Ethnic Markets: Feel worldly for cheap


Growing up in an immigrant family meant living on a shoestring budget, even when we didn't need to. It also meant needing ingredients that you simply aren't going to find at the local supermarket. So, ethnic markets were part of the routine for us. My frugal mom knew she could save tremendously at them, and still make elaborate meals with their bounty.

Granted, you may have to deal with a bit of grit: these are generally not national chains, so the decor might be pretty un-spiffy, and the staffing may be slimmer. But steel yourself — it's an adventure that surely beats the local Mega-Lo-Mart, and an exploratory attitude can really pay off. The produce is substantially cheaper than supermarkets across the board, and you can find deals on gourmet ingredients and, of course, ethnic specialties, if you know where to look.

You'll find that whatever foods are used a lot by a given group are sold in much larger quantities than at supermarkets, and for cheaper. You also might find ethnic crossover, as suits the community. Here in Los Angeles, I've often found Arab shops carrying kosher goods, every kind of shop carrying Mexican goods, etc. Then again, this city is the proud home of the pastrami quesadilla. Here are some tips on what to buy at which markets:

1. Israeli

Israel is known for its dairy products, so you'll find a wide selection of yogurts, puddings (chocolate pudding cups that I absolutely loved as a kid), and cheeses (especially feta). You'll also find packaged salads (with eggplant in various recipes), hummus (sometimes with olive oil and pine nuts ... mmm), and coffee and instant coffee. Elite coffee is ubiquitous in Israeli kitchens, and if you like a mild, almost sweet cup (the antithesis of burnt-tasting Starbucks), this'll do it for you. If you're focusing on cheap, avoid meats — they are usually kosher, so you'll have to pay a premium.

2. Iranian

Cheap, good produce and fresh herbs. Large bunches of cilantro at a local Iranian store cost 29 cents. Whole Foods, care to defend yourself? Dried herbs are available in huge bags for a couple dollars. You'll find a wide variety of black teas, loose and in teabags. Sadaf special blend is a favorite, while Ahmad is a pretty fine British tea company  and I've found 1.7oz sample packs of their loose teas for 49 cents! Basmati rice. Saffron. Great flatbreads. Exotic-tasting sweets flavored with rosewater and cardamom.

3. Indian

Spices! You can find large bags of spices, sometimes freshly ground on premises, for far cheaper than the supermarket. Try garam masala — a heady spice blend that will perk up your cooking routine. Fresh ginger, chili peppers, basmati rice, Bollywood movies! Try Dil Se for epic love and tragedy (and the most amazing dance scene ever filmed on the roof of a train running through snow-capped mountains), Mohabbetein for British Knights-era fashions (the shoes, that is, not the actual knights), or Jadu for the weirdest character computer animation has ever created. My local Indian market has a small selection of hot foods, too — can't beat samosas for a buck!

4. Mexican

Try the carne asada: pre-marinaded, so incredibly good. You'll find a variety of chili powders and dried and fresh chilis. Radishes with the leaves and ends already cut off! Plantains: fry the superripe ones (the skin is black) in some butter — so good.

5. Japanese

Great fish and seafood is plentiful here. You can often buy small packages of diced sushi-grade seafood for just a few dollars. Sometimes they even come with a small package of wasabi — sashimi for the masses!

Good beef, too. My local Japanese market (which is actually part of a small national chain has small packages of pre-sliced Angus beef for $3-$5. There's bizarre junk food in bizarre packaging (and by bizarre, I mean bizarrely awesome). Beverages: from small cans to large bottles of teas and coffees and refreshers like Pocari Sweat and Dakara Life Partner (I'm not kidding — although, I'm sad to say Calpis turns into the far-less-entertainingly named Calpico when it comes to the states). There is great produce, sometimes pre-packaged. Green tea ice cream. Toasted sesame seed oil. Oh, and this one comes with a challenge: If you can find the green tea flavor of MeltyKiss cubic chocolate truffles (I think they are called MeltyBlend in this country — not to be confused with another chocolate kiss), I will love you forever and ever.

