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Ethnic markets can save you money

Not an adventurous cook? You'll probably find deals on the things you use every day.

By Donna_Freedman Apr 2, 2012 12:45PM

Image: Groceries (© Jeffrey Hamilton/Getty Images/Getty Images)Live near an ethnic market but never think of going in? Think again, even if you're a meat-and-potatoes type -- because the meat and potatoes might both be cheaper there.

While visiting my daughter in Phoenix we shopped in a Hispanic market that had astounding prices on fruits and vegetables. Its meat department was enormous, with choices I had never seen in a typical U.S. supermarket -- and I'm talking specialty cuts of beef and pork as well as goat.

Around the corner from my Seattle apartment is the HT Oak Tree Market, an "international foods" emporium. It specializes in Asian items but also sells ingredients from at least 11 other cultures, along with typical U.S. grocery items.

A number of prices are better, sometimes a lot better, those at a nearby traditional supermarket. I wrote down a few examples: 

  • Chicken drumsticks, $1.40 less per pound.
  • Canned beans (15 oz.), 60 cents less.
  • Cooking oil (48 oz.), $1.90 less.
  • Spaghetti sauce (24 oz.), 20 cents less.
  • Name-brand pasta (16 oz.), $1.20 less.
  • Rolled oats (18 to 42 oz.), 40 cents to $1 less per box.  (Post continues after video.)

A wide variety of spices and seasonings in 2- to 8-oz. bottles are 99 cents apiece. Some are mainstream (cinnamon, oregano, basil, cloves) and some aren't (anise seed, curry, pickling spice, fennel seed). All would cost plenty more in the supermarket, assuming you could find them. 

Unidentified foodlike objects

Not all prices are better. For example, canned tomatoes and flour cost the same at both stores, and milk was 40 cents to $1 more at the HT. So I still keep an eye on the weekly food ads for other stores.

Produce is routinely cheaper there, however. A 10-pound bag of potatoes is $2 less than up the street. Tomatoes are $1.50 less per pound, sweet potatoes $1.49 less,  sweet onions $1.20 less, and butternut squash and romaine both 50 cents less.

Some of the produce is completely new to me, but the store offers signs explaining how to cook and eat it. While I enjoy tasting new varieties of squash, apples, citrus and pears, I’ll pass on the durian.

I'm not interested in cooking with seaweed, quail eggs, taro leaves, geoduck, Bulgarian feta, mangosteen or edible cow bile either. Not yet, anyway. But if I change my mind, I know where to find them.

It's interesting to examine the frozen, canned and dried items, too -- and to wonder what they might be, since many labels have no English translations. Sometimes I don’t know if I’m looking at a seasoning or a suppository.

An out-of-town friend shopped there with me once and said, "If I lived here, I would eat something new every day." I can't say I do this, but I sure like having the option of learning about new foods.

Don't know? Ask

Your choices will be more varied if you live in a big city, or even just in a town with ethnic enclaves that support specialized shopping. You'll be able to buy just-baked Argentinian pastries or freshly fermented kimchi, or to find the right type of bulgur and lamb for kibbee sineea. You won't be looked at askance if you want to do a pig's head for Christmas, either.

Too intimidating? Then just shop for the cheap potatoes and drumsticks, and bon appetit.

A few more things to keep in mind:

  • Interested in rice-and-beans frugality? Look for 10- to 50-pound sacks of them at ethnic markets. This can get you close to a warehouse price without having to join Costco or Sam's Club.
  • Unfamiliar with the fish swimming around the tanks? Ask for cooking tips.
  • A specialty market probably won't accept manufacturer coupons. But if the overall prices are better, it's probably worth the trip.

More on MSN Money:

Jul 25, 2012 6:51PM
We actually have a tofu & chive soup recipe. At the Asian market, we can get a pound of chives (bundle 3 inches across and 10 inches long) for less than a buck. The conventional supermarket only carries chives in one ounce containers for a couple dollars each.

Also, it isn't always necessary to find an ethnic supermarket. Sometimes the ethnic aisle works out just fine. Compare the price of jarred spices in the spice section with the bagged spices in the ethnic section.

Apr 2, 2012 2:07PM
Tofu is way cheaper at the Asian market than the regular grocery store here in Louisiana. A regular-sized block of any variety goes for $1.59 - $1.89 at the Asian market but is a whopping $3.99 at the regular grocery store (this is for a name-brand variety). Interestingly, Whole Foods falls in the middle since they have an in-house brand that runs about $2.50 -$2.99.
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.