When I was in my early teens, my mom and I discovered a fantastic cookbook, Asia the Beautiful. Filled with beautiful pictures and exciting recipes from obscure countries like Burma, Nepal, and Laos, it captured my imagination, and I filled the pages with bookmarks and annotations. A couple of years later, when I started cooking in earnest, I went back to the book and began working my way through the recipes that had gotten me so fired up.
My only problem was that I grew up in Northern Virginia in the late 1980's. Even using the list of suggested substitutions, I was still at a loss for many of the ingredients. Where could I find galangal or keffir lime leaves? Who had screwpine extract? Even lemongrass, which I can now see all over the place, was almost impossible to find back then. In my ever-widening search for exotic ingredients, I finally discovered the international grocery stores. After poking around some of the smaller, cramped places, I ended up at Lotte, a gigantic Korean supermarket. Inside its doors were most of the ingredients that I had been looking for, and some amazing ones that I had never imagined existed. I was in heaven.
When I went to college, I quickly found the international grocery stores in my town. Although none of them were as impressive as Lotte, they still gave me access to many of the strange foods that I had grown to love. Best of all, I discovered that their prices were far below those of the local supermarkets. As my town grew larger, more and more ethnic groups opened niche stores, and I found an ever-expanding selection of exciting foods at bargain prices. Best of all, some of the countries that produced these foods had strict rules regarding ingredients, so many of the convenience foods didn't have partially-hydrogenated oils or high fructose corn syrup.
Now that I'm living in the Bronx, almost every store qualifies as an international market. On the block up from mine, there are two Muslim grocery stores located next to each other, engaged in a low-level war for dominance. The next store over is a Laotian market, and the rest of the stores in the vicinity are Dominican, which means that it's easier to find plantains than bananas. Still, I appreciate the restrictions on food additives, and the prices are hard to beat.
The best way to find bargains in international grocery stores is just to wander around and see what strikes your fancy. However, if you need a place to start, here are a few items that you might try:
Convenience foods: Indian brands, such as Gits and MRI, are delicious and much better for you than their American counterparts. Real Korean ramen is a far cry from the bland American dish, and actually makes a real meal. You also might try Indian flatbreads, if they're available, as well as Thai ice cream snacks.
Cheeses and Meats: If your store has Eastern-European cheeses, give them a shot. You'll find that many of them are simple and creamy, but not too expensive. If you can get hold of Bulgarian feta, be sure to buy some. You might also want to try sujuk, a Middle Eastern sausage. Latin American queso blanco is really yummy, and crema, a Latin American version of sour cream, is delicious. Many of the Middle Eastern and Eastern European yogurts are also really good.
Drinks: Try out Asian sodas. My particular favorites are coconut juice drinks, particularly toasted coconut, although Thai iced tea is also quite good. My wife loves soy bubble tea. Be wary of basil-seed drinks and pennyroyal sodas; personally, I think they're pretty nasty. If sodas aren't your thing, try Eastern European fruit drinks. My favorites are strawberry juice and sour cherry cocktail, but most of them are delicious.
Sundries: Obviously, rice tends to be cheaper at Asian markets, but you'll find that dried mushrooms cost a fraction of the price that you pay at the grocery store. The same goes for Eastern European jams and jellies, Russian chocolate, and Middle Eastern baklava, all of which are pretty good. Depending on your store, you may also find that vegetables and fish are really cheap. The same goes for spices, raisins, and nuts, all of which are a lot less expensive at Middle Eastern markets.
Okay, that's a start. However, I'm sure that you'll soon find your own favorites. One last note: if your local store has pomegranate molasses in stock, be sure to buy some. It's made from reduced pomegranate juice, and makes a delicious accompaniment to salads, poultry, and side dishes. It tastes like a fruitier version of aged balsamic vinegar, and will definitely knock your socks off!