6. Korean

Seaweed — try tearing off pieces of the toasted seasoned sheets and using them to pinch off bites of sticky rice for a yummy snack. Mochi — yes, the texture is weird, learn to love it. There is fresh seafood (some so fresh it's still swimming around in a tank), kimchi, large jugs of soy sauce,  and huge bags of sticky rice. Tasty muskmelon popsicles will make you feel like you're biting into a hunk of frozen melon.

7. Russian

You'll find tons of great vodkas (I'm not kidding) and beer, of which there are tons of Russian varieties I had no idea existed. (And dare I mention the horrible/awesome pun that ensues? Russki brewskis, people!). You'll also find pickled vegetables and a wide variety of deli meats and cheeses.

This is hardly exhaustive. I'd love to hear your tips! And seriously, find the green tea MeltyKiss. I'm begging you.

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Will Chen's picture

What a wonderful guide to ethnic markets. I think your articles should come with a warning label: do not read while hungry. Or perhaps: Drool-proof your keyboard before reading.

Greg Go's picture
Greg Go

The green tea sounds interesting. I love green tea... but with chocolate? Damn. Now I HAVE to take up that challenge....

Guest's picture


Andrea Karim's picture

You can order all the other kinds of Meltykiss from JBox.

And Kit Kat has its own matcha-flavored chocolate (search for "Kinako Kit Kat")

Or, you can just do what Lynn would do:


Guest's picture

I think unless you live in a big city like New York or Los Angeles you might not be fortunate enough to have those various types of markets in your backyard.  A lovely entry nonetheless. 

Andrea Karim's picture

I grew up in a fairly small city (like, 20,000 people?), and we had a few ethnic grocery stores. No Russian food, mind you, but plenty of Mexican gorcery stores.

AND even if you only have a Safeway/Stop-n-Shop/Piggly Wiggly, most supermarkets have an "ethnic" section where they throw all the interesting food together (I get a kick out of the ones here in Seattle, where you can get "African American" food - which, unbeknowst to me, apparently consists of pickled pigs' feet and grits - right next to the kosher food). Want to save on spices? The Mexican section is the way to go. Cumin, bay leaves, cinnamon, even occasionally cardamom, MUCH cheaper than in the spice section.

Lynn Truong's picture

andrea you are my hero. ever since my friend told me he got green tea kit kat from a friend who went to japan, i have been dying to try it. just bought 2 packs!!

Tannaz Sassooni's picture

will thanks! about the hungry, i have been known, when writing/researching for my food blog, to get up in the middle, go to the store, buy ingredients, make food, eat it, then go back to writing. it's an occupational hazard!

greg -- i'm telling you. it's pretty delicious stuff. it's a little cube, green matcha core, covered in chocolate. soft, not that sweet, truffly consistency. so damn good.

and andrea, you are an amazing woman! sadly jlist had the delightful commercial for the matcha flavor, but not the stuff itself -- such a tease. but way to go finding it on ebay. this is an exciting day. and yes, the mexican spices in the supermarket are a great find -- the little baggies save on packaging too. sometimes they hide them underneath the produce, those sneaky devils.

yeah, myr, you probably won't have the same selection in a smaller city, but you'll still hopefully have one or two close by. just takes some exploring to find them sometimes (which, to me, is a good thing!)

and lynn, matcha kitkat sounds delicious. and they're *green*! so pretty. we had the grape flavor (not purple, fyi) when we were there. as you might expect, kinda gross. did you notice 'winter asse' candy on the same page? nice.

Guest's picture

Great post, Andrea. I think I'll head down to the markets right now!

Andrea Karim's picture

That was Tannaz's great post - I just had a comment.

I emailed JList, and they said that the matcha MeltyKiss chocolates are "not out this season". I didn't quite catch if that meant that they are seasonal, and will be out again sometime, and they didn't urge me to check back anytime soon.

