Shop at Ethnic Grocery Stores for Good Deals and Fresh Food

A father and daughter race down the isle of a grocery store.
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Mom-and-pop ethnic grocery stores are a common sight on big-city street corners. They specialize in fresh fruits popular in global cuisines and cuts of meat not always seen in chain grocery stores.

These days, international markets are 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, such as Indian, Korean, Serbian, Armenian, Mexican or Jamaican.

These markets are great places to shop for ingredients specific to certain cuisines and also for their good prices. Amid shelves of foods with labels you might not recognize, you’ll find pantry staples like rice, pasta, condiments and canned foods, a wide variety of meat and fish, and produce that not only costs less but is often fresher.

How to Shop Ethnic Grocery Stores and Save on Food

The following guide will help you find ways to save money at local markets. First, consider the stores you pass on your way home from work or from picking up the kids at school. Those markets are worth checking out — and you won’t be spending more money on gas.

Stock Up on Pantry Staples

When local grocery stores were wiped out of shelf-stable items like canned and dried beans early in the pandemic, savvy shoppers stopped by the local Latin supermarket, which still had staples — and, yes, toilet paper too.

For some shoppers unfamiliar with local ethnic markets, the hunt for staples showed them what else they might want to try. Plus, they also learned that many products are sold in bulk, another great way to save money.

Pick Up Spices and Other Specialty Ingredients

Serious cooks often seek out international grocery stores for the specialty ingredients at lower prices. Jessica Fisher, who blogs at Good Cheap Eats, notes that items 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.

Use cookbooks or food blogs to get inspiration and familiarize yourself with common ingredients used in the cuisines you’d like to learn to cook, then make a shopping list. You can even re-create takeout recipes at home, saving money and boosting your cooking confidence.

If you have a question about something in the store, don’t hesitate to ask someone for help.

Professional cooks and food writers, including the Leung family of four that blogs at The Woks of Life and cookbook author and teacher Andrea Nguyen, offer ingredient glossaries and buying guides that will teach you exactly what to look for in Chinese and Vietnamese 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.

Cookbook author Archana Mundhe provides lessons on the many spices used in Indian cooking on her site, The Ministry of Curry. An Indian market is a great place to get low-cost spices.

Find Fresh Food For Less

To really appreciate what ethnic markets have to offer, shop the produce, meat and seafood sections. Ethnic markets compete with grocery store offerings on price without sabotaging the quality or flavor of their produce.

The fresh offerings will be different from what is stocked at chain grocery stores in both variety and packaging. Ethnic markets sell the things their local community wants in addition to mainstream tomatoes, lettuce and oranges. In Chinese markets, shoppers find piles of pea shoots, bok choy, water spinach and thin Chinese celery, all good for stir-fry. There will be the familiar chard and kale, too.

Some markets have live fish — you can’t get much fresher than that — and many cuts of meat. Skirt steak is sometimes hard to find at the chain groceries but is abundant at Mexican markets. It’s the cut of meat most used for carne asada.

In a piece for the Wall Street Journal, business journalist Anne Kadet wrote that food in New York’s Chinatown markets was cheaper than large grocery stores because of connections with smaller producers. Also, smaller food warehouses deliver more frequently, resulting in fresher offerings.

The article also noted that packaging and labeling were not as highly designed and mass-produced as the big-name products in grocery stores. Prices are sometimes scrawled by hand on paper or craft store stickers. This saves money for the store owners and ultimately shoppers, too. And they don’t pay a lot for advertising. Business often comes from the neighborhood or word of mouth.

No Frills Is a Good Thing

Many mom-and-pop markets are in small spaces, which means they pay less for rent — if they don’t own the place — and other overhead. This allows them to keep prices lower. In addition, markets are often staffed by extended family, which could result in lower payroll. The reduced business expenses are reflected in the prices of the food.

Buying at ethnic markets is another way to “shop small,” a movement that encourages consumers to frequent local, independent businesses. Saving money on the ingredients for whatever you’re cooking while supporting a neighborhood store is the smart reason to shop at ethnic markets.

Janet Keeler is a contributing editor at The Penny Hoarder and the former food editor of the Tampa Bay Times newspaper in Florida. Lindsey Danis is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder. 

Assigning Editor Karen Grigsby updated this post.