Save a Bundle on Your Groceries: Consider Your Local Asian Market

by Paul Michael on 16 July 2009 26 comments
Photo: WooTang01

Despite the coupons and the special offers, the major supermarket chains are not cheap. You find a deal now and then, but on the whole they really don’t give you great value for money. Farmer’s markets are good for deals and fresh produce, but they only appear once a week in my area. But for great produce any day of the week, at silly prices, my local Asian market is unbeatable.

 

I’m a huge fan of cuisines from all over the world, and I usually pop into my local Asian market for rice (20lbs for just $12.99), Aloe drinks, Kim Chee, dumplings, good soy sauce and some fresh pork buns; but this time my wife and I did a full shop there. And wow, what a difference.

Frugal Produce
For a start, the produce was outstanding. We found over six different types of plums, including Dragon Plums and a delicious mango/nectarine plum combination. We found so many fruits and vegetables we had never seen before, with wonderful smells and textures. And then, we saw the prices. A pound of Dragon Plums was just 79 cents! Regular black plums were $1.29/pound. And in Safeway, the same plums were over $3/pound. Big, big difference. We also found fresh ripe blueberries for 99 cents/pound, over four times less than in Safeway. Onions, potatoes, carrots, leeks, melons, broccoli, cabbage, they were all at least a third cheaper than Albertsons or Safeway. We were shocked. We filled up the cart.

Cheap Meat Treats
When we went onto the meat section, it was vast. Asian cooking is the ultimate in frugal food; no part of the animal is left behind, and as such, the variety on offer was mind-blowing (vegetarians, you may want to skip this next part).

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

grew up on liver, steak and kidney pie and black pudding, so I’m all for different tastes (I’m a big fan of Bizarre Foods). A look around the meat and fish section left me wide-eyed. There were the usual cuts of meat, but there were also things I’d never seen in a regular grocery store, including duck heads and feet, fish roe, octopus, sea cucumber and so much more it would take a book to jot it all down. Again, the prices were way less than in our local Safeway and King Soopers, and all of this meat was freshly butchered and packaged in front of us.

Although not quite adventurous enough to cook duck’s heads, yet, we did appreciate the massive variety. And the freezer section was just as prolific. There were so many different types of frozen dumplings and buns that we didn’t know where to start. And there were a host of Asian ice-creams, alongside the usual Dreyer’s and Breyers.

More Savings
In the canned food aisles, we explored a host of amazing foods from around the world. We bagged authentic Ramen noodles and some great sauces and condiments. And we also grabbed some great drinks, including Mango Ramune.

When it came time to check out, our rickety old cart was straining under the weight. And the final tally for all of our 12 bags of groceries and fresh produce was just $120. We will of course be going there again. On the way out, I said that I was surprised more people don’t shop at their Asian markets. Luckily, this blog gives me the chance to get the word out. So go, check out what’s on offer at your local asian (or any ethnic market generally) and pick up some great food and supplies for much less than you’d pay at a chain supermarket.

 

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Guest's picture
Mneiae

Yes, they are a huge bargain for shopping. Yes, all the claims that you made above are true. However, there is a major caveat: many Asian markets don't have the same standards as other supermarkets. You will have unrefrigerated meat on sale and the store can be filthy. There are lots of other things to consider when going to an
Asian market besides the savings. Personally, my local Asian market is the only place to go for a bunch of stuff that I use to cook (I am Asian, so this comment is NOT intended to be racist) so I go there. But if my local supermarket were to offer the same things, then I would definitely try to go there instead.

Guest's picture
Guest

I live in rural area, and we don't have an Asian market. However, our supermarket does have an ethnic cooking aisle (mostly targeting Latino shoppers). I have found, for some reason, that the foods in this aisle, particularly the SPICES, are way cheaper. Cinnamon sticks, cumin, or oregano (in particular) are nearly half the price of the big name-brand spices--and the only difference that I've detected is that the name of the spice is written in Spanish on the container instead of English. The quality and taste seems absolutely comparable to me. If I'm nuts for buying these spices instead of the big name brands, someone please let me know. Obviously, if I had a bulk spice buying option I'd use that...

Guest's picture
BSR

Hi Paul -- thanks for the great article. I live in Denver also, and would love to know which market you had this wonderful experience in. I've tried a few Asian markets around, but they didn't seem anything like the one you were in. Care to share?

Paul Michael's picture

Is the one I go to.

http://www.hmart.com/

2751 South Parker Rd
Aurora, CO 80014
(303) 745-4592

Guest's picture
Heather

H-Mart on Parker road has all those things, and more. The place is a wonder.

Guest's picture
Topher

More properly known as "Har-Mart". I shop there mostly to get good tofu and bean sprouts. Yes, their produce prices are lower than elsewhere, but the quality tends to be a bit dodgey compared to King Soopers, the local big supermarket chain.

Har-Mart is large for a Denver Asian store; it used to be a Cub Foods supermarket.