I tried to get Babelfish to translate the Meiji homepage, but no luck. If someone else has better Japanese translation skills, they might want to try, although I don't know if you can buy them directly from Meiji or not.

Will Chen's picture
Will Chen

.... scene stealer. *tsk tsk*

No wonder Sarah didn't invite you to her wedding!

Guest's picture
Chris Johnson

I love the local Japanese market. I don't have a clue what most of the stuff is, yet I could wander around for hours :) So fun! You can also score a variety of sake. I really need to explore some of the other ethnic markets.

You said you could get mochi (which I love) at the korean markets. Some random knowledge I just found when looking up mochi on wikipedia: Mochi is a Japanese food. The Korean name for the nearly identical food is "chapssaltteok". I'm curious how does the Korean mochi compare to the Mochi you get at Trader Joe's? Mango mochi rocks :)

Andrea Karim's picture

But Koreans make it cheaper. A word to the wise - the thin mochi with ice cream in the middle? Delicious. But not traditional.

Traditional mochi (which is usually made by pounding cooked rice with a giant mallet for several hours) is filled with red bean paste or sometimes lotus paste, and then covered with either corn starch or a variety of other flavorful powders (peanut powder, cinnamon, ground sesame seeds, cocoa powder).

I really love traditional mochi and the other rice-based squishy treats, but they don't last long - once opened, they should be consumed within 24 hours or they dry out.

Jessica Okon's picture

I am constantly amazed at the prices I come across at my local ethnic shops. For instance a local Mexican farmer's market often has avacados 5 for 3 dollars, and nice one at that. Farmer's markets in general have wonderful prices, and better quality produce.

My favorite Asian supermarket also has wonderful prices. Sriacha sauce for $2.49 vs. $4 at my regular grocery store, huge bottles of good soy sauce for under $2. I can go on forever. Not to mention great prices on knifes and other cooking utensils.

Also I must say these type of shopping excursions are always fun for me as I am a product packaging junkie, and a professional people watcher. If I had kids, I would schlep them along so they could see that there was life beyond the megamart.

Thank you for the great post.

Tannaz Sassooni's picture

Regarding mochi, a couple things: As Andrea said, the ice cream ones at Trader Joe's are not the traditional ones, but rather a fun recent variation. The ones I'm talking about are balls of rice dough with a small amount of sweet red bean paste in the middle. They are squishy, chewy, stretchy, and delightfully soft to the touch due to the starchy coating. It's a texture I've not seen in any other foods. And yes, they are traditionally Japanese, but I was first introduced to them through Korean avenues, and I always find a wider variety at Korean stores. Not surprising though -- there's plenty of overlap between those two.

And Jessica, you know, my mom dragged us to middle eastern stores all the time and my sister and i HATED them. People were rude and pushy, they smelled weird (the stores, not the people! well... sometimes the people), they weren't pristine and sterile like the supermarkets our friends surely shopped happily at. It's funny how eventually, we do turn into our moms though.

Guest's picture

[...] Ethnic Markets: Feel worldly for cheap at Wise Bread is unarguably the best post I have read this week! As one of the reader comments, this article “should come with a warning label: do not read while hungry. Or perhaps: Drool-proof your keyboard before reading”. If you are a foodie like me, you should check it out! [...]

Tannaz Sassooni's picture

awesome, ispf!  I hope you make good use of these tips.  Then, I hope you invite me over for dinner!

Guest's picture

Thanks for submitting this to The Writers' Block carnival! There are some really delicious sounding food choices here.

Hope you stop by and vist The Writers' Block, and check out your article in the carnival edition.

Guest's picture

Jbox/Jlist does not sell chocolate products during the summer, because it would be too expensive to ship them by methods that would prevent melting in transit. I'm not sure when in the fall they will be available again, but it's an annual cycle.

Guest's picture

That might be true, but this post was written back in January, and they weren't selling them then, either.

Guest's picture

Thank you. But how come a Filipino store not included? I would have loved to hear what I could re-discover at one.