (especially cilantro and basil) and some vegetables (especially green onions, bean sprouts, many cabbages – Sometimes the prices seem a bit high, until you compare them to what you get in a typical grocery store. The freshness, variety, and quantity usually compare favorably when you compare ounce for ounce. Bean sprouts are about twice the price of the quantity you find in the grocery store (a small bag), but the quantity is about four times as much and they last longer before going “slimy.”
Fruits – NOT CHEAP, at least not in our local asian markets – but unbeatable for variety and exotic fruits you won’t find anywhere else. Fresh lychees, tiny little bananas, magos, papaya, dragon fruit (cool-looking, but kind of bland for the exhorbitant price, really neat to add to a fruit salad – or kept whole in a fruit bowl for display). Mmm.
Canned juices and juice drinks – These aren’t usually cheap, especially when sold individually from the refrigerator case. They’re about the same price as any ready-to-drink refrigerated beverage ($1 to $3 per 12 to 20 ounce bottle/can), but the variety!! I don’t drink much juice, because of the calorie and sugar content (and the better-for-you fiber in whole fruit), but I do drink 1-2 cans per week. Mangosteen, lychee, guava, and pomegranate are my favorites (Hubby likes pineapple, pear, mandarin orange, and coffee and tea drinks). Read the labels – to check for added sugars, and such.
I dilute the calories per ounce (and make my drink last longer), by mixing the juice with diet lemon-lime soda, seltzer or other carbonated water (sweetened or not).