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

I'm Chinese so I shop at Asian markets a lot.  The big ones like Ranch 99 or Lions Market  in Northern California are usually just as clean as the non-Asian markets. What I like are the interesting ice cream flavors like taro, green tea, and lychee. 

In general I think some of the more common packaged American foods are more expensive.  For example, Oreos or jarred peanut butter are more expensive at Asian markets because less people buy them.  Also, if you want a specific kind of food for cheap then you should go to the type of  market that corresponds to it.  For example, there is an awesome Korean supermarket in Oakland  that sells Korean bbq meat very cheaply here: http://www.yelp.com/biz/koreana-plaza-oakland  Also in downtown San Mateo there is a Japanese market called Suruki market that sells cheap and fresh sushi after 6:30 and people line up every single day for that .  http://www.yelp.com/biz/suruki-supermarket-san-mateo

There are definitely great deals, but the downside is that these markets are not common in many parts of the country that do not have a concentrated Asian population. One funny complaint I have heard from my friend, who is also Chinese, is that Asian markets' parking lots can be death traps because Asian women are stereotypically the worst drivers.  Her aunt was actually run over by some bad driver in an Asian market parking lot.  Personally I have experienced an SUV almost backing into me in an Asian market parking lot so there may be some truth in that. 

Guest's picture

On a related note, and certainly more common, are Spanish-speaking markets. Very similar in the variety of goods, plus much less expensive on bulk items.

Not all products are less expensive than in Anglo counterpart stores so you need to be careful. Not a bad idea to have a friend in the ethnic culture to help guide you along either.

Definately worth exploring if you're really serious about lowering the grocery bill though.

Guest's picture
Eddie

Unless your buying Asian specific brands/food, American food in the supermarket is totally overpriced compared to a giant supermarket.

Guest's picture
Guest

We have done this for the last 5 years...until we moved to our current location that has zero ethnic markets. I do have to agree that you have to watch your store...they are not all created equal. If you are a celiac and can't have wheat, this is THE PLACE to shop for some pastas..and a much lower price than "gluten-free" stuff at the chain grocery.

Guest's picture
Mel

I find that it's extremely cheap for produce and spices.

You can also buy a lot of spices in bulk at asian supermarkets or warehouses which are probably the same price as buying a small container in the supermarket!

Guest's picture
Kablamo

HMart is Korean, I go there too (in Vancouver). Asian grocery stores can be a mixed bag, some are dirty and the meat is suspect, others are as good or better than Safeway or such major chains.

It's true that Western foods are sometimes priced higher than "regular" stores so you have to watch the prices.

If you're unfamiliar with Asian cooking it might be good to ask a knowledgeable friend to escort you for tips and explanations. Otherwise you might not take full advantage of everything there - although just the produce and meat sections can make the trip worthwhile.

Guest's picture
HMart Shopper

Check out this Cooking site, if you're unfamiliar with Asian food/ingredients. She is really good about explaining what items to shop for at asian supermarkets in order to make various dishes.

www.maangchi.com

Guest's picture
lisa

Hi! Can anyone recommend ethic food stores here in Ohio?

Guest's picture
MICHELE

If you are in the cleveland area there are several Asian Markets in the Asian area at E 24th to E 40th from St Clair to Payne Ave. Park to Shop is the newest, and cleanest and is located in the Asia Plaza at 30th & Payne. Also there are asian markets, middle eastern markets, and all sorts of ethnic markets all over the city.

Columbus has a very active Asian Community and several Chinese, Korean and Japanese Markets. I have been to them with friends, but couldnt tell you exactly where they are.

Guest's picture
Joe

Another reason I want to live in a big city.

Guest's picture
Guest

Another vote for Asian markets... and indeed, "ethnic" markets in general. We visit Asian, Hispanic, West / East European, and Middle Eastern markets regularly, along with our big box grocery and natural food market. Some of what we buy is cuisine specific (we love to cook and eat a variety of foods from around the world) but some isn't. For example, the Halal foods store we frequent has the cheapest and best yogurt (which we mix with fruit and jelly as well as eating plain) and delicious dried fruits and nuts. Many of the spices we find so cheap in Spanish-speaking shops are useful for all kinds of cooking. And the veggies at Hmart cross all manner of cuisines (broccoli and carrots are broccoli and carrots). And don't get me started on the teas and drinks these shops offer!

For those in smaller towns, you might not have any major food stores that specialize in world foods, but if you have any diversity of population at all there may be small markets in some neighborhoods.

Guest's picture
spaces

For chicken and lamb, I tend to go to a Halal butcher. It's exceptionally fresh, and prices tend to be 1/2 or lower than I'd find at a mainstream grocery, especially for lamb.

Guest's picture
Chris

For those in the Portland, Oregon area, we are blessed with a good selection of Asian markets. There are a few big ones (notably Uwajimaya on the west side and Fubonn on the east), but a whole bunch of smaller ones. One of my favorites (on the east side) is An Dong, on 55th and Powell. I can get all my Thai cooking needs met with one stop, even the fresh rice noodles and Thai holy basil. Fubonn is where I go when there are more obscure items to purchase. For kimchee, I only go to Korean markets. My current favorite is Paldo World, on Foster near 60th, though there's one on the west side, too.

There are many all around town, so just poke your head in one in your neighborhood– you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Guest's picture
Guest

I lived in Boston for half a year awhile ago, right in the downtown area.

Having lived in NYC where we have just about every kind of food shop available (except those huge megastores) and pretty much 24/7 fruit/veggie/convenience stands, it was a shock.

No local fruit/veggie stands. One supermarket (albeit the amazing Shaw's, which has its own cab stand!) in the whole area, a cab ride away, along with a Trader Joe's, also a cab ride away, as it was not convenient to the T!

Then, I discovered a local chain of Asian stores, a few blocks from my very central downtown location.

Although I did not purchase meats or fish (didn't really like the look of it), it was a great source for affordable fruits/veggies and some very intriguing condiments (very well priced), noodles/pasta and fascinating frozen food. Not to mention great cheap kitchen/housewares items.

You do have to be careful about hygiene issues and if you don't know the suppliers' quality, it can be questionable. But this place had a good local rep. (There was a larger outlet, accessible by car, which was pretty clean and a lot better maintained than the one near my apartment.)

I miss that place because now back in NYC, chinatown is a long subway ride away and a big schlepp to go for just a few things.

As for pricing, it can vary widely. If you buy within an ethnic-based community, prices are generally lower (Has to be so that the locals will buy regularly). But elsewhere, prices often much higher.

Guest's picture
Diane

I shop in these a lot - Chinese/Vietnames markets for produce, fish, noodles, rice, and sometimes meats. Ranch 99 in Northern CA is great, but so are some of the hole-in-the-wall places. I also recommend that people check out Indian groceries for rice, dal and spices - they are way cheaper than anywhere else. I shop in "ethnic" Asian markets about once every two weeks, and it's the main reason my grocery bills are so low. Of course, I also like all the weird Asian vegies too, so that really helps, as I have full range of choice in these places.

Guest's picture

I love to shop at Asian grocers for produce, tea, and also for vegetarian "fake meat" products. Many Asians are buddhist, so most Asian grocers stock these products as well as meat.

Guest's picture
Lisa B.

Here in the Puget Sound we have Uwajimaya, Paldo World and H-Mart, among others. They are nice, newer supermarkets and the food and prices are great.

Yes, American food is more expensive at these stores. We eat mostly an Asian diet, and for that reason I think our grocery bills are a bit less expensive. Meat is not so much the focus of the meal, and it is usually extended with vegetables, noodles or rice, and not a main part of the meal. Great post!

Guest's picture
Grego

This article praises "Asian markets", but that is such a blanket generalized term, especially when one considers that the specific market which the writer is speaking of is HMart (as revealed in the comments).

HMart is the premier Korean grocery store. I wrote a report on it in my college course a couple semesters ago. You're not going to find a Chinese, Indian, Japanese, etc, store like this, I guarantee it.

YOU may have never heard of Hmart if you're not a connoisseur of Korean food (95% of Americans), but every Korean knows it as the MAJOR NATIONWIDE SUPERMARKET CHAIN that has been making insane profits, and is constantly opening up location after location (I have 3 within 20 miles of my home in DC).

Korean markets are thriving because they emphasizing rock bottom prices for their products, while maintaining high quality. They are able to undercut other American supermarkets, because they don't spend next to nothing (relatively) on advertising, and they skimp on things like decor and other superficial storefront niceties, so western people tend to assume that the food is filthy just based on how the store itself looks. But this is where they are mistaken, and tend to miss out on the high quality food/low prices that Koreans take advantage of.

By de-emphasising storefront appeal, Korean markets are able to focus more on providing high quality food for low prices.

Guest's picture
Bill in Houston

My wife and I shop at an asian (Korean) market as part of our routine. We buy vegetables and some meat (prefer Costco for bulk).

The problem is that "American" staples cost more than the Kroger down the street. A loaf of bread is a buck higher and something like lunchmeat is at least a dollar per package higher. Other staple items like cleaning supplies are more expensive at the asian market

My wife and I make a loop when we shop. First is Costco (if we need bulk meat or other large quantity products, and I'll tank up and save fifteen cents a gallon), second is H Mart (the Korean grocery) for veggies and maybe pork for bulgogi. Last is Kroger for anything else and things we use coupons on. Costco only takes their coupons and H Mart doesn't take them at all.

As mentioned above, H Mart has lots of produce, but only plan to buy what you'll use in a week. It can be dodgy after a week has passed. I never had that problem with Kroger. Problem is, Kroger's produce is at least twice the cost.

It works out. We spend about $75 a week for everything for the two of us (including all non-food supplies). Our weekly savings is about $30, which makes up for the extra 15 total miles I drive.

Guest's picture

Am new to this area, and haven't yet found any Persian (Iranian) food markets...am looking for things like bulk basmati rice, dry sabzi, good yogurt, and other Iranian foods.

In relation to this discussion, in southern CA there are many Persian stores and their prices on produce are great!