Underrated in America: International grocery stores

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When my wife and I lived in Southwest Virginia, we bought most of our food at Wal-Mart. It was close to our house, the produce section was outstanding, and the prices were low. In retrospect, it's pretty clear that we were spoiled; when we moved to the Bronx about a year and a half ago, we were blown away by the increased cost of basic necessities. While clothes, restaurants, and other discretionary expenses were much cheaper in our new neighborhood, milk and peanut butter cost almost twice as much, string cheese tripled in price, and beef was too expensive for us to buy. After comparison shopping at the five or six supermarkets in my neighborhood, I began taking weekly trips to Trader Joe's to pick up necessities. I soon discovered the local Farmers' Market, the canned food sections at nearby dollar stores, and the joys of cheap Dominican food.

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I also became friendly with the proprietors of my local international groceries. The Indian store, I found, offered fantastic deals on spices, nuts, snacks, and convenience foods. One of my staple foods, almonds, were three-fourths the price of Trader Joe's, and the nuts were fresher and more flavorful. Similarly, the Indian heat-and-eat dishes were not only cheaper than their US counterparts, but were also tastier and healthier. Gits and Ashoka, for example, both offer a wide selection of delicious dishes, none of which contain high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), partially hydrogenated oils, or any of the other dangerous pseudo-ingredients that are popular in American convenience foods.

Next to my Indian store, there's a Cambodian joint that has great deals on frozen fish, fresh produce, soy sauce, rice, sesame oil, and an almost endless array of mysterious Asian ingredients. I also discovered, a few blocks away, a Korean store that sells beef at about 2/3 the prices charged by my nearest grocery, as well as an even bigger selection of fresh produce, rice, and other ingredients. Both stores have an impressive selection of noodles and a wide array of bizarre Asian soft drinks, most of which have been delicious. Pennyroyal soda, by the way, is a major exception, and tamarind juice is touch-and-go. Proceed with caution and be sure to try roasted coconut juice whenever you get the opportunity!

While I am lucky enough to live in the nexus of a couple of different ethnic neighborhoods, most of the places where I've lived have had at least one international food store store. Even my little backwoods burg in Southwest Virginia had two: a Mexican bodega and an Asian grocery. The bodega had great deals on spices, HFCS-free sodas, and tomatillos, while the Asian joint had an outstanding produce section, superb convenience foods, and a state-of-the-art selection of ramen dishes. Between the competitive prices and exciting selection, I often wondered why I was the only non-immigrant shopper in either store.

Between the ongoing desire to eat better and the ever-increasing struggle to put food on the table, today's shoppers often find themselves at a difficult crossroads. To put it bluntly, the current economic situation makes it hard, if not impossible, to continue the eating habits of the past. Luckily, international groceries give customers the option of eating better than ever while saving a ton of money!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He's still trying to work up enough bravery to try a horned melon.